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.