ola-pla-king-memorial-in-wpb_web.jpgSpecial to South Florida Times

Rickey Pierce of Riviera Beach has a long history with Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard. Today, he co-owns one business adjacent to the street, and he manages several others along the road in Riviera Beach. But 45 years ago, his mother went into labor with him when she worked at a bar on the street.
Back then, it was just known as “8th Street, in the predominantly black area, until the city council voted to rename the street in 1994. But Pierce, like many other residents, says they’re disappointed in the city’s permanent “tribute” to a king! With its combination of modest homes, stretches of vacant lots and some blight, many say the street certainly isn’t the best tribute to the slain civil rights leader, nor is it the best portrayal of a city whose slogan, is “the best waterfront city in which to live, work and play.”

The street was actually chosen for the MLK designation by default. Originally it was proposed that Blue Heron Boulevard, an I-95 exit that runs through the heart of the city, and passes right in front of the city hall complex, was initially selected for the renaming. But many white residents and business owners complained about having to change their business addresses, so the city settled on 8th Street as the next best option.

“If you notice, every city has a Martin Luther King Boulevard, but it’s always the worst street in the city. That’s just my opinion,” said Pierce. But he says that Martin Luther King Boulevard in his city has the potential to be better, if city officials would pay more attention to what the people want.  “It’s not a fitting tribute right now, but it could be,” he said. City officials did  not respond to requests for comment on this story.

Pierce said it’s odd that even the city’s annual Martin Luther King parade isn’t held on the street. “Why can’t they have it on that street? What’s the use in having a street named after him, but you have the parade on Blue Heron? That doesn’t make any sense,” he said.  The annual MLK Parade is held along Blue Heron Blvd. each year, this year on Saturday, Jan. 15. 

The MLK memorial landmark in neighboring West Palm Beach, Pierce said, is a more fitting tribute to King. In 2004, a memorial bust was erected along the Intracoastal Waterway along Flagler Drive, south of Currie Park in West Palm Beach. The Martin Luther King Jr. Landmark features a bust of King reading a Bible. The park contains numerous plaques and photos commemorating Dr. King’s life, family and speeches, interspersed with highlights of the civil rights movement.  The highlights are a bronze sculpture of Dr. King, back dropped by cascading water on a granite wall. Residents can also purchase bricks bearing their names at the monument. It’s the largest of its type in Florida, and is said to be one of the largest memorials commemorating King anywhere in the Southern United States.

Cinthia Becton, co-founder of the Martin Luther King