The memorial designation stretches from the intersection of West Market Street and North State of Franklin Road to the Bristol Highway.
At least 30 people gathered below the sign, located near the Hampton Inn hotel, as a Johnson City Public Works official in a bucket truck peeled away the sign’s cover. At least two other memorial designation signs are expected to be staked along the highway.
“I am really, really pleased with all the people that showed up, and the diversity in the crowd. So many times we do things and people say it’s just an NAACP project. This was truly a community project with the City of Johnson City. And it worked out,” Johnson City/Washington County NAACP President Ralph Davis said.
State Sen. Rusty Crowe, R-Johnson City, carried the legislation, passed through both houses of the Tennessee General Assembly last session, that designated the state route in honor of the late civil rights activist.
“These kind of things, to honor lifetime work, achievement and contribution to the city, are really satisfying to do,” Crowe said.
While members of the Johnson City/Washington County chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People have long advocated for a main thoroughfare in the city to be renamed after King, the city and community finally came to an agreement on the highway’s designation in late 2017.
A memorial designation does not change addresses, but signage is installed to reflect the new name. Before the designation’s approval, Johnson City was the only city in the Tri-Cities without a street named for King.
In June 2017, the Johnson City Regional Planning Commission deferred voting on a proposal, made by the NAACP, to actually rename State of Franklin Road to Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard. Instead, the Planning Commission voted to create a task force with the goal of determining the appropriate way to honor King’s achievements.
Despite lacking support from the NAACP and many community leaders, the task force proposed renaming King Street and King Commons Park, and the Johnson City Regional Planning Commission agreed by unanimously voting to send the recommendation to the City Commission.
On Nov. 2, 2017, in front of a half-packed crowd, the City Commission declined the Planning Commission’s recommendation and voted to designate University Parkway as the Martin Luther King Jr. Parkway.
That proposal was then withdrawn five months later when city and state officials learned University Parkway had already been designated as The Purple Heart Highway. Finally, in April 2018, the City Commission voted to approve designating the section of State of Franklin Road to recognize King’s accomplishments.
“This was a project that had been going on for years. An old preacher told me one time, ‘If you do it decently and in order, you can get it done.’ And that’s what we did here. We did it decently and in order,” Davis told the crowd Friday morning.
“When we started the task force, several things got batted around (and) we had some disagreements. But, we always agreed to disagree, and in the end, we made it happen thanks to the city, the commissioners, the mayor, senator Crowe, the citizens (and) the members of the NAACP. Without you all, this could not have been done.”
Saying it was a long time coming, Mayor David Tomita also recognized his colleague Commissioner Ralph Van Brocklin, who died Saturday of a heart attack, for his contributions toward the memorial designation.
“I would be remiss if I didn’t recognize our colleague Ralph Van Brocklin, who was instrumental in this project and it’s something he was very deeply committed to. He would have loved to have been here today, but he is smiling down on us,” Tomita said.
At the November commission meeting, Van Brocklin made the first motion to accept the recommendation a street be designated with King’s name.
“(Van Brocklin) was very instrumental in getting this done. He called me several times to discuss what we were trying to do. He was always positive and always supportive,” Davis said.