$15,000 - for what?

A $15K road to order, not justice

Chapel Hill Herald
Saturday, November 13, 2004
Final Edition
Editorial Section
Page 2

So, was it worth it, the $15,000 Chapel Hill just spent for two days of facilitated conversation on the renaming of Airport Road for Martin Luther King Jr.?

According to one headline, the meetings did "yield understanding." One renaming opponent, Steve Largent, said, "I think I'm being heard." Town Councilwoman Sally Greene said, "I was proud to be a part of it." Surely the committee members are to be commended for their efforts and for their willingness to grapple with a racially charged issue.

But this whole undertaking still seems to have missed the point. After all, Mayor Kevin Foy and Councilwoman Edith Wiggins did not approach their colleagues back in June to propose spending thousands of dollars so a select group of 20 Chapel Hillians could better understand racism.

No, the goal was to help with the decision on the road renaming, to obtain "recommendations for appropriate memorials to the life and legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr."

Last spring, Foy, Wiggins, and Greene all said they supported the renaming. After two long days of meetings and 15 grand, they still do. Largent hit the nail on the head when he asked, "With the outcome so predictable, why are we even having these meetings?"

Chuck Stone, a professor at UNC's School of Journalism and a friend of King's, also thought the outcome was known from the start. He characterized the process as "an exercise in futility ... concerned with two things: justifying the mayor's choice, and taking us through an excruciatingly boring discussion."

Although not widely reported, the most instructive perspective to emerge may have been repeated references to King's "Letter from a Birmingham Jail." King wrote,

"I must confess that over the past few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro's great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen's Councilor or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to 'order' than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice ... who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a 'more convenient season.' "

This devotion to order over justice seems to have driven the entire process. Consistent with King's description, Foy and company have lessened the tension around the issue, thereby achieving a negative peace. Hopefully the renaming will now move unhindered toward its conclusion.

Meanwhile, over in Greensboro, a diverse coalition is holding a March for Justice, Democracy, and Reconciliation this morning. This is the culmination of two weeks of events commemorating the 25th anniversary of the murder of five labor and community organizers by members of Klan and Nazi groups.

The civil lawsuit that resulted from the incident led to the first time in U.S. history that a court of law found police, Klansmen and Nazis liable together for acts of violence.

Earlier this year, Greensboro established the country' first Truth and Reconciliation Commission, modeled after the commissions that have effectively dealt with human rights abuses in nations such as Peru and South Africa.

Unlike Chapel Hill's committee, which was created by a split Town Council, the Greensboro TRC grew out of the work of a broad coalition of community organizations. Fourteen organizations collaborated in selecting seven truth commissioners from more than 70 nominations.

Unlike Chapel Hill's rushed process with meeting times that excluded even some appointed committee members, the TRC will spend 15 months gathering information to uncover the truth of the Greensboro massacre. This will be followed by a yearlong series of community discussions aimed at implementation of the commission's recommendations.

Of course, the two situations are apples and oranges. Greensboro wants to understand a traumatic event that still affects its citizens; Chapel Hill wants to expeditiously decide on a road renaming. But that's just the point. If what Chapel Hill sought was a dialogue on race, there are better, more thoughtful and more inclusive ways of doing so. The council could have gone ahead with the road renaming back in June.

Among the distinguished speakers scheduled this morning in Greensboro are South African activist Naomi Tutu, long-time civil rights organizer Anne Braden, UNITE textile workers union president Bruce Raynor and Vincent Harding, the first director of the Martin Luther King Jr. Center.



Jayson, Welcome to our community! You can read the discussion about the pros and cons of renaming, including all the proposals for what to rename other than Airport Road at:

Dan, my apologies.
Like I said, I'm new here. I don't know the people involved. I have seen such efforts in other towns. It's a noble effort. As long as we're not doing it just because it's the thing to do, so we can feel good about ourselves. From what I know of MLK I don't think he'd be working so hard to get his own name in so many places. I think he'd be working for social justice.

