Johnson City Commissioners ultimately diverged from the Johnson City Planning Commission’s unanimous recommendation to rename King Street and King Commons Park in honor of Martin Luther King Jr., and instead opted to unanimously recommend the Tennessee General Assembly designate University Parkway as the Martin Luther King Jr. Parkway.
A packed audience watched anxiously as commissioners swiftly moved through their agenda and arrived at the King Street recommendation. Rather than open the floor to public discussion, Rev. Lester Lattany read a letter, signed by several local pastors, asking the King Street recommendation be denied.
“We respectfully disagree with the Johnson City Planning Commission's recommendation to rename King Street to Martin Luther King Boulevard. We feel that an individual such as Dr. King deserves a recognition more complimentary with his legacy. While some may view this argument as weak and lacking substance, for those of us who are the beneficiaries of Dr. King's life work, we believe that Dr. King gave so much and received so little,” Lattany’s letter read. “We support efforts that respectfully honor his memory. King Street in our respective opinion does not meet this particular standard. Our request is that you would vote not to rename King Street. Instead our hope is that you will vote to create Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Parkway along University Parkway.
“This action would serve as a healthy compromise, not disturbing residents and businesses while honoring the original request of the community.”
When Commissioner Ralph Van Brocklin made the motion recommending the Tennessee General Assembly designate University Parkway as Martin Luther King Jr. Parkway, the audience erupted in applause.
Ralph Davis, president of the local National Association for the Advancement of Colored People chapter, said he was pleased with the result after his group made the initial renaming proposal back in May.
“I really feel good that we could all come together and come to agreement,” Davis said. “There was some hard work. A lot of give and take. But in the end, we felt like if we could all just work together, things would come to the conclusion that it did.”
Commissioner Joe Wise and Vice Mayor Jenny Brock both noted they watched a rerun of the Planning Commission’s October meeting, where more than a dozen individuals formally asked the King Street proposal be tabled until a better solution was identified.
“I spent probably an hour and a half watching the Planning Commission video later that night. It made me think about ... sometimes we listen, but we don’t hear,” Brock said.
“I had the opportunity to meet several of the ministers in King Commons Park on one very hot Friday afternoon. We sat there and heard each other, and one of the ministers also said, ‘We can do better than this.’ So I know we can, and I want to see our community come together. We are a great community and we’re a great community because of our diversity.”
Van Brocklin did commend the Planning Commission for an “organized” and “open approach.”
“I honestly think the Planning Commission did an excellent job of making this an inclusive process,” Van Brocklin said.
During a July public input meeting, 30 of 63 citizens requested University Parkway be named in honor of King, while only eight selected King Street for the designation.
City Manager Pete Peterson said city leaders will now have to ask state legislators to file bills designating the memorial highway.
“I had conversations today and confirmed that this process is correct and there is willingness by local elected officials to enter such a bill,” Peterson said. “It will go before the full legislature for consideration. Typically what happens is there are a number of these types of requests submitted to the state legislature. (The Tennessee Department of Transportation) and the state legislature bundle them all into one bill and it’s typically considered at the end of the session, right after the budget.”
Peterson estimated the vote might occur around mid-to-late April, although it could happen earlier.
During a memorial designation, no addresses are changed but signage is installed reflecting the new name. Peterson said the designation would cover all of University Parkway and not just a section.
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