On a recent cloudy morning, I sat in the empty reception room of former District 4 City Councilmember George Stevens' office on the corner of Federal Boulevard and Euclid Avenue waiting for “The Reverend,” as some call him, to show. He rolled up in his shiny Jaguar about 30 minutes late. He parked, then pulled an old green and white street sign from the back of his car. The sign read “Dr. M.L. King Way.”
A week prior, I had talked to Stevens for more than an hour. Half serious rant, half soapbox prattle, he filled me in on a bit of our city's history regarding Martin Luther King Jr.
“There's just been such a rejection of him in San Diego,” opined Stevens, who, along with former Caltrans District Director Gary Gallegos, first proposed the idea for the King memorial nearly 10 years ago. Now, Stevens wants no part of the King memorial project. Originally picked to be on the artist-selection panel, Stevens attended one meeting then turned his back in disappointment and disgust.
“What they're trying to do with this project now is a make up for some things they did not do related to Dr. King in the past,” Stevens said. “That's why you're calling me; they're still trying to do that. Just like they did with the freeway.... It's a piecemeal sort of a thing.”
Consolation freeway, a drive-by history
California State Highway 94-the chunk of cement stretching from Downtown through District 4 and out to Campo-was renamed The Martin Luther King Jr. Freeway in 1989. Then-state Sen. Waddie Deddeh, a Democrat who represented the 40th District, was behind the push for the name change but had indicated at the time that no tax dollars could be used; instead, all funding for the construction and installations of the new signs would have to come from private contributions. The grassroots funding made the highway name change a slow and arduous process.
Stevens said that, initially, enough money was raised through private donations to buy just one sign, but not enough money to have it properly installed. Instead, Stevens said, the sign was placed in the ice plant on the side of the G Street entrance to the freeway. He said the “M” and “L” part of “MLK” were soon painted over to make the sign read “KKK.”
“People don't like to talk about that part of San Diego's history,” Stevens said.
It wasn't until 10 years later, September 1998, that SANDAG finally stepped in and authorized $1.4 million to have the signs properly installed.
But even with the fancy reflective signs in place, Stevens still wasn't satisfied. He said he thought the renaming of the freeway was a sort of consolation prize, a resolution born out of a previous debacle over the renaming of downtown's Market Street.
Market Street was a hotbed of African-American activity from the 1920s through the 1940s. Jazz clubs and black-owned businesses lined Market in an area that was once dubbed the “Harlem of the West.” That's why Market Street was the obvious choice when Coretta Scott King visited San Diego in 1985 and suggested the city name a street in honor of her fallen husband.
One year after Mrs. King's visit, the San Diego City Council voted in favor of renaming Market. Signs were quickly torn down and replaced, but business owners along the newly dubbed “Dr. M. L. King Way” weren't happy with their new addresses. According to Stevens, a few local businesses were the driving force behind an initiative to change it back.
It didn't take long for those business owners to gather enough signatures for a ballot initiative. On Nov. 3, 1987, nearly 60 percent of voters favored amending the San Diego municipal code so that “the street now known as Dr. Martin Luther King Way irrevocably be renamed Market Street.”
Stevens and others who wanted to publicly honor the memory of King viewed this as another slap in the face-and they weren't about to settle for the Highway 94 consolation prize.
On Jan. 10, 1989, a group known as the San Diego Martin Luther King Jr. Tribute Citizen's Committee recommended to the City Council that the Convention Center, which had yet to be officially named, be called the “San Diego Martin Luther King Jr. Convention Center.” With a vote of 7 to 2, the council passed the committee's recommendation.
But, because the Convention Center sits on 11 acres of land owned by the Port of San Diego, the name change never happened. Port commissioners voted against the city's recommendation, opting instead for the more marketable “San Diego Convention Center.”
African-American groups boycotted the Convention Center for nearly five years after that. The city tried to quash the problem with yet another consolation prize-a narrow, half-mile piece of land across the street from the Convention Center became the “Martin Luther King Jr. Promenade.” The impressive sounding promenade is actually a smallish, linear park. It's made up of a walkway with a few granite segments memorializing King's words and-among a handful of other, smaller public artworks-a large, steel disc-shaped sculpture with large chains dangling down one side called “Breaking of the Chains” by artist Melvin Edwards.
“We eventually got the Martin Luther King Jr. Promenade,” remembered Stevens. “That was a little dab of something.”
Filled in on some of the recent controversy surrounding the King memorial, he grunted in an “I told you so” way and said, “It was a controversy from the start.”