Driving the Dream: Part One

Michigan Road near the Cold Spring intersection

Andrea Morehead/Eyewitness News
Produced by Deshong Perry

Indianapolis - There is a battle brewing along a popular Indianapolis thoroughfare.

The street: Michigan Road. The issue: Renaming it after Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

You've probably driven along Martin Luther King Jr. street at some time.

It begins at 9th Street in downtown Indianapolis, and ends north at 38th Street.

The group pushing for the name change wants to extend King Street up Michigan Road all the way to 96th Street.

The other group opposes the change, saying they would rather honor King another way, and preserve the history of the oldest road in Indiana.

There are nearly 800 streets, roads, avenues and boulevards meant to honor the man whose dream and fight for equality ultimately led to his death. From Harlem to Oakland and Chicago to Indianapolis, Martin Luther King streets provoke passion, controversy and conflict.

Crooked Creek Community Council Vice President Darren Palmer is against the proposal to rename Michigan Road after Dr. King.

"What happens when you change the name of Michigan Road to Dr. King? You do lose a sense of place," he said.

Along Michigan Road, you'll find houses pre-dating the civil war. One of the houses even provided shelter for slaves on the Underground Railroad. Today, Michigan Road is a great melting pot of culture. 

That's one reason proponents like Alain Weber, the Headmaster of the International School, says renaming Michigan Road for King is the simply the right thing to do.

"Because you have an African American neighborhood, you have a very changing corridor where you have a lot of Latino, Latina, Hispanics who are in the area. You have older neighborhoods, historical neighborhoods who are there," said Weber.

Back in 1985 Northwestern Avenue was renamed after Dr. Martin Luther King. It was a proud moment for Indianapolis' Black community. But the area is still in need of revitalization.

But take the same road north of 38th Street and King's name ends where Michigan Road begins. There, you'll find booming businesses, cultural destinations like the Indianapolis Museum of Art and colossal churches.

"I have felt that below 38th Street that the city has possibly forgotten that those people, those houses, those businesses are important to the life of the city," said Bishop T. Garrot Benjamin, who supports the name change. Garrot is the head pastor of Light of the World Christian Church, located at 4750 Michigan Rd. 

"When I go above 38th Street it's almost like you're beginning to breathe fresh air, but the fresh air that you're breathing is that it looks like someone cares about what's above 38th Street," he says.

But for the small business owners who've named their animal hospital, office plaza and auto shop after Michigan Road, changing street signs could mean changing the name of their business, too. One business owner along the road also fears a financial loss.

Aaron Wilson, who owns Floor Masters located at 8290 Michigan Road, says the cost to his business could amount to around $10,000 for changing his stationery, letterhead and billboard advertising.

The Indianapolis Museum of Art would also feel the burden but Marsha Oliver, the museum's Community and Visitor Relations Director, says signing and advertising changes are a small price to pay.

"We think the bigger commitment, the bigger thing that would show would be the fact that we are committed to diversity and committed to our neighborhood," Oliver said.

The King street naming controversy didn't start in Indianapolis. One of the most memorable debates was in Muncie. The 2003 documentary "MLK Boulevard: The Concrete Dream" captured the dialogue between business owner Ed McCloud and documentary maker Marco Williams.

"If I'm the owner and they change the name of this to Martin Luther King Boulevard, I will close this store. That will happen," McCloud said.

"Don't you think that's a little strong or stubborn?" Williams asked.

"Now see, now quit thinking like a Black," McCloud responded.

"I am black," said Williams.

"I know, but I'm trying to change you over here. Martin Luther King, we have a national holiday named after him. We have a street named MLK to him. And that's not enough?" McCloud said.

Just the idea of a street sign is generating a lot of controversy.

So now the question is: What's the best way to honor King's legacy, and at the same time, preserve Indianapolis history?

"There's more than one way to do it," said Darren Palmer. "And the proponents are only proposing one way to do it. It's either you either honor Dr. King this way or you dislike Dr. King, you don't like what he stands for, and you're prejudiced."

Related Links

Crooked Creek Community Council - This group opposes the name change.

Urbanophile - Towards a new vision for Black Indianapolis.

Processes to change street names in Indianapolis:

Memorial Way designation: City code outlines this process, which is all conducted by the City-County Council. This requires 2/3 of the affected property owner's signatures in support of the effort.

Street renaming: The Metropolitan Development Commission may recommend new street names to the Mayor.

Dr. Derek Alderman, King Street renaming expert - See a list of Dr. Alderman's publications on this issue