DECATUR — Decatur residents Jim Taylor and William Oliver struggled to bring communities and businesses together as part of their civil rights work, but naming a street in their hometown for Civil Rights icon the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. turned out to be one of the hardest.
“It was the hard work of two people,” Taylor said of himself and Oliver.
The two men were working for the United Auto Workers Civil Rights organization when they came up with the idea in the early 1980s. As they traveled down Martin Luther King Jr. Drive in Chicago one day, Oliver wondered why Decatur did not have a street so named. The duo set the plan in motion during their drive home.
On Jan. 18, 1988 — 30 years ago this week — the city council officially renamed Broadway to Martin Luther King Jr. Drive. It wasn't easy, a march that met apathy, resistance and the first council vote that didn't go their way.
It had been almost 20 years since King had been taken by an assassin's bullet, and his inspirational movement, his "I Have a Dream" speech, kept the desire to honor him strong among those who sought this recognition. Oliver and Taylor never gave up hope.
Throughout their adult lives, Taylor and Oliver were active with Southern Christian Leadership Conference, a group dedicated to eliminating segregation and ending the oppression of African-Americans in a nonviolent manner. King was voted the group’s first president in 1957.
Taylor, 75, and Oliver, 81, had been promoting civil rights more than 20 years before they thought of the idea to promote Martin Luther King Jr. Drive in Decatur. One of their jobs with the UAW was working with the Human Relations Committee. They traveled throughout the country, encouraging companies and businesses to hire minorities and women, a struggle they have fought throughout their lives.
Early in their careers, they worked to promote the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, making it illegal to discriminate against a person because of race, gender, nationality, sexual orientation, age or disability.
“We can do what we need to do if we all do it together,” Oliver said about his time as a member of the UAW civil rights group.
With this background, they were ready for the challenge of Broadway.
It might seem odd today, given how many streets bear King's name, that it would take such a long time for the honor to be bestowed.
Derek Alderman, a scholar of cultural geography at the University of Tennessee, estimated in 2014 that more than 900 such streets existed in 42 states and Puerto Rico. Illinois had eight of those. Georgia, King's home state, had the most with 24.
Oliver and Taylor said they chose Broadway because the thoroughfare is in the center of the city, running through a number of African-American neighborhoods, from Lake Decatur to the city's north side. The city council at the time suggested other streets, but Taylor and Oliver knew where Martin Luther King Jr. Drive should be.
“It was a street that ran from the lake to the north side of Decatur,” Oliver said. “And it wasn’t named after any famous citizens.”
They brought the idea and petition to the city council only after they had received enough signatures to make a difference.
“We made up our own form telling them all about it,” Taylor said. “We wanted to see how many people we could get to sign it.”
With their petition in hand, the two men walked from one end of Broadway to the other trying to get people to sign it.
“There was a lot of businesses that didn’t want to see it changed,” Taylor said.
As Taylor remembers it, the businesses opposed the name change because they would have to get new business cards, envelopes and letterheads. But Taylor and Oliver wouldn’t give up. The two men walked the entire street knocking on the doors of every home and business. The process took two days.
“There was a lot more houses on the street at the time,” Taylor said.
The struggle to get the street name changed included a long road of submissions, approvals, votes and typical bureaucracy associated with government action. The idea had to get approval from the City Planning Commission and Department of Community Development, the two remembered.
“It was quite a struggle,” Oliver said.
The late former state Rep. Webber Borchers was one of the opponents.
“Many businesses didn’t want to say anything, but he spoke up,” Taylor remembered.
According to a Jan. 8, 1982, Herald & Review article, Borchers’ argument was the cost of such a project. He said changing the name would cost thousands of dollars and divert money away from other much-needed services. He also argued the historical significance of Broadway beginning with Abraham Lincoln, the Civil War and World War I.
“There are so many things you could do, but not in the old, historical area of Decatur,” the article quotes Borchers as saying.
Some residents also opposed the change. Thomas C. Allen created his own petition opposing the renaming of Broadway: “It is terrible to honor Dr. King with a dirty asphalt street that’s littered with garbage,” Allen is quoted in a Jan. 15, 1982, Herald & Review article. “The civic center would be more appropriate.”
Taylor and Oliver said received phone calls from people who did not live in the city, including Mount Zion, Mattoon and Pana, complaining about the change. Oliver, a city council member from 1977 to 1997, heard firsthand the complaints about the name change from the community and other council members.
“They thought Broadway should stay Broadway,” Oliver said. “Some didn’t think that King deserved that kind of accolades.”
'Quite a thing'
The first city council vote for the street name change in 1982 was rejected 6-1. Six years later, the vote was the same, but in favor of Martin Luther King Jr. Drive.
Both men felt that after Gary Anderson was elected mayor in 1983, the process became easier. Oliver credited Anderson's positive outlook for the community and vision of equality.
“He was getting things done in civil rights, in the business world,” Oliver said. “He didn’t bite his tongue about it.”
Still, the next vote for the Martin Luther King Jr. Drive would not come up for another five years.
Before the final vote, the city council was so confident it would pass that the city street department ordered the signs early.
The name change was accepted with no fanfare, an almost quiet acceptance, the men remembered.
The Herald & Review published the announcement on Jan. 9, 1988, alerting readers to the new street signs. City maintenance workers began installing the signs a week before the official change date of Jan. 18, 1988.
According to the Herald & Review archives, when the name change was first suggested at the city council meeting, the estimated cost of changing 70 signs was $6,300. At the time of installation six years later, the signs were ordered through a sign company in Bloomington, Indiana, at a cost of about $5,000.
While creating the sign, the designers had trouble fitting “Martin Luther King Jr. Drive” on the street signs.
“The verdict was to have taller letters for the M, the L and the entire last name,” a 1988 Herald & Review article stated.
After the final vote in which the council approved the name change, Oliver said he was concerned the city would have protests or demonstrations.
“But after years of trying to get this done, it had played itself out,” he said. “Still, that final vote was quite a thing.”
Taylor occasionally hears people refer to the street as Broadway, even 30 years later. He had a friend who often used the old street name.
“Every time he said Broadway I corrected him,” Taylor said. “That’s not Broadway anymore.”