Sunday, February 12, 2006

Street Names and Reconciliation

Late last year the local NAACP brought a request to the city council. They wanted the city to rename one of the major streets in town after Martin Luther King, Jr. The council seemed open to changing the name of a minor street somewhere in town, but spoke strongly against changing the major streets – Jefferson, Rusk, Mt. Pleasant, Quitman or Texas. Everyone spoke highly of Martin Luther King, Jr., but thought change was a bad idea. Business owners on theses streets spoke of the connection between their “identity” and the name of the street and the cost of replacing all their stationery and advertising. After several fractious meetings, the request was turned down.

Last month the NAACP decided to respond to the city fathers by asking all their members to do no shopping in Pittsburg – to go to the trouble of driving to neighboring cities.

As a lifelong nomad, I’ve never become strongly attached to street names. So in Pittsburg’s latest civil conflict I find myself without any strong opinions. I don’t care whether the street I live on or the streets by my place of work change name.

Our town – like some others in the country – has a neighborhood where most inhabitants are African American. Some might think, “If they want to name a street after Martin Luther King, Jr., let them change one of their streets.” That’s an entirely wrong, perspective, however. We are one town. However much we might think it from time to time, it’s not “us” and “them” – however we’d like to divvy it up.

Of course, there’s plenty of reason to not think we’re “us.” I’m a newcomer to town, so I don’t know all the details about the history of race relations. I’ve heard a story about how during integration, the law declared that the public swimming pool which had been “whites only” had to be integrated. Instead of doing that the folks in charge decided to fill it in with dirt. If the whites couldn’t swim by themselves, then no one would swim. Real smart move, wasn’t it?

If the rest of the city’s history has been anything like that, I can understand how some African American folks might be inclined to think they’re not wanted – that the city is against them.

Jesus came to tear down the wall dividing Jew & Gentile. That wall was mighty tall. It had been there a long time. Jesus tore it down. Why? Because his purpose was to join into one Body all who had faith in Him. We haven’t had that kind of reconciliation here in Pittsburg. We have lots of churches – almost all segregated. And too many are happy that way.

I’ve also noticed that most of the city’s leaders are church people. People who claim Jesus as their Lord and Savior. And yet we’re content to ignore Jesus’ wishes. I must be missing something.

What about the street? Again, I don’t think a street is a big deal. But in our case I can’t help but think that it’s a symbol of our greater love for “the way things have always been” than for Jesus and his agenda.


Blogger Steve Heyduck said...

Amen, brother! I suggest they change Jefferson. He's kinda out of favor these days anyway, isn't he? What with fathering a child with one of his slaves and all.

11:46 PM  
Blogger Steve Heyduck said...

I aprpeciate your writing about this and clearly articulating the issue and the "sides" taken.

I can't understand the stress over the re-naming of a street. It seems to me (perhaps that's why I read you as tending to see it the same way) that the better thing to do, in the interest of community harmony and reconciliation, to rename a prominent street after MLK, Jr.

Out of curiosity, when was the last time a street was renamed in Pittsburg for any reason?

8:47 AM  
Anonymous OneOfMany said...

In just the last 50 years there have been any number of truly significant black men and women whose contributions in science, the arts and in service to our country in the military and government have made a meaningful positive difference in the lives of all Americans.

Yet not in one but many cities there is little if any interest in naming anything after King. There must be a reason. It could be racism. It could be classism. It could be a lot of things. It could just be that the vast majority of people simply don't care who he was or what he did. It might be that what he did made no meaningful positive difference in the lives of the broad majority of Americans.

So along comes the NAACP insisting that a street be named after King and no one pays much attention. So they get angry and make threats. Someone might actually listen to the NAACP if they would actually developed broad support for their goals rather than threatening everyone who refuses to salute and march in step with them.

Maybe it's time for the NAACP to take their business elsewhere. At one time the NAACP actually helped black people. Now all they seem to do is act as surrogate representatives of the DNC and engage in little demonstrations of "power" such as street naming along with flag and monument removal.

The NAACP would be much more effective if it focused its resources so as to actually make a genuine positive contribution to the lives of all Americans both black and white. Maybe then there would not be so much argument when someone, black or white, suggested that a street be named after anyone, black or white. But that would be hard. Changing street names is not so hard. But neither is it likely to make much of a difference in the lives of anyone, black or white.

Does this resonate with the call of Christ? No. But it does reflect the reality of politics. No one responds well when a gun is put to their head. It was exactly that approach, ie., federal judicial "decision" enforced at the point of National Guard bayonets that led to dirt dumped in pools and pavement poured on parkland. Community reconciliation and harmony is a two-way street. The NAACP is going to have to learn that they can not insist on removal of every reference to Lee, Jackson, Davis, etc. and then expect open hearted appreciation of a man named King.

9:23 PM  

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