Sunday, May 23, 2004

September 28, 1983


By Betty Reid Soskin

As a member of the Ad Hoc Committee formed to study the feasibility of changing the name of Grove Street to Martin Luther King Way, I've watched with growing concern the misinformation and distortions carried by the press. In the interest of clarification may I submit the following:

First to those who have responded to the issue with, "I'm certainly not opposed to honoring Dr. King in some way --a park, an as yet unnamed public building, any other street, etc.," I would say: Grove Street was not idly chosen. The City of Berkeley holds a position in the world community as an international city -- the site of one of the world's great universities. In this important little city, Grove is the oldest main street; has the greatest diversity of architectural styles; a healthy socio-economic balance; ethnic diversity, holds the city's governmental buildings -- the only high school, the adult education complex and a number of churches - truly a representative 'community' street with an interesting balance of residential, commercial and governmental structures.

To the woman who called to say, "Who are YOU to want to change the name of MY street to anything?" We are a committee of Berkeleyans who are of all races and religions, homemakers, students of both the high school and the university, clergy and laypersons, business and professional people, public servants, yes, and politicians. We are young and old, Flatlands and Hill, Town and Gown. We are even a few children. And we are of the belief that if several thousand other Berkeleyans will join with us and sign a petition to change the name of Grove, that we are prepared to request the city council to honor that wish by voting the change.

(Even while writing the paragraph above I was aware of the world in microcosm. Would that we were wise enough to deal with the age-old question of territoriality more creatively; the privilege of the many vs. the rights of the few.)

For those who have said to me, "Berkeley has done that already ...look at King Junior High and Malcolm X schools," may I say: As one of the senior members of the committee I, too, often feel that "we've done that already" as I recall the pain of the Civil Rights Movement of the Sixties. Look around you folks. It simply didn't STAY done. Under the present administration most of the gains of the period are already lost and more erosion can be expected in light of the greater defense commitments and an ever-growing military budget. Social change is now the charge of a new generation of young leaders, some of whom were barely out of the womb when Dr. King was challenging the conscience of the world.

To the man who called to say, "...this is an ABC plot to disrupt the Grove Street residents" may I say: The Committee is unaffiliated with any of the political organizations in the city. There simply is no device for discovering just which committee member belongs to which political group. I do know that -- as interested citizens, from time to time, we've been visited by the mayor (BCA) some council members (both ABC and BCA), our police chief, high school principal, at least one member of our school board among others. We've tried hard to not become politicized -- and except for questionable reporting, we've succeeded fairly well.

To those who approve the name change on the basis that, "...Those poor Black people don't ask for much and this would be a nice thing for US to do for THEM," may I say: Dr. King is far larger than Black. He is larger than 'American' -- of world stature. His Nobel Peace Prize attests to that most eloquently. He is a leader in the tradition of Lincoln, Jefferson, Henry David Thoreau and Ghandi. He was a continuing influence on men like the late President Anwar Sadat and Nelson Mandela. Behind the Iron Curtain,in Hungary, five Baptist churches are named in his memory. Streets and highways have been named for him in many countries and several American cities.

My personal reasons for participating in this project are simple. I fully approved the idea when first presented. Dr. King has been my personal hero for many reasons for many years, however, I would have settled for the process. How exciting to use it as a vehicle for bringing those powerful speeches out again -- whether or not the street actually got re-named. This was in the spring. In June my motivation was irrevokably altered.

I'd recently discovered while rummaging in the back of my store -- two 3-record boxed sets containing "The Wisdom of Dr. Martin Luther King" and "The Wisdom of Malcom X," the complete collected speeches of the two great leaders. I could hardly wait to present them as auction items for the KQED-TV (PBS) annual fund drive. They were beautifully packaged with lifelike portraits of each man depicted in full color on the covers. As I sat filling out the donor forms a mature (white) female volunteer sat studying the albums before her -- and -- after gently reminding me that the value of my gift had to exceed fifty dollars (I assured her that they were to be given in pairs, a $60 value), she continued to look dubious and asked, "is it good blues?" I felt a deep embarrassment for her that continued through the drive home.

Racism? Perhaps, but that's too easy. Ignorance? Certainly to some degree. Time? Yes. Time enough for the oily film of stereotypic memory to cloud over the identities of the two powerful leaders who'd shaken the rafters of the nation and the world in their time. Had they now morphed into the faces of Nat King Cole, Paul Robeson, Bill "Bojangles" Robinson, or B.B. King, perhaps?

My day started much as yours with a shattering, "...the U.S navy today shelled the coastline of Lebanon..." The commentator briefly spoke of "stepped-up fighting between Iran and Iraq." My memory was jarred to recalling my city's role in the overthrow of the Shah -- Iranian students educated at Berkeley figuring heavily in the hostage drama. Found myself wondering if folks in other lands connected us with the birth of the atom bomb? With Edward Teller and David McMillan -- Lawrence Laboratories and Los Alamos?

Beginning to notice, again, a kind of numbness growing out of my inability to absorb the onslaught of yet another list of terrifying developments. Assassination in the Philipines -- a civilian 747 blasted out of the sky -- and that invisible part of myself that steps outside of my body for brief periods to watch all that "stuff go by" -- as if I'm not really involved at all. I believe Bill called it Samsara.

One quotation cuts through the numbness like a scalpel:

"Either we will learn to live together as brothers, or we will surely perish together as fools."

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

O that we could be reminded of that quotation each time we enter Grove street from any direction! To be reminded that we will surely perish even as 'brothers' if we continue to allow 'fools' to move us ever closer and ultimately beyond the edge of existence.

Spring, 2004:

Iraq again in the news with another Bush at the helm of the Ship of State... The more things change, the more they remain the same... .

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