JONESBORO, Ark. (KAIT) -The Jonesboro City Council voted Monday approved renaming Commerce Drive after Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
The name change came following several months of heated debate, in which several individuals and organizations on both sides spoke out.
“This is a negative impact on us (business owners on Commerce Drive) and it’s a direct negative impact," said Matt Elam, owner of Silver Moon Trailers. "It comes directly out of our pockets. I have to spend tens of thousands of dollars changing signage, changing letterheads, business cards. It’s got to be changed and that comes out of my pockets.”
On the other side of the aisle, long-time community activist Emma Agnew said there is a bigger picture for the renaming.
“For your black residents, this is about so much more than naming a street in honor of Dr. King," Agnew said. "This is about a man who gave hope and the idea of inclusion, and that we were all created equal.
Follow the public comments, Councilman Charles Frierson made a motion to bypass the last two readings and the council agreed.
Ultimately, they approved the renaming by a vote of 9-3. Here’s how the council voted:
- Charles Frierson: Ward 1, Position 1- For
- Gene Vance: Ward 1, Position 2- For
- Dr. Charles Coleman: Ward 2, Position 1- For
- Chris Moore: Ward 2, Position 2- For
- Ann Williams: Ward 3, Position 1- For
- Chris Gibson: Ward 3, Position 2- For
- John Street: Ward 4, Position 1- Against
- Mitch Johnson: Ward 4, Position 2- Against
- LJ Bryant: Ward 5, Position 1- For
- Joe Hafner: Ward 5, Position 2- For
- Bobby Long: Ward 6, Position 1- Against
- David McClain: Ward 6, Position 2- For
Many in the crowd were pleased with the decision and broke out into applause.
Sandra Combs was brought to tears, saying they were tears of joy.
“Not only the black community was heard, but those who support people of color," she said. "Those who admire and love the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King and the work he did for all people, those people were heard.”
City Communications Director Bill Campbell confirmed with Mayor Harold Perrin, who was absent from the meeting, that there will be a plan put in place on when the physical signs will go up.
The effort to rename a Jonesboro street after the slain civil rights leader began months ago when members of the Craighead County branch of the NAACP suggested renaming Johnson Avenue between Hilltop Drive and Dan Avenue.
Two weeks later, the city council tabled the proposal until September after hearing from citizens who supported the measure and those who opposed renaming the busy thoroughfare.
In July, the Nominating and Rules Committee unanimously approved the formation of a Unity Coalition to investigate the pros and cons of renaming a city street.
When the coalition met later that month, they discussed a variety of ways to honor MLK. Renaming a section of Interstate 555 was among the ideas floated at the July 24. One member even suggested a walking/biking trail with signs featuring Dr. King’s quotes along the route.
When the Unity Coalition met again a week later, tempers flared during a racially-charged argument among members.
The Reverend Adrian Rodgers was among those who said the city had failed in its promise made 10 years earlier to name a street in honor of King.
He told Region 8 News he was sad to see the proposal met with such opposition in 2019, but still said he was optimistic that change would occur.
“It’s a little disheartening, but I just still believe in this great city,” Rodgers said. “We’re going to get over this hump and we’re going to see it happen.”
The coalition managed to set aside their differences at its third meeting in August when they voted on several different streets and projects.
Those who opposed renaming a street cited the financial trouble several businesses would face in changing their advertising and correspondence.
On Sept. 17, the Unity Coalition presented three options to the city council: designating the city’s multi-purpose trail as the Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Freedom Trail; renaming Aggie Road and Front Street to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Boulevard; or changing Commerce Drive to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Drive.
Dr. Charles Coleman, chairman of the coalition, admitted that they had made progress but underscored that a decision had to be made.
“The community is tired,” he said. “They want something done.”
The proposal then moved to the Public Works Committee. On Oct. 1, it voted to postpone the ordinance indefinitely.
At the time, Committee Chair John Street sad he has and will always vote against renaming a street.
“I will not ever vote to change a name of an existing street for anybody,” Street said. “I don’t care if it’s Harry Truman or Martin Luther King or Donald Trump or whoever.”
He was not the only one voicing his opinion. Several members began arguing with each other, and then the crowd weighed in.
The meeting ended with the committee deciding to not change the name of Commerce Drive.
The discussion continued two weeks later on Oct. 15 when hundreds crowded into the city council chambers as Emma Agnew, president of the Craighead County Chapter of the NAACP, voiced the group’s dismay with how the ordinance was moving through the chamber.
“The Unity Coalition did not unify anything, and was a waste of time,” she said in a statement to the council. “We worked diligently, giving up time from our businesses and jobs, only to have the Public Works Committee not even vote on our proposed ordinance, but change it.”
Sandra Combs, a member of the coalition, echoed Agnew’s concerns, asking the council why they created an advisory panel only to ignore it.
When the council met on Nov. 5, Councilman David McClain proposed an amendment to the ordinance naming future extensions of Commerce Drive after Dr. King. Instead, he suggested changing all of Commerce Drive, both existing and new, to honor the civil rights leader.
Six councilmembers approved the measure. Seven votes were needed for it to pass.
The council said the ordinance would be up for a third reading when they met again on Nov. 19.
“I think that’s a mistake,” Michael Gray told Region 8 News. He called the council’s decision to wait a “delay tactic.”
Once again, emotions flared when the ordinance came up at the Nov. 19 meeting.
McClain reintroduced his amendment to the full council, stating: “The amendment is actually the original ordinance that the Unity Coalition came up with. I felt like we should honor their request and move forward with the ordinance they created.”
The amendment passed by a vote of 7 to 5. The council was scheduled to take up the measure on Thursday, Dec. 5. Instead, it called a special meeting three days earlier on Monday, Dec. 2, and voted to rename Commerce Drive.