What’s in a Name?


Have you ever wondered how certain buildings and streets in Chicago got their names? Who is responsible for enacting these changes and who deems these individuals worthy of such an honor? I wonder how, for example, Chicago received its very own Martin Luther King Drive.

First, a little history lesson.

For many Chicagoans, the name Richard J. Daley is synonymous with city pride and putting family first. But for others, it connotes fear, paranoia, inequality and institutional racism. Former Mayor Daley was not an articulate man and could often be labeled as intolerant, suspicious and conniving, resulting in a legacy that many refer to as one of Machine and Plantation politics.

However, many other politicians and constituents from the Richard J. Daley era romanticized his reign as one of progress and equal opportunity.

But who were the people benefitting most from Daley’s blessings?

Benefactors included family members, friends and anyone he could fit into his Michigan Avenue tailored suit pocket. Yet what about the thousands of people that Daley’s Machine left behind? What about the residents who felt trapped and corralled in certain sections of the community?

According to Daley, Chicago recognized every man regardless of race. He also felt that all were entitled to rights as stated in the U.S. Constitution and the Constitution of Illinois.

I am sure he felt that warm and fuzzy feeling of equal rights when two male African American college students were escorted out of their Bridgeview home because rioters threw bottles through their windows and threatened their lives because of their attempts to integrate the neighborhood.

All of this happened less than 350 feet away from Daley’s home and he never said a word; he just stayed inside. But according to him, Chicago was the land of harmony. This incident was among a long pattern of events that proved Chicago had a problem with blacks moving into predominantly white areas.

Some might say segregation lurked in the shadows, but for many blacks, segregation presented itself like a loud clap of thunder. If Chicago stood for inclusion, why did Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. come to Chicago in 1966 to address issues of exclusion?

Housing discrimination was a hot button topic for many Chicagoans and Dr. King thought he could come to Chicago and reason with Mayor Daley. Dr. King was not ready for the awaiting lesson in pure uncut racism served “Chicago style.”

Daley did not greet King warmly. He did not like outsiders pointing out Chicago’s faults. Mayor Daley said, “Maybe he doesn’t have all the facts. He is a resident of another city.” During demonstrations that targeted blatant discrimination in housing, Dr. King was taunted, ridiculed and eventually hit in the head with a rock by protestors.

Dr. King later said, “I have to do this, expose myself, to bring this hate into the open. I have seen many demonstrators in the South, but I have never seen anything so hostile and so hateful as I’ve seen here today in Chicago.”

Daley fought to limit freedom marches that took place in white neighborhoods. He claimed it was for the protection of both black and white communities. His refusal to meet with Dr. King meant he could avoid having to acknowledge that Chicago had deep-rooted racial tension. But Daley eventually succumbed to pressure and came to the negotiating table. The result was a “summit agreement” which King called “the most significant program ever conceived to make open housing a reality in a metropolitan area.”

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. met with Mayor Richard J.. Daley in City Hall March 24, 1966 | Photos from the archives Sun-Times
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. met with Mayor Richard J.. Daley in City Hall March 24, 1966 | Photos from the archives Sun-Times

Though the agreement resulted in some positive concessions and benefits, the campaign did not achieve the full impact desired by the Chicago Freedom Movement.

Would you believe me if I told you that we have Richard J. Daley to thank for changing South Park Boulevard to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Drive in 1968 after Dr. King’s assassination?

Beginning just south of East Cermak Road and four blocks east of South Michigan Avenue, King Drive stretches to 115th Street. The street mainly runs through black South Side neighborhoods from Bronzeville to Roseland, spanning 14 miles. Is it a coincidence that King Drive runs through predominantly black neighborhoods?

There were suggestions that the street chosen cut through the whole city, but Daley wouldn’t hear of it. He knew that in white neighborhoods, street signs would be defaced or destroyed. After all, people were seen merely as voters and somehow, he had to appease both black and white citizens.

When the Democratic National Convention was on its way to Chicago in 1968, Daley was most concerned about the black constituents of Chicago disturbing the convention. His paranoia was fueled by the devastating West Side riots that had taken place earlier that year in the wake of the April assassination of Dr. King. During those riots, he gave the infamous order to “Shoot to kill, shoot to maim” rioters.

Daley’s shrewdness birthed a plan he thought would placate black community members. On August 1, 1968, the City Council passed the motion to rename South Park Boulevard to Dr. Martin Luther King Drive. In Mike Royko’s biography on Daley, the former mayor explained that he and Dr. King shared a wonderful friendship and shared a mutual understanding of each other. He went on further to say that Dr. King complimented his work for the city.

Many in the black community saw the move to rename South Park Boulevard as “tokenism.” Aldermen A.A. Rayner and Leon Despres were the most vocal about the renaming. Rayner said that the move “exemplifies the attitude of give them a bone, throw them some crumbs.” He went as far as to urge citizens of the black community to call the mayor and councilmen to demand more than just a street name. They wanted tangible social change for people of color. He wanted them to send letters voicing their disapproval before voting on the street occurred.

“An honor more worthy of King’s sacrifice would have been to change Chicago’s embattled school system.”

Some said the honor was not significant enough. Dr. King was assassinated for his beliefs and a street named after him could not begin to repay his sacrifice. Despite Dr. King’s outreach for a meeting with the Chicago City Council, a request that was unlikely to be fulfilled and eventually impossible following his assassination, the council named a street after him.

An honor more worthy of King’s sacrifice would have been to change Chicago’s embattled school system. Dr. King would surely have been proud of changes to housing restrictions and discrimination as well.

While King Drive stood as a beacon of hope for many in a time passed long ago, it is nevertheless a street in a racially divided Chicago where black folks are still corralled in certain areas of town and our public school system is on financial life support. Going forward, we need to be more mindful of what’s in a name and press our politicians to truly honor public leaders with policy change and public improvement that bespeaks the power of their life’s work.


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