Cemeteries are filled with the names of the long forgotten, those whose marks on the world are confined within the dash between year one and the final year. Legacies that reach beyond those years on earth are difficult to achieve and belong to the men who define history — for better or worse — and on scales both small and large.
On Monday, the country honors one of the people whose legacy falls well within the “better” category, whose effect on the country continues to grow as the years roll forward. For Mesa, this year’s celebration has extra significance given the decision by the Mesa City Council to put the man’s name on a street in an area of town burdened by a segregated past.
MLK Day celebration
Monday is MLK Day, the annual event to recognize the many efforts made by Martin Luther King, Jr., to unite people of all colors and creeds. Finding a way to encapsulate everything he accomplished during his short time on earth is akin to a fool’s errand; the most accurate way of measuring it is how the message has influenced the minds and hearts of the generations that have and will continue to follow.
Celebrations are scheduled for cities and towns across the country, including the annual event hosted by Mesa. On the schedule this year is a parade in the downtown area that starts at 11 a.m. and is followed by a festival at the Mesa Arts Center that ends at 4 p.m. The festivities move into the night with the high school basketball tournament at Grand Canyon University in Phoenix that wraps up at 8 p.m. A complete list of activities is available at mesamlk.org.
“Ever year it’s gotten bigger and better,” said committee board member and city park ranger John Goodie.
Highlighting this year’s event though is the completion of a project the city’s MLK Committee has worked on for several years: the unveiling of a street named after King. Dubbed MLK Way, the street will replace the street formally known as 3rd Place, which is located right off East University Drive.
The decision to rename 3rd Place came during a Mesa City Council meeting in December in a unanimous 7-0 vote.
“We’re very happy the City Council decided to vote for the street name initiative, and to have them do that unanimously was icing on the cake,” said MLK Committee chairperson Cliff Moon.
The rocky history
of MLK Day
Mesa’s history of race relations is a microcosm of what the state and nation have undergone in their respective histories. So too, is the history tied of the day recognizing Martin Luther King, Jr. It started on the national level with a campaign to create a federal holiday to honor him that started in the months following his death. According to a 2010 Time article, the push by Coretta Scott King and others to get Congress to pass a bill on it took 15 years and included advocacy by President Jimmy Carter, Stevie Wonder, Michigan Congressman John Conyers Jr., and three million people who signed a petition in support of it.
It took three years after the House of Representatives approved it for the bill to pass the Senate — Sen. Jesse Helms, a Republican from North Carolina, offered a strong resistance to it — but it finally passed in 1983 and was first recognized in 1986.
The vote in the House of Representatives back in 1980 was 338 in favor and 90 opposed, although one of those 90 congressmen was future Sen. John McCain. McCain has stepped back from his original opposition, but it proved to be a harbinger for Arizona’s reaction to MLK Day.
Even with the federal approval, Arizona legislators decided to rescind the holiday shortly thereafter, according to a 2013 UPI article. The decision led to massive blow back, with the state undergoing a large-scale boycott in 1987, and a reversal of the decision came in 1992 due to concerns about losing future Super Bowl hosting bids.
The result made Arizona one of the last states in the country to recognize the holiday, and Moon said the lateness of the approval is one of the factors that made the Mesa council’s decision so momentous.
“That certainly played a role in it,” he said.
Segregation in Mesa
There are a number of reasons why 3rd Place’s renaming is so important to Mesa. They range from the efforts put in by the committee members to a backing from people like former Mayor Wayne Brown and Councilmember Jerry Boyd — Goodie said it took a village to get to this point — to the connection with the committee’s history. Goodie said a building located right behind 3rd Place was hosted the MLK Committee’s very first meeting.
“We wanted somewhere that had significance to the holiday,” Moon said of the site.
But the significance of that site extends into the uglier side of the city’s past, as the street, Goodie said, used to host Rendezvous Park — a segregated swimming pool reserved for the city’s black, Native American and Latino population. According to the Arizona Museum of Natural History, a number of residents formed the Better Community Council in 1953 to eliminate the segregation in the town’s public facilities and restaurants, and the committee’s efforts did lead to the integration of Rendezvous Park’s swimming pool.
A better future
There’s no excuse for the actions that created the environment, and there’s still work to do in the quest to find a level of equality among men and women of every ilk. It’s also vital that the city and its residents never elide over the darker chapters of Mesa’s history.
The committee, though, was a positive arbiter for how Mesa has changed over the course of 60 years, with Moon saying the city has made sizable gains in those regards since the Better Community Council’s formation.
Monday’s unveiling represents another step in that direction and honors the legacies of not just King, but the many, many people who strived to forge a local tie to one of history’s great figures.
“Just to see MLK Way come to be in Mesa, I’ll cry. I’m a big guy, but I’ll cry,” Goodie said.
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