An Ugly Green Sign Is MLK District’s Only Significance

Street view of the Martin Luther King, Jr. District in downtown Charleston

Street view of the Martin Luther King, Jr. District in downtown Charleston

By Barney Blakeney

As the state and nation prepares for another observance of the Martin L. King Jr. birthday holiday, there are those who point to Charleston’s designation of the Spring Street/Cannon Street corridors on the peninsula as the Martin L. King Jr. Memorial District with some disappointment. The area at the peninsula’s geographic center formerly was a hub for black business activity and a black elite residential community. But since that 1999 designation, urban gentrification has transformed the area displacing most of its former businesses and residents.

In 1999 then Charleston City Councilman Wendell Gilliard proposed renaming Spring Street on the peninsula in honor of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. The proposal drew significant opposition, but in consolation city officials named the Spring Street/Cannon Street corridors the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial District.

Naming the area in honor of Dr. King in some ways gave honor to the martyred civil rights icon. The area that once was a hub of the city’s vibrant black business and residential community had embodied King’s vision of empowered black communities.

But since the district was designated, the Spring Street/Cannon Street corridors have become classic examples of the displacement of black businesses and residents that characterizes most of the peninsular city. Today, the Spring Street/Cannon Street corridors are almost exclusively home to increasingly more white residents and businesses.

Gilliard, who now is a S.C. State Senator, said he and his colleague former Councilman Kwadjo Campbell had a plan, the Minority Business Participation Plan that was supposed to help perpetuate black business and residential participation in the growth and redevelopment of the area. That didn’t happen as gentrification displaced most former residents and business owners over the past 20 years.

“Nobody took the baton,” Gilliard said of black city councilmen who once represented as much as 50 percent of the council’s members. Five blacks still serve on the 12-member council. “Gentrification not only displaced black people and businesses in the MLK District, it has displaced black people and businesses all over the peninsula. It has produced only two classes of citizens on the peninsula – the rich and the poor. There no longer is a middle class on the peninsula.”

Charleston Dist. 3 Councilman James Lewis who formerly represented the area where the MLK District is located said the designation was a “stupid idea” in the first place. Oncoming transformative gentrification was obvious though it was ignored. Residents living in the area also vehemently opposed the street name change. The consolation prize that came in the form of the district designation was a disgraceful attempt to placate the leadership, he said.

Additional consolation promises never have been realized either. Among them were promises to create in the district a park bearing King’s name that would include a monument. When plans for the park in King’s honor were abandoned, city officials selected a committee to coordinate the erection of a monument elsewhere in the city.

“The only thing that’s come out of all of it is an ugly green sign above Spring Street near the intersection of King Street,” Lewis scoffed.

Dist. 6 Councilman William Dudley Gregorie now represents part of the MLK District. He doesn’t agree the district doesn’t reflect King’s vision. Although their numbers are few, the MLK Memorial District encompasses the city’s highest concentration of black owned businesses, he said.

“That didn’t happen by chance or design. Traditionally that area has had the highest concentration of black owned businesses. The more important question now is how we get more of them,” he said.

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