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Tape Number: XV, Side One
March 27, 1987
Now, when did you first conceive of the idea of changing the name of the street to Martin Luther King [Jr.] Boulevard?
Well, I felt that there was a clear need with the  Olympics coming to Los Angeles for us to have an opportunity to display
to the international community that Martin Luther King [Jr.] was a major factor as far as Los Angeles is concerned. Obviously,
Los Angeles had already a very enviable reputation as far as a good place to live, a reasonably integrated type of society.
[There was] the opportunity for it to be measured on a multiethnic basis as a standard for the world. But there was no street
here of any significance that was named after a black. There was a small cul-de-sac that was named Rochester Drive, or whatever
it was [Rochester Circle], that was over between Western Avenue and Arlington [Avenue] that had been put there. Rochester
[real name Eddie Anderson] having been somewhat of a local guy on the Jack Benny Show and he had a beautiful home and so that
cul-de-sac was named after him. The other street that had been named was Medgar Evers [Avenue]. There was a very small street
in the Watts community that was named there. There was a street that was named very close to what was then Santa Barbara Avenue
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that was named after Speedy Curtis. Roland [J.] "Speedy" Curtis was an activist; a political activist in this community. He
attended USC [University of Southern California]. He was a graduate from there, and he had run the Model Cities Program in
Los Angeles at one time when Sam [Samuel W.] Yorty was mayor, and he had made an impact. He had also worked for one of the
city council-persons and made an impact. He was killed in his home. The crime was never solved. One of the ways of perpetuating
his legacy was to rename the street that he lived on. Very short. You'd go by it, you'd never hardly notice it.
What we had to have was something that would be important. We had to have something that was politically feasible and I began
to look around at various streets. I looked at Exposition Boulevard, which went to the [Los Angeles] Memorial Coliseum and
had been used in the 1932 Olympics as the final leg going to the Coliseum just as it is in today's L.A. marathon. I looked
at Western Avenue, and I looked at Crenshaw [Boulevard]. Crenshaw seemed too remote, and when I looked at Western Avenue,
which is the longest major arterial street that cuts through the black community and possibly one of the longest streets in
Los Angeles, it became politically impossible to deal with
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it. It goes through too many different jurisdictions that were involved. I did not feel that we would be able to present a
good case if we had a street that was named Martin Luther King till it got to 117th Street, and when it got to 117th Street,
it went back to Western Avenue. So, it became necessary to— I took a very hard look at Central Avenue, because it went through
Compton, and I figured that it might be politically possible to pick up Compton. The street that I had lived on which was
right here which was Santa Barbara— When I say lived, this is where my business is, and I have owned my business location
here since 1968, and of course, you frequently overlook the things that are closest to you. I began to analyze Santa Barbara
Avenue. It had all of the trappings that I was interested in. Number one, it went by the Coliseum. The Coliseum was going
to be where the action would be in 1984. If we were able to turn this, it would mean that every map in the free world and
some other worlds for better would have to reflect the name of Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard. Incidentally, I started out
with avenue and later it was changed in one of the city council meetings to boulevard. At night when I would leave my office,
I would drive the entire length, and it stays inside of the city from beginning to end. That means one political forum could
make the determination. I noticed the demographics that
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were involved as far as the street itself were concerned. It had turned industrial further over on the east side, which was
in councilman Gilbert [W.] Lindsay's area. I knew that there might be some difficulties because businesses by and large had
already made a vested interest in publicizing the street that they were on through business cards, stationery, advertising,
telephone directories, all kinds of other things that they have done. So they have an interest in stability. The next thing
that I noticed was that there had been a major change in turn. On the east side of it as far as the residential aspects were
concerned, instead of it being totally black, it was much more Mexican that were involved. I had some difficulty determining
whether or not there were a significant number of Central Americans in the area, El Salvadoreans and Nicaraguans and also
South Americans. Now, these people, of course, have different cultures but speak the same language. Well, I parked over there
several times. Went over, talked to people, stopped at the chicken place, stopped at the hamburger place. I did my own personal
survey, and every time I'd come downtown I would touch some part of this district. I looked at the Leimert Park area. The
Leimert Park area, which I was at one time quoted as calling the black Hancock Park, I knew that this was an area where the
socioeconomic level of the people
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there was absolutely at one of the highest levels and it was one of the most stable communities that the black community has
ever known regardless of the city. And I said, well, there are going to be some problems along here, but then on the other
hand, maybe these people won't be that concerned about it, and being Martin Luther King, I'm sure that they'll kind of make
the concession. I went further over and I took a look at Broadway, May Company, going through the Crenshaw shopping center.
