This article was originally published January 18, 2016, and has been updated.
Back in the 1970s, cities across America began renaming streets after Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. The pace increased, and by 1996, more than 483 cities had named roads after the civil rights pioneer — the majority of them in the South.
Charlotte wasn’t one of them.
It took until 2006 for Charlotte to agree on a street to rename after Dr. King, making this the 12-year anniversary. And the way it played out provides a window on the complexities of race relations in Charlotte even in the recent past.
The story officially begins in January 2006, though I guess it really goes back a bit further. Back in 1990, Charlotte discussed a number of streets as possibilities for a Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard — including Beatties Ford Road, Fifth Street, Rozzelles Ferry Road and Kings Drive. It went nowhere, though, after opponents argued that it would be too difficult for businesses to change all their signs and stationery and stuff like that.
City Councilman James “Smuggie” Mitchell renewed the effort to name a street after King in January 2006 (since then, he’s run unsuccessfully for mayor and then been re-elected to the council). With then-Councilman Anthony Foxx’s backing, he asked for Stonewall Street to be renamed Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard.
The street is named in honor of Confederate General Stonewall Jackson’s wife, who was a prominent Charlotte citizen in the decades after the Civil War. People weren’t happy about the possibility of changing the name — including many other City Council members.
Some people said they didn’t want to impact businesses on the street. Others claimed changing that street’s name would be erasing a part of Charlotte’s past.
“I do have a problem with changing the name of an historical figure here in Charlotte to another historical figure,” councilwoman Patsy Kinsey said during a council meeting.
“I think personally we would be doing an injustice to him, to Dr. King, to the Stonewall family, and all the Confederate soldiers that fought in the South,” councilman Warren Turner said.
Other people suggested renaming I-485 after Dr. King, but that wasn’t really an option. The state handles that road and had already picked out some historical figures to use on it (including former Gov. Jim Martin).
“It was not my intention at all to divide our great city,” councilman Mitchell said during the debate. “It was only my intention to recognize a world class leader, Dr. Martin Luther King.”
He said he wanted to make sure the street named after King was highly visible and in a “thriving” part of the city instead of in “distressed and challenged communities” as it has been done in other cities around the South.
The council ended that first debate by deciding to look at a few more options other than Stonewall Street.
The issue came back up the next month, in February. Mitchell began by withdrawing Stonewall Street from consideration.
“I think it is clear from our last debate that this did cause some hard feelings in our community,” he said.
Mitchell recommended Second Street. It’s Uptown, but very few businesses then listed the road as an address, and few do today.
The vote passed unanimously.