Citizen Green: A symbolic gesture of unity in High Point

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Jordan Greenby Jordan Green

Last March, the three black members of High Point City Council found themselves at their wit’s end when a narrow majority of their white colleagues on council refused to support a motion to rename Green Drive in honor of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.

Council members Becky Smothers, Judy Mendenhall, Britt Moore, Jim Davis and Jason Ewing voted against the resolution. Of the six white members of city council at the time, only Jay Wagner crossed the color line and supported the initiative.

The misgivings of the white majority boiled down to consideration of property owners. Some out-of-town investors might pull up stakes because of a perceived stigma of poverty associated with the name, one intimated. Others said respect for tradition dictated that longstanding property owners needed to give their blessing before council could approve such a change. One woman who spoke as a member of the public made the outlandish argument that Green Drive honored Revolutionary War Gen. Nathaniel Greene (not true), and that he did considerably more for African Americans than King (laughable and insulting). Taken as a whole, the objections reeked of racism and underscored a line of division in the city.

With almost lightning speed, the new city council under the leadership of Mayor Bill Bencini brought a resolution forward to rename a street in honor of King, in striking contrast to the reactive and obstructionist leadership of the last council.

Under city ordinance, any street renaming must be approved by a majority vote of the city’s planning & zoning commission, but the weight of council’s support behind the initiative, along with other significant institutional players, would be difficult for the commission to defy.

The new council voted 6-3 on Monday to support the name change, with Alyce Hill and Latimer Alexander, who replaced Mendenhall and Moore respectively, casting the deciding votes.

The current initiative improves on the previous flopped attempt. Instead of Green Drive, a thoroughfare that bisects the poorest parts of black community and areas ravaged by deindustrialization, while passing through the furniture trade district, the current initiative renames Kivett Drive, a more prominent thoroughfare that functions as the city’s doorstep for visitors from the east.

The new proposal also cleverly packages the Martin Luther King initiative with a companion measure to rename College Drive as University Drive, acknowledging High Point University’s growing impact. The timing is also advantageous, with the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday scheduled two weeks out. The backers of the proposal also lined up resolutions of support from significant business organizations and representatives of the black community, including the chamber of commerce, the convention & visitors bureau, High Point University, High Point Partners, the City Project, the Ministers Conference of High Point & Vicinity and the High Point NAACP.

Some might consider it stacking the deck to line up the major power players behind the scenes before the proposal gets a public hearing, but this is the way things get done. Incidentally, one of the most vocal opponents of the change was Cam Cridlebaugh, president of the High Point Regional Association of Realtors. Cridlebaugh told council on Monday that sending the recommendation to the planning & zoning commission “without a proper consensus of the property owners will set a very unfortunate undertone of how this council intends to handle tax-paying citizens.” He added that tenants will be inconvenienced by having to change addresses on their ID cards. It was understood that the vast majority of tenants on Kivett Drive are African American.

There’s a small irony in the fact that mayoral hopeful Marcus Brandon courted the realtors to finance his unsuccessful campaign in the recent election, and after getting jilted fired off an angry Facebook message to Cridlebaugh stating, “You guys totally f***ed me. I want you to convey this message to the High Point Realtors. You guys are a bunch of spineless bastards and you are Exhibit A of what’s wrong with this city. You had the opportunity to stop the fact that this city is the worse ran city in the state and everyone knows it. You had the power to move in a different direction and the Realtors chose the status quo and to join the good ole boy club that has been f***ing this city for decades.”

Renaming streets in honor of Martin Luther King Jr. — a move that was accomplished in most Southern cities decades ago — is a largely cosmetic change, and the same cities remain deeply divided and burdened with significant economic inequality. But this is the proverbial “low-hanging fruit,” and, to use another political cliché, an “easy win.”

It’s not a bad start.

  • Marcus could have chosen his words better (and no doubt would have if he’d known his email would be shared), but he’s essentially right. As someone who sat through that council meeting, I just want to add that High Point has perhaps THE most clueless bunch of white folks ever assembled. And I’m counting all the attendees, including myself. Listening skills were not much in evidence Monday night.

