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Austin’s Battle Over MLK Street

Michael Barnes

Seven years after civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr. was gunned down in Memphis on April 4, 1968, there was no public monument to his legacy in Austin.

No statue. No park. No school. No street. No community center.

Although it was relatively painless and inexpensive in April 1975 to change much of East 19th Street — the part that runs through East Austin from Interstate 35 to Ed Bluestein Boulevard — into Martin Luther King, Jr. Boulevard, the battle for public recognition was far from over.

For more than a year, a group called the West 19th Street Association fought the extension of the name change past the Capitol Complex and University of Texas campus to North Lamar Boulevard. Leaders of the group said that it would cost businesses to change their signs, letterhead and advertising. It would also impinge of property rights and promote an alternative historical legacy.

Charging racism, critics begged to differ. Multiple petitions, lawsuits and harsh words followed.

Until the late 1880s — in keeping with the original plan to name Austin’s east-west thoroughfares after trees — it was called Magnolia Street. The road long supported businesses on both sides of East Avenue, the predecessor to Interstate 35. Although East 19th was not as active as East 11th or 12th streets, it boldly intersected the eight square miles of the city’s Negro District as laid out in 1928.

In March 1975, representatives of the Austin Black Assembly, which met weekly in Texas Rep. Wilhelmina Delco‘s offices on East 12th Street, petitioned the Austin City Council to honor King by renaming 19th Street after him. According to the Rev. Freddie B. Dixon, then senior pastor at Wesley United Methodist Church, some opposition arose from both the white and the black communities. Documented in a 2010 letter, Dixon recalled feeling misled by the City Council, and he shared his misgivings with J.J. Seabrook, president emeritus of Huston-Tillotson University.

On April 10, 1975, the day when new Council Member Emma Lou Linn — only the second woman elected to the position in Austin history — was sworn in, MLK sign opponents clashed.

According to an American-Statesman story by reporter Mike Kelley, protester Howard A. King said he would instead file a suit to have a street named for a Native American. And he wouldn’t stop there. King: “It is accepted that Austin has more minority groups than major, crosstown arterials.”

There was some concern over the cost — $40,000 to $200,00o for renaming the exits off Interstate 35. “Dr. King’s full name is so long, the highway department reported, that a much larger sign and support will be necessary.”

There was even mention of naming the new MoPac after King.

Still, the Council voted 4-2 in favor of the 19th Street name change. Mayor Roy Butler and Mayor Pro Tem Bud Dryden voted no.

Almost immediately, signs east of Interstate 35 were switched out.

Why not west? Some supporters of the name change felt the abrupt stop at the freeway was patronizing.

On May 1, 1975, Seabrook rose to make his plea to complete the deal. One white citizen held up a sign calling on the council to “Preserve 19th Street!”

After Seabrook suddenly crumpled in pain, Linn administered mouth-to-mouth resuscitation. At age 76, Seabrook died later that day of a heart attack.

On May 6, 1975, the Austin Citizen newspaper announced that the “West 19th Street Association” had been formed. Marion B. Findlay and Harris Johnson led this group.

“The sole purpose of our association is to oppose changing the name of any existing street in Austin without of the consent of the property owners concerned,” Findlay said. “Those who allege other motives are themselves furthering the prejudices they profess to condemn.”

The Association employed all sorts of delaying tactics, including a referendum petition and judicial action. Meanwhile, the Austin Black Assembly pointed out that the City Council had, since 1965, adopted at least 58 resolutions calling for name changes.

“That tactic worked in yesteryears, but today they cannot change the minds and will of black people, because we will fight for what we think is right, fair and just, until death,” the Assembly proclaimed in a stinging Nov. 7, 1975, press release. “J.J. Seabrook was a black man who weathered many storms caused by such people. He died fighting for recognition of a black man’s contribution in this bicentennial year.”

In June 1976, the Association tried to use a 1929 law to assert that the city had no right to control the destiny of West 19th Street.

Findlay: “We, the property owners, own 19th Street, not the city.”.

But Assistant City Attorney Don Wolf disagreed: the law gave the city “rights, privileges and easements on those streets that all cities have over their streets.”

The city won. Decades later, in 2010, peacemakers from East and West Austin joined to honor Seabrook by renaming the MLK Street bridge over Interstate 35 after him.

“I’ve worked on racial reconciliation in the city for years,” said Joseph Parker, Jr., senior pastor of David Chapel Missionary Baptist Church. “So I think this is just a first step in the process, but it’s not an end. You can symbolize bridging East and West Austin, but there needs to be more than a symbol.”