GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — Two Grand Rapids streets have been renamed to honor civil rights leaders, creating the first intersection in the state named for Cesar E. Chavez and Martin Luther King Jr.
“Signs are powerful. Without a spoken word, signs can send a message. … Today, we’re here to celebrate a symbol of two signs going up, which symbolizes community, dedication, justice, liberty, unity, representation and peace,” Grand Rapids Third Ward City Commissioner Senita Lenear, also member of the committee that proposed the change, said. “These new streets send a message that this community is for all.”
What used to be Franklin Street is now Martin Luther King Jr. Street. The former Grandville Avenue between Wealthy Street and Clyde Park Avenue is Cesar E. Chavez Avenue. The two streets intersect in the city’s Roosevelt Park neighborhood.
The official renaming happened Tuesday. It began with a celebration at Iglesia de Dios Manantial de Vida, a church that sits near the intersection of the newly renamed streets, and was followed by an outdoor ribbon cutting and street sign unveiling.
“This change marks a historic and inclusive milestone in our city’s history as we work toward a more just, equitable and inclusive community. Not only for all of us, not only for our current residents, but truly for generations to come,” Mayor Rosalynn Bliss said. “A community where people feel not just connected to community, but truly a community where people feel like they belong. And this is a very visible change and a very visible statement which reflects significant progress that has been made.”
But, she added, the signs are also a reminder that there is more work to be done.
“These changes, to me, are a hopeful sign that the community can continue to come together under a common and unifying purpose,” Bliss continued. “And it is my hope that they, too, will be signs that inspire future generations of Grand Rapidians to continue to be actively engaged, to realize that they can make a difference and that they can be a part of making sure our community truly is an inclusive community.”
CHAVEZ, KING FAMILIES CELEBRATE RENAMING
Paul Chavez, the son of Cesar E. Chavez, and Rev. Derek King, nephew of Martin Luther King Jr., were guests of honor at the renaming ceremony.
“Cesar Chavez and Martin Luther King worked under the cover of the Constitution. They challenged America: Live up to what you wrote down,” Derek King said. “They were not afraid to go to jail for it. One of the two of them even ended up getting killed for it. … I want to challenge you to keep working under cover.”
“Working together works. We are better when we are together,” King continued. “My challenge to you is to walk together, work together, even if you have to cry together, Martin said it will speed up that day for not some of God’s children but all of God’s children — Black men, white men, Jews and gentiles, Protestants and Catholics — can join together and say, ‘Free at last!'”
Paul Chavez said the street intersection is representative of the intersection between his father’s and Martin Luther King’s work.
“My father learned much about boycotts from closely following Dr. King’s career, beginning with the Montgomery bus boycott in the mid-’50s,” Chavez said. “He was impacted by the strength of nonviolent social justice action. In 1966, Dr. King wrote my father, and he talked about our struggle, and he said, ‘Our separate struggles are really one: the struggle for freedom, for dignity and for humanity.'”
He said his father’s work transcended the Latino farm workers in California that he initially set out to support. He said as Cesar Chavez traveled the nation, he met people who were inspired to work for change.
“I think that it was a measure of his greatness that he inspired hope and confidence in people that were in short supply of it,” Paul Chavez said. “It is our hope that in addition to the street renaming that we’re celebrating today, that all of us will recommit ourselves to my father’s legacy and Dr. King’s legacy and take an active part in it. And we can do that by going out and being active in our communities. We can do that by being of service to others, especially those most in need, and we can do that by building a society that offers opportunity to everybody. And if we do that, then we honor the legacies of Dr. King and my father in the manner that they would be most proud of.”
LONGSTANDING DREAM OF MARCH COMMITTEE
The project was proposed by the Moving Ahead for the Remarkable Civil Rights Heroes, or MARCH. committee, which has been around for some 20 years. In October, Grand Rapids city commissioners voted unanimously to officially change the street names.
“This is historic for Grand Rapids. A perfect quote from MLK that I love is, ‘The time is always right to do what is right.’ And today was the time,” Shekirua Mack, vice president of the MARCH committee, said at the WOOD TV8 Digital Live Desk as the ceremonies were ongoing.
Grand Rapids City Manager Mark Washington said that Lupe Ramos-Montigny and Kent County Commissioner Robert S. Womack, who co-chair MARCH, visited him not long after he arrived in the city three years ago and to talk about their efforts.
“I told them that every city I lived in, every city that I worked in, had a street to name Cesar Chavez and Martin Luther King, and that as city manager in Grand Rapids, by faith — I didn’t know where the votes was, I didn’t know where the money was, I didn’t know where the political will was… — but by faith, I committed to them that I would see this through,” Washington said. “And here we are today at this crescendo of a moment, celebrating not only the names … but more importantly, the significance of having a place where we remember how we got here.”
Both Chavez and King already had their names on Grand Rapids street signs — but as designations only, not as the official names. With the change, S. Division Avenue will no longer be designated for King. The former names of Grandville and Franklin will also remain as designations.
EAST GRAND RAPIDS CHANGING STREET NAME
Also on Tuesday, East Grand Rapids announced its city commission unanimously approved renaming Franklin Street to Martin Luther King Jr. Street past Grand Rapids city limits and into East Grand Rapids, all the way to Plymouth Avenue.
“This event is not just about the symbolism of the physical intersection of two streets, but also the solidarity that exists among our entire community, both in terms of people and even in cities,” Washington said.
The official East Grand Rapids renaming will happen May 2. The city will remove the green Franklin Street signs and install new green Martin Luther King Jr. Street signs, as well as new blue commemorative Franklin Street signs. Having both signs in East Grand Rapids allows residents to use either street name for mail, delivery and navigation services.
“I read in a book somewhere: ‘The race is not given to the swift, nor to the strong, but to he or she who endures to the end,'” Derek King said, quoting the Bible. “Sometimes justice and right ends don’t happen like this. But don’t quit. Don’t quit. And it’s evident that through your tenacity and your perseverance, a goal and an end was reached.
“City of Grand Rapids and East Grand Rapids ought to be better because of it.”
—News 8’s Anna Skog contributed to this report.