I don't think we want to go through this whole thing over again with the residents of Estes Drive.

Well, Dan, you and I have found something to agree on---I too wonder---what WAS that fifteen thousand dollars for???

Thanks, Anita. My goal is to write enough columns so that everyone will have the pleasure of agreeing with me at least once.

Close, but no banana from me...keep writing.

Had this proposed road change been put to a ballot initiative, it might have passed. There is a good chance, however, it would have been shot down. Had the choices been expanded to include other options such as naming the town's 3rd high school for Dr. King or spending the money to commission a statue of Dr. King, I believe the name change would have been rejected. And had the town allowed its citizens to vote on spending $15000 to just to discuss the issue, the town would have voted absolutely not.

An observation from a relative newcomer: you can't see the street signs in Chapel Hill anyway, so what does it matter what we call them?

I love Martin Luther King more than any hero I can think of loving, but I think we tend to believe we're honoring our heroes with roadsigns when we should probably be honoring them with our lives.

Yes, please honor King with your life.

Please also recognize that the people initiating the renaming proposal already honor King with their lives, day in, day out.

Once more I am saddened that so much energy (and now money) has been expended on a decision which does not, as near as I have been able to determine, have any real bearing on the quality of life of any person on the planet.

I love the arts too much to make a full-throated argument against purely symbolic acts. I even like the idea of the nation having at least one memorial to Dr. King in the heart of a diverse community, rather than at the fringe. Heck, if it were my call, I'd like to have a street named for Bayard Rustin.

But when a serious issue comes along that actually requires meaningful compromise to achieve a meaningful result, will those who have flung charges and counter-charges regarding racial attitudes for the past year be able to start afresh and listen to each other? Or will those who "won" this "battle" neglect to get involved out of fatigue or complacency, while those who "lost" take a hostile and resentful attitude toward progressive causes because "they already have a d--- street"?

What's done is done, and I hope the $15000 investment in dialogue isn't a total loss. It may be seen as a sign of influence for the progressive community of all races to name a road; but real influence is the ability to build a bridge. Wear your safety glasses!

with tongue every so slightly in cheek:

I'd like to change Turkey Farm Road to Ghandi Road. And if there are two prominent hills around here let's name one Joe Hill and the other Julia Butterfly Hill. It'd be kind of nice to live at the corner of Civil Rights Blvd and Justice for All Dr.

Now seriously: if not a name change, why not a nice monument to King on Airport rd?


Chapel Hill has a MLK drive, so does Raleigh, and Durham, and Pittsboro.

MLK was a great man, and deserves credit for a life well-lived. But I think he would be the first to tell you, were he alive, that the civil rights movement was not about him. It was about empowering ordinary people to stand up for their rights, as many did in North Carolina and across the South.

Every time we create a new public honor to MLK, we prop up the "great man" theory of history - the idea that change only happens when a great man (or woman) comes along to make change happen. But Dr. King I think recognized that the real force behind social change is the power of ordinary people, standing up for their rights. He said as much in his Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech - find it online and read it.

So, while Dr. King deserves honor, I hope we can find a way to honor the ordinary men and women who made, and continue to make, his dream a reality. We could do this by honoring local civil rights achievements, and telling their stories, rather than just celebrating Dr. King one more time.


I'm not sure why you would raise this question again at this juncture but I guess it's worth reviewing the matter one more time.

A year ago, no one was talking about renaming anything. The NAACP approached the Town Council about renaming Airport Road for King. It is important to note that this organization probably has the greatest local concentration of those “ordinary people, standing up for their rights” who were at the heart of the civil rights movement. They were there and were the comrades of many who have since left the area or passed away. They were not asking that one among themselves be honored. They asked that King be honored. Eight Town Council members agreed. After a lengthy process, a unanimous vote approved the renaming.

