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Erik Burgess, Published January 20 2013

Despite efforts, no street in North Dakota bears name of civil rights leader MLK

FARGO - By some estimates, iconic civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. has more than 900 streets across the nation named for him.

Not a single one is in North Dakota.

There have been at least two efforts to name Fargo roadways for King in recent years. Barry Nelson led the charge in 2005, when he was a member of Fargo’s Human Relations Commission.

Nelson’s attempt to have the Fargo and West Fargo border street renamed for King was shot down by the West Fargo City Commission, which cited concerns about renaming an established corridor.

In 2010, another commission member tried to get the First Avenue North bridge renamed for King, with no luck.

“I guess maybe the message was received,” Nelson said. “ ‘We don’t want a street named after Martin Luther King, period. In Fargo (or) West Fargo.’ And I think that’s rather sad.”

Veterans instead

When Nelson pushed the West Fargo City Commission to name what is now Veterans Boulevard after King, that road still had two names. It was Ninth Street East in West Fargo and 57th Street South in Fargo.

Renaming the street not only would be convenient, Nelson thought, but it would memorialize an iconic national figure.

But his idea was met resistance.

“It was as. mundane as, ‘If you change an existing street name, it would be too expensive for everybody to change their letterhead,’ ” Nelson said.

That argument is commonly used when people don’t want a road named for King, says Derek Alderman, a professor of cultural geography at University of Tennessee.

Alderman wrote his dissertation on the politics of naming streets for King, and has researched the subject since the mid-’90s.

“There’s no doubt. There are economic costs to changing one’s address,” Alderman said. “But I always qualify that by saying, as well, there are creative ways within cities to mitigate and buffer that cost for businesses.”

Many cities have found ways to name a street for King while still preserving the old name in some way, he said.

In Chapel Hill, N.C., when Airport Road was renamed for King, the signage still noted that it was “Historic Airport Road.” Other cities have rededicated a road in honor of King while keeping the original name.

The argument that changing one’s address is too burdensome is sometimes just a guise for deeper fears, according to Alderman.

There’s a history of opposition to naming roads for King, oftentimes by businesses along the proposed thoroughfares or residents who think the value of their home would decrease.

Because of this, King’s name has historically been placed on roads that run through poorer, more downtrodden neighborhoods, Alderman said. Over time, it created a false stigma – a road named for King will hurt property values and bring crime and drugs into the area.

“It’s amazing how, even though a lot has changed since the Civil Rights movement or because of the Civil Rights movement, there’s still some of these lingering anxieties,” Alderman said.

First Avenue bridge

When David Danbom was on the Fargo Human Relations Commission in 2010, he figured it would be easier to get a bridge renamed instead of a road.

“There were complaints. People who lived on it would have to have a change of address,” Danbom said. “Well, I thought, nobody lives on a bridge.”

He began pushing to put King’s name on the First Avenue North bridge between Fargo and Moorhead, but he soon realized it was a much more complicated task than he first thought. Bridges are state property, so not only would both cities have to agree to the change, both legislatures would have to as well.

Danbom ran out of time. He was in the process of retiring from North Dakota State University after 36 years as a history professor. Shortly after, he left the state.

Had the matter ever been brought before the North Dakota Legislature, he speculates it would’ve gotten some kick back.

“North Dakota was fairly slow among the states to declare Martin Luther King Day a state holiday,” Danbom said. “I remember some of the debate in the Legislature at that time revolved around, basically, ‘What has Martin Luther King ever done for us?’ ”

Alderman said that argument also is common among those who oppose naming a street for King, and it often veils deeper anxieties about cultural identity, Alderman said.

That doesn’t mean North Dakotans are racist, Alderman said.

“Some people are concerned about, if you name a street for King, does that change the racial identity of that street?” Alderman said. “It certainly could be interpreted as racist, but it probably also reveals some deeper anxieties and some issues about the fact that people don’t identify with King.”

No easy task

The Human Relations Commission has no current plans to lobby for a street named after King.

Current chairman David Lanpher says the board is focusing on other issues, such as making sure the city is compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act.

“If it could be easily done, that’s one thing, but it’s really hard on a bridge to get two legislatures to agree to do that,” Lanpher said. “That’s just a huge hurdle for volunteers to work on.”

Lanpher said that getting something named for King does seem to be a challenge in North Dakota.

“There’s not one street, one bridge, one anything named after Martin Luther King anywhere in our state,” he said. “So there’s not any kind of precedent to have that like there is for Kennedy or other well-known political figures.”

Both Nelson and Danbom hope someone will pick up the issue again soon.

“Fargo takes a lead on so many things in the state of North Dakota,” Danbom said. “I hope it still happens, and I hope they embrace it again.”

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Readers can reach Forum reporter Erik Burgess at (701) 241-5518