Crenshaw shopping center, of course, was the first major shopping center of its type in America, and it was beginning to slightly
decay in relation to the newer shopping centers. I had, you know, a concern about that. I looked at the Ralphs grocery store
and I stopped in and I talked to the manager there, and it just so happens that if I go far enough back, when I went to grad
school, another person who was in grad school happened to be the vice president— In fact, I believe he was, if I'm not mistaken,
the number two man in the whole Ralphs operation. He was the CEO [chief executive officer]. Anyway, I chatted with him to
see whether, you know, and the guy at Ralphs, who was the manager at that time, told me, "Well, we're satisfied with it like
it is, but if you think that it would be of interest to change it, we won't oppose it." I stopped in and I began to talk to
some Asian business people. The
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Asian, a Japanese guy, who owned the liquor store, and his answer was, "Well, Mr. King, if you want to make that effort, we
will support it." I stopped in at a couple of gas stations owned by Koreans, and the Koreans said, "If Martin Luther King
is your hero, the hero of the black people, it's fine with us." The point I'm bringing out here is that I had no problem with
the Asians in connection with relating it to being in [honor to a] black hero martyr. None at all. The Asians all just right
down the line supported it, which is not necessarily the image that you run into in terms of Asian people and support. I then
looked out and I said, well, now, whose turf is this? We had four city councilmen that touch Santa Barbara Avenue from one
end to the other end: Gil [Gilbert W.] Lindsay, Bob [Robert C.] Farrell, Dave [David S.] Cunningham at that time, who later
resigned, and Pat Russell. So, I decided that the best thing for me to do was to talk to the person that I thought was the
most sensitive and would give me the most cooperation. Not for a moment that I thought that the others would not. I decided
to open up my little campaign. I also looked at the state level, and I noticed that when [Gwen] Moore had a touch of it with
her Forty-ninth Assembly District. Diane [E.] Watson with the Twenty-eighth Senatorial [District] had a touch of it. Teresa
[P.] Hughes had a touch of it. Julian [C.] Dixon
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had a piece of it with his Twenty-eighth Congressional [District]. Also Gus [Augustus F.] Hawkins had a piece of it, so I
decided that I could not overlook anyone.
Now, when you did all this preliminary, you know walking the streets, what year was this? Was this '83? Was this—
I think it was '82.
When you sort of officially opened your campaign, what period was that approximately?
I think I sent the letter to Bob Farrell in 1982. I'm going to look that letter up. I guess it has some historical significance
I wrote a letter and the letter was probably not more than twenty lines, and in that two paragraphs: one was, you know, a
hello Bob approach, and the second was, I ask him if he would carry a piece of city legislation, an ordinance, to change the
name of the street. And I mailed it to Bob. Now, at this point I made all of these assessments and I decided it could conceivably
be a little bit of a problem, but the immediate response was so favorable until I said, "Hey, this is going to be a piece
of cake." Little did I know what I was facing. Very little did I know. People came out of the woodwork. The Hispanic folks
came out because they thought Santa Barbara
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had something to do with their heritage.
I went to the library and spent time, because I needed to find out something about Santa Barbara, even though my business
had been located on the street since 1968. I found out I didn't know as much as I wanted to know or needed to know. A group
was formed to counter the change and they called public meetings in connection with it, and what had to happen was we either
had to fight the situation politically or kind of forget it.
Did this opposition group formalize itself? Did it have a name of any kind, or was it just sort of a coalition?
It ended up a coalition of groups, and at that particular point, there were a number of meetings that were called, and what
I decided was that I would deal with each individual meeting.
And every meeting that was there in opposition, my voice was heard and support and let's move on it.
Do you recall some of the more prominent sort of leadership that was opposed to the idea?
Well, it was basically block clubs, and it was all long-time ownership people, and I think that the one thing that— One of
the things that helped me was that the people
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in the area that was east of Crenshaw to about Arlington, basically—that group of people just felt that it was not going to
go through. I did my little sample down there, and they were satisfied that there was no victory that was going to be forthcoming.
