The signs are up, finally, on Rock Hill’s Constitution Boulevard. There is a sign at each end of the mile-long stretch. One is near Cherry Road, and the other is near Piedmont Medical Center, where Constitution ends at Herlong Avenue.
The words “Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Boulevard” are written with white letters on the green signs. The signs, about a foot tall and maybe six feet long, frame the Boyd Hill neighborhood that is one of the city’s oldest predominantly black neighborhoods. Boyd Hill was all-black during the segregated days that King and so many in Rock Hill fought to destroy.
“I have a dream,” King told the world in 1963, emboldened and strengthened. That was two years after nine young black men in Rock Hill went to jail for the crime of being hungry at a whites-only lunch counter. Their protest inspired a nation.
King lived another five years until hate killed him in Memphis.
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More than 700 towns and cities in America, big and small, former bastions of segregation even, had signs like this naming streets and roads and bridges and expressways before Rock Hill and York County.
The declaration to have the road named for the slain legendary civil rights leader comes after a years-long struggle by black community leaders and Rep. John King, D-Rock Hill.
Yet the new “symbolic” name of the road was initiated and done by the state, said city of Rock Hill spokesperson Katie Quinn.
The name of the street remains Constitution Boulevard.
The state of South Carolina was in charge of the memorial designation, Quinn said. The state legislature approved it and the S.C. Department of Transportation implemented it.
The city had no role.
Except the street is in the city of Rock Hill.
The people of Boyd Hill and elsewhere are left scratching collective heads, wondering if the city will ever officially change the name.
“People are saying that it is better than nothing, these new signs and the memorial name,” said Floree Hooper of the Boyd Hill Neighborhood Association. “But we were hoping for a real street name change. It seems like just about every other city has an official Martin Luther King street. Not just a symbolic sign.”
The Rock Hill NAACP also agrees that a symbolic name for King is not enough.
“The time for symbolism is over,” said Melvin Poole, president of the Rock Hill NAACP. “This would show action.”
The installation of the signs was done without fanfare. There was no ceremony to honor a man whose mark on America and Americans, people of all colors and races and religions, is so great that January boasts a national holiday in his honor.
Yet in Rock Hill, signs are put up by state workers without telling anybody. Sometimes there are ceremonies. Rock Hill holds news conferences to announce bicycle trails and bicycle races. The city proudly alerts people of cruises, kayaking, dog walks in the park.
The city, county, state, nobody said a word to anybody.
At least one Rock Hill City Council member is willing to “initiate a conversation” with city leaders to consider renaming the street officially for Martin Luther King.
“It certainly deserves discussion,” said Rev. Osbey Roddey, one of two black city council members. “There are many who would consider it the right thing to do to name a street officially for a man who did so much for all Americans. We should talk about it, at least.”
Many years ago, there was some discussion to possibly rename a portion of Black Street in downtown Rock Hill for Martin Luther King. Black Street was home to the segregated black business district until integration and urban renewal - but that street is named for one of the city’s founding families, said Roddey the councilman. No one wanted to change such an important city street name that honored a family with such important roots, Roddey said.
One of the descendants of that prominent family, John Black, sits on the Rock Hill City Council today.
Roddey said he was not told that the signs went up last month. He is not alone. Nobody was told.
Naming the street symbolically makes it no different than Interstate 77 interchanges, and bridges, and a few roads, that are named for politicians and others. Even the late great Frank Bobo, who ran a wrecker service on Albright Road, has a stretch of it named, symbolically, in his honor. Bobo, a loved man and civic lion, deserved it.
Many state troopers have stretches of road named in honor of them after a death on duty. The late Kevin Cusack, a trooper from Clover, has a stretch in his honor on S.C. 274 northwest of Rock Hill, and he sure deserved it.
Some of those sign dedications had assembled politicians, or other big shots who love TV cameras.
But all those road name changes were not official changes. Signs, is all. Symbols.
The honorary names are not all dedicated to whites - but most are. A stretch of S.C. 5 in Rock Hill was named in a symbolic way a few years ago for the late Juanita Goggins, the first black woman ever elected to the S.C. Legislature. An interchange on Interstate 77 is named for Sam Foster, who took over that same seat in the statehouse after serving as principal of Northwestern High school after integration of Rock Hill schools.
It is the same seat Rep. John King holds today.
In recent years Rock Hill finally put much of its ugly racial history behind it. The city has, in a few places for more than a decade, posted signs along roads that say, “Rock Hill, a city that has no room for racism.”
The mayor hosts a huge, multi-racial prayer breakfast each year on King’s birthday. The fact that the breakfast day wasn’t an official holiday in the city or in the county for many of those breakfast years is not forgotten, though.
Rock Hill, and York County, were among the last places in South Carolina to have a local MLK holiday to go with the national holiday. Change only came after public embarrassment in 2003 at being so far behind the times that Selma, Ala., and Jackson, Miss., laughed at us.
The Friendship Nine, who went to jail in 1961 protesting segregated lunch counters, have a sign commemorating their heroics along Main Street. On the 50th anniversary of the arrest of the men, in 2011, big events were held to honor them.
No street was named for them, though.
Nobody has said that not naming the street officially for Martin Luther King is racist. A better description is “clueless.”
It took more than a year for the state legislature to pass the symbolic gesture of naming Rock Hill’s street after King introduced the idea in 2011. King did not give up.
“I did all I could do, and I am proud to do it to honor this great man who fought for people of color, but he also fought for all people, King said.
“He fought for women, for equality, for all,” King said. “But changing the name officially can’t be done by me.”
Changing the name can be done by the city, though.
The road is a state road but in the city limits of Rock Hill, said Vic Edwards, with the S.C. Department of Transportation’s York County engineering office. York County Council, as required by state rules for signs to go up after legislative action, agreed in May to spend $500 from state gas tax road improvement money to have the signs built, Edwards said.
The signs were finished in August and put up last month, at a construction cost of $131.
Constitution Boulevard has been around for about 25 years, when it was dedicated as a connecting road of about a mile to bring the hospital area together with busy Cherry Road. Along it are a city housing project, a community center run by the city, a few homes, and several businesses.
Herlong Avenue at one end is named for a prestigious Rock Hill family. Cherry Road at the other end is named for a founding Rock Hill family.
Many streets around the city honor those people who were instrumental in building Rock Hill. Dave Lyle Boulevard honors a former mayor.
Martin Luther King fought for everybody. He hoped all might live better. The man is a black hero, certainly; but he is just as much an American hero.
Joe McMoore, the president of the Boyd Hill Neighborhood Association, said that in coming days he will talk with his neighbors. McMoore will be asked about the new signs and why the road is a ceremonial name change and not an official name change, and McMoore will have no answer.
If enough people want the name changed, and his neighborhood association board votes in early November to try for an official change, McMoore said he will ask politicians directly to start acting.
Floree Hooper from Boyd Hill said she wants answers, too.
And McMoore and Hooper want answers not just from black politicians, either.
“If you can’t change a name of a street for Martin Luther King, I don’t know how high the bar would be,” said McMoore. “The man didn’t just care about black people. He wanted everybody to have a better life. He wanted a better America. He died for it. Seems to me that’s worth a street name that is official and on the street signs in Rock Hill.”