  • Observer

    This story totally ignores the whole argument.
    The vast majority here has no problem with naming a street as MLK.
    That same vast majority of working class taxpayers live in a city number one in combined costs in our state, and see spending on numerous initiatives unpopular with the working class going full steam ahead, as pushed by our various “leaders”.
    College Drive is a virtually uninhabited and sanitized strech of improved street traversing the city for miles north to south, a showpiece unusual in any city of any size, and by far the lowest cost remedy to the MLK designation of any in our city.
    The controversy is over the insistence of council and connected pals to preserve this tax paid semi private driveway for the renaming to University as a tribute to our small but growing tax free zone known as HPU.
    Seems that the name of MLK isn’t considered good enough for this thoroughfare but must instead be hung on the wallets and inconvenience of hundreds of affected home and business owners to change signage, billing etc. on another street, in reality any street, elsewhere, instead of the mere handful of potentially affected addresses on this long and lonely stretch that leads past one of our local university’s gates.
    HPU has become a lightning rod as the taxpayers see more and more of their public funds spent in support of this high priced private university, and while we all acknowledge some value of having them, many wonder if the cost isn’t out running the benefit, as more is given and much more is hidden.
    There is no problem here with honoring Dr KIng’s name, but there is some in the ongoing deitification of a small school’s head who makes the twelfth highest salary of any university leader in our nation, yet seems to need the support of taxpayers to help his own institution survive.
    Any barely aware observer of our local political atmosphere here should be aware of the reality in the debate, and we deserve the honesty of objectivity in reporting on our issues.

    • Jordan Green

      This is an opinion column, Observer. No claim to objectivity in this space. We’re both free to share our opinions.

      • Observer

        You’re right of course, as objectivity has no place in the discussion of HIgh Point politics.

        • Jordan Green

          I didn’t say objectivity has no place in the discussion of High Point politics. I said I’m not making any claim to objectivity in this piece. Do you understand the function of an opinion column?

          • Observer

            Truly, we are unworthy…

  • LR Creed

    There is support for an MLK street renaming in High Point and always has been. The problem has been the process involved, where outside groups will try and force the name change on property owners who are left with no say in the matter.

    The story on Green above, is only partly correct. Some companies were facing costs into the hundreds of thousands of dollars and the same will be true of many on Kivett Drive which is why it is also unlikely to pass the test for MLK as well.

    If there is anything sinister about this at all, it is the question as to why the only street in High Point that is suitable for this renaming, and would incur NO opposition from property owners was so hurriedly covered and clothed in a duplicate proposal to rename it as University Drive. Few in High Point are so blind as to fail to see that High Point University simply cannot stomach a road named for Dr. King running to their front door. I know, they know, we all know it.

    Neither Green nor Kivett are low hanging fruit, but South College was and is. The question should be, why isn’t the most logical, sensible and practical choice the plum that’s being picked?

    I suggest you run another article and this time employ a little investigative journalism work in finding out what’s really going on here in High Point.

  • Richard Bostick

    The larger question is why High Point’s black leadership (although much of this leadership isn’t even from High Point) continues to allow themselves to be steered into choosing streets that fail to meet the criteria for the street renaming process.
    There are 414 affected property owners on Kivett Drive and many of them will no doubt likely bring lawsuits and hardship cases to any public hearing. On the other hand, South College Drive, as part of the city’s inner loop, is a more prominent street and has only 1 affected property owner. And no, South College does not run through nor along HPU’s property. It was such an obvious choice that most High Pointers are now well aware than something sinister is indeed going on behind the scenes here. Not only that, but with no property owners to voice objections, South College would have sailed through the process like a hot knife through butter.
    The very people who claim to want a street named for MLK have and are doing everything in their power to see that it never happens. There’s your story, Mr. Green, look into it.

  • Craig Hayden

    Merced, California, population 81,000, 130 miles from San Francisco, in other words out in the middle of nowhere. The racial makeup of Merced is 41,177 (52.1%) White, 4,958 (6.3%) African American, 1,153 (1.5%) Native American, 9,342 (11.8%) Asian, 174 (0.2%) Pacific Islander, 17,804 (22.5%) from other races, and 4,350 (5.5%) from two or more races. Hispanic or Latino of any race were 39,140 persons (49.6%).
    When I visit friends stationed at Castle Air Force Base, I use to joke to about how the African American population has increased with my present and why Merced has a Martin Luther King Jr Way.