Those are the people who did have much more political influence and they decided to sit the game out. I recognized that so
I did nothing to kind of infuriate those folks. I felt that I had to pick up the political support because ultimately it was
going to be a political decision. So, I spent times speaking with Pat Russell, who supported it one hundred ten percent with
Dave Cunningham, who supported it, and with Gil Lindsay. Now, Gil had more of a problem than anyone, because of the fact that
his area was no longer predominantly black residential that was touching the street. We went in front of the city council
and we asked for a waiver so that the matter could avoid going through the committee process. That was an effort, and, of
course, when we saw that we were losing on that, we decided to go through the process. Now, I know city hall very well. I
ran for city council in 1973 in the Tenth District. That was the district that Tom [Thomas] Bradley formerly had, and a number
of people ran. I was a city commissioner for five years, and at Cal State LA [California State University, Los Angeles] I
taught community politics which involved the whole hierarchy and
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the political process as it applied to city, county, state, and federal, as it impacted on local communities. So, I knew it
inside and out. I knew what had to be done and how to do it. So, with Bob Farrell's assistance and with the assistance of
SCLC [Southern Christian Leadership Conference]— They came in very, very supportive. Reverend [James] Lawson, who is the chairman
of the board, and Mark Ridley-Thomas, who is the executive director, appeared time after time in a support role. So, SCLC
was a major factor. I got good cooperation out of the Los Angeles NAACP [National Association for the Advancement of Colored
People], having spent a great number of years in that organization, and I was in the NAACP for some fifteen years before I
became Los Angeles chapter president. So, I had very good roots there. John [W.] Mack with the Urban League was very supportive.
When the going got tough, a woman who helped probably as much or more than anyone was Gwen [Gwendolyn] Greene. Gwen Greene
was and is on Bob Farrell's staff, and going back years ago was the executive secretary for the Los Angeles branch of NAACP
during the early sixties and traveled with the King entourage for years and this was a very important and close project for
her. She is the person who, along with Harold Washington— Harold Washington is the developer of the senior citizens building
that is behind the May Company on Marlton [Avenue]
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over there. You've seen that I assume. Huge place.
Okay. Well, they appeared in front of the Crenshaw Chamber of Commerce and picked up the backing of the Crenshaw Chamber of
Commerce, and Harold Washington went over and spoke with the people who operate the May Company and who operate the Broadway
and other business in there and nullified a lot of the opposition in connection with name change. When we went in front of
the city council committee, and I believe we had two hearings in front of committees, the first hearing in front of a committee
they really tried to derail the whole situation. It was suggested that number one, that Santa Barbara isn't big enough for
a giant like Martin Luther King. That it ought to be the Century Freeway, which politically has been entangled in the quagmire
for the last fifteen years and they haven't been able to get me on any street or freeway named Century. You know, it had been
hung up in the federal courts, and finally the mandate order— And of course, politically you're looking at fifteen separate
jurisdictions that touch that freeway. So, politically that was impossible, but that was one of the devices that was used.
One of the city councilmen who was very much opposed to this—the gentleman is deceased now—represented the Pacoima area [Howard
Finn]. He was very much opposed
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to the idea. He had a large black constituency in the Pacoima area, and I told him. I said, "Listen that's my turf out there.
I said I've been going back and forth to Pacoima since I was a teenager. I got a lot of depth out there and I want to let
you know that the people that are out there are going to be aware of your position." We got into a major confrontation in
connection with it, and I summarily rejected every recommendation that he made. This, of course, was being noted by the reporters,
etc., and the cameras were around and— Anyway, to make a long story short, they said that it would cost, and the figures that
they gave were unbelievable to change the name. The figures started with fifty thousand and went all the way to a million
dollars. They talked about the fact that all the maps would have to be changed locally. The problems for the post office department,
and we'd already gotten an okay from the post office department. The post office department said we don't care what you call
it. We're going to deliver the mail. We don't care if it's addressed to Santa Barbara or to King Boulevard, we're still going
to deliver the mail, and that other streets had changed and find they still deliver the mail. We tried to nullify all of those
things. They talked about the number of hours that it would take in order to change them. They talked about the fact that
the state would have to change the
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signs on the freeway and that Cal Trans [California Department of Transportation] did not have the money in order to do that.
It went on and on and on. Not too long after that, a front-page article L.A. Times review section was blasting me. I'm supposed
to be a conservative businessman in the community and I am suggesting that taxpayers' money be used to change the name of
the street and on and on and on. Now, my basic constituency, of course, is the business community. The fact that I am concerned
with reasonable community services for reasonable amounts of taxpayer dollars. The entire— In a sense the broad civil rights
movement going further than just a civil rights. The training programs and those kind of things. So, attacks were beginning
to level. Some of the attacks were that I wanted to change the name of the street because it was my name. A lot of people
had forgotten all of the effort that I had been involved in during the rights movement, and it didn't start in the sixties.
It started in the forties with me. As a kid that's when I got involved in the movement situation. So, all of those things
just focused on to this one situation. Well, we made it through. They had a large crowd of people even at the preliminary
kind of hearings. Now, I knew then that I had to really do some things that would be helpful because one of the things that
came out of this was that a survey
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was to be taken by the city to see what the people that were affected had to say. That meant that the city was going to send
out eighteen thousand mailers to do a survey. Now, eighteen thousand may not be the exact figure. It's been a long time, but
anyway, what they did was they went to the [Los Angeles City] Department of Water and Power and they got the address and phone
number of every person who owns property on Santa Barbara and then it was broadened out a little bit maybe a block each way
all the way across. So, because I know and understand the system and because I was privy with the method that they were going
to use for the survey, what we did was we put some people on the street to cover this area door to door from one end to the
other end, and we put together a mailer and we sent a mailer out and the mailer went to every person that the Department of
Water and Power was going to—that came off that list—and our mailer hit the people before the city's mailer, which was their
survey piece. Now, we felt that amount of the sample that they were going to end up with in terms of the response was going
to be very low unless we went out there and asked those people to affirmatively respond. When the sample came back, everyone
was surprised at the results of the survey because we won hands down. Now, the reason why we won was because we worked. It
was almost a full-time job. I spent money out
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of my pocket. On one occasion I went to Sacramento. I appeared in front of the black caucus up there, and the black legislators
made my presentation. A number of the legislators were greatly concerned that this might be in jeopardy and they gave enthusiastic
support, and the caucus itself wrote members of the city council requesting a yes vote in connection with the matter. Well,
going back to my old community days, I still know that it's a good idea to fill up the city council with concerned people.
So, I got in touch with Richard Jones, who's affiliated with Second Baptist Church. By the way, he was a former deputy under
Sam Yorty and the mayor's office and presently is a commissioner, a state commissioner, on aging. An activist in the religious
community and he was on staff, part-time staff, at Second Baptist Church. Second Baptist Church having been the citadels for
many, many of the places—many, many of the activities took place at Second Baptist.
So Reverend Thomas Kilgore [Jr.] was very much involved.
I talked directly to Tom in connection with it, who is a neighbor of mine. Tom was very supportive in connection with it.
We went to almost every group that we could go to. At that time the Black Agenda [Inc.] was surfacing and they were— They
had a large membership at that point. The Black Agenda endorsed it. I went to front
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room clubs. Everyplace that anybody would hear me. Old clubs, new clubs, whatever. We— Everyday, when I came in, I just had
a flat approach. I have a reverse telephone directory. So, I would just go down there and everyday I would call twenty-five
people, and anybody I could find that would come in, I would say, here, would you call five people, and I'd give them the
list. We would go down the list and just hundreds and hundreds of calls we were able to make. I ran it as a campaign. I went
to the L.A. Sentinel.
was supportive in connection with the matter. We went to the Wave
newspaper. They were supportive. The [Los Angeles] Herald-Dispatch;
they were supportive. Every black newspaper. The ACC,
which is a very important paper. That's Reverend Thomas's paper and it is circulated in the churches on Sunday morning.
What does ACC stand for?
It stands for— I'll have to look at the paper. Jesus, it's ACC News. It's A Corporation for Christ.
But it is the population that they touch that makes it so important. It goes directly to the churches and that's where it's
distributed every Sunday. So, that was important. There are two major preachers associations. I appeared in front of both
of those preacher groups and they probably represented about 350 preachers in the black
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community, and I picked up 100 percent endorsement.
So, when we went to war, we went with 350 preachers and busloads of people. When we showed up at the city hall, there was
not even standing room. People were out in the hall. That was when this matter came up. It was covered as a major political
event. All of this was something that I thought would quietly just slide through and it would go through very easily. At that
particular point, the opposition, too, was there, and they had some homeowner people, and people who'd been living in the
area. And there were a number of whites that were involved and these white people were showing up because they were opposed
to Martin Luther King.
It is difficult to change a tradition. Santa Barbara Avenue has been here a long time. So, even my spouse [Anita Givens King]
told me. She says, "You're going to run into trouble with that." And she's a native of Los Angeles and grew up just a few
blocks off Santa Barbara. She says, "You think that's going to be an easy one." She says, "You're going to be in for a surprise."
And she said, "All of my generation. We all grew up walking across Santa Barbara, and you're just going to find there's a
lot of latent opposition." And, of course, I kind of laughed it off. It was over breakfast, and I said this is not
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to be any problem. Now, we get down there. By this time the group has grown that is in opposition. I know a lot of these people
personally on a one-to-one basis. I've lived in this community the big end of my life, and you know, I still did not have
enough of an understanding as to why people would have such sincere opposition. Of course, I wasn't interested in burning
any bridges because I still live out here. I just take positions from time to time. That's one thing, basically, about people
who are in business. They do take positions, and you have to make choices and you have to make decisions on a daily basis.
So I was looking at it from the fact that this is good black business. It's important.
We got a list of the cities. Every other city that had a Martin Luther King street, and surprisingly, it wasn't as high as
I thought it was in terms of the numbers. Many have come along after the Los Angeles situation. Even though cities like Chicago
had South Park Way, which was changed to Martin Luther King Drive, and Atlanta, of course, had one. But, you know, there were
many, many other places that didn't. Since then, Houston has put one in and just numerous cities throughout the country. Well,
this began to pick up national attention, and I could not imagine why it was becoming such a cause célèbre. It did not seem
to me to be that big of an issue.
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Now, when the people came in, one of the problems that was developing was the level of seriousness of these people. They did
not want to lose. When we finally got it passed, we had then appeared in front of the full council on three occasions. Major
legislation does not require over two appearances in front of the city council. Three times. When we finally won, the situation
that I described to you before was we brought Jesse [L.] Jackson in to speak. We had Stevie Wonder. We had the most prestigious
preachers in this town; those that were bishops. We had the top business people in the black community there to testify. We
had everything that you could put together in terms of making an excellent package, and we made our presentation. We did,
in fact, win. I must say that Jesse Jackson was extremely helpful when he came in. He was ushered in the back way. There was
no way to get through hardly in the council anyway. It was tight. I ushered him in the back way, and Jesse's comment to the
city council was that Martin Luther King [Jr.] is a man who had changed this country from having an image of ill repute to
a point of good repute. I can't think of the exact quotation, but Jesse's great for these one-liners, and the one that he
stated was magnificent. All right? Stevie, too, was good in his low, slow voice as he brought [it] out. It was a celebrity
day, and hey, we won.
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So, when we won, I knew that there was going to be a big move that would be moving towards the mayor not to sign, because
this was likewise an affluent group. So, understanding the processes then, I did not leave city hall. I let the other people
walk out, and when the auditorium cleared, I went up to the then acting mayor, who was Joel Wachs, who was president of the
city council, and I refreshed his memory that he is the mayor and that I wanted him to sign the ordinance now, which would cut off any activity of people lobbying Tom Bradley not to sign it. Not that I had felt that there was any problem
with Tom doing it—not at all. That was not it. But then, on the other hand, I wanted to be sure that I could close this off.
Right, because you're never sure.
Talked to him and finally he said okay. Gil Lindsay was still there and, of course, Bob Farrell was still there, and I hollered
out, you know, to them, "Come on!" And a city hall photographer was still there. We moved the ordinance over, and we set it
at the main council table there. Joel Wachs was getting ready to sign the ordinance. I said, "Joel, would you mind using my
fifteen-cent pen?" The pen that's got on it "Bail Bonds—24-hour service" and the phone number. [laughs] I tossed it to him.
And he said, "Sure, I'll be glad to do that, Celes."
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What date was that?
The date is right here on the ordinance. Let me get up.