Renaming Airport Road for King does not preclude other renamings whether for national or local leaders. Don't forget that we already have public facilities named for local African-American leaders such as R.D. Smith, Hank Anderson, and Richard Whitted.

I'm glad you cited the Nobel acceptance speech. It is relevant to note that King did not reject the prize. He accepted the honor on behalf of the movement. That is what the leaders of social change movements ought to do. Certainly those who advocated the renaming of Airport Road for King understood that it would reflect on all participants in the civil rights movement as well as on the unfinished legacy of that movement and on the great moral vision articulated by King.

“Today I come to Oslo as a trustee, inspired and with renewed dedication to humanity. I accept this prize on behalf of all men who love peace and brotherhood… Most of these people will never make the headlines and their names will not appear in Who's Who. Yet when years have rolled past and when the blazing light of truth is focused on this marvelous age in which we live -- men and women will know and children will be taught that we have a finer land, a better people, a more noble civilization -- because these humble children of God were willing to suffer for righteousness' sake.” --Martin Luther King Jr., December 10, 1964, Oslo, Norway

Surely, had King survived, he would come to Chapel Hill later this year and utter similar sentiments.


I think you may have misinterpreted some of my comments. I am quite pleased with the renaming of Airport Blvd. in honor of Dr. King, and am well aware of the history of this change.
That is why I bring up the question at this juncture - I'm happy with the decision, but unhappy, as you are, by the process and wonder where are we going next?

You note that a number of local facilities are named after local black community leaders, like Hank Anderson Park. The trouble with this is that unfortunately, after the naming ceremony, there is very little effort to explain who these local leaders were, what they did, and why we should memorialize them. This is not just
a Chapel Hill phenomenom, in fact Chapel Hill and Carrboro are probably doing better than most places.

What I am really decrying is the fact that while there is no lack of explanation of Dr. King's life, there is very little explanation in our society of the powerful role ordinary citizens played in the civil rights movement, and in other movements for social change. This lack of proper understanding I think undermines efforts at future change, because it really promotes apathy and powerlessness. Outside of the community of civil rights activists and academia, many of the important
leaders of the civil rights movement are unknown, overshadowed by Dr. King's powerful story.

A concrete example: Today, NPR noted the passing of James Forman, leader of SNCC. You know as I do that the average person on the street probably couldn't tell you what SNCC stands for, or anything about their role in the civil rights movement. More significantly, I bet 9 out of 10 Triangle residents have no knowledge of fact that SNCC's founding meeting was held in Raleigh. We should all know this and celebrate it.

I'm not arguing against the renaming of Airport Rd. I'm saying our society, and progressive causes in particular, would benefit from a better understanding of the broad scope of the civil rights movement. Instead, today most people think MLK is the beginning and end of all they need to know about the civil rights movement. You see the same problem with Black History Month, where the perfunctory retelling of the civil rights story replaces real understanding and call to action.

You are 100% on target about the Greensboro process, vs. Chapel Hill. At the end of the day, local pols. will win points amongst some voters for renaming a road, while some real issues are swept under the rug. I don't believe we'll get to those real issues, until we move beyond honoring MLK as an end in and of itself, and realize that that is just the beginning.

There's a wonderful new book out called Blood Done Sign My Name about the civil rights/black power movements in North Carolina. The author, Timothy Tyson, makes the point that racial change was brought to a larger public dialogue through the civil rights movement, but noticeable change occurred through the more violent actions of the black power movement.

For those interested in SNCC: http://www.ibiblio.org/sncc/

Tim is in town now at the National Humanities Center. It's a homecoming for him. He was once an employee of Crook's Corner.
I too recommend the book. For me it had some personal links as well.
includes link to WUNC interview with Tim Tyson
a little Jones relationship to the folks in the book plus some review links
has a link to the NPR story with Tim Tyson

Thanks, Chris, for the lengthy clarification. Glad to learn that we are pretty much in agreement. You raise some challenging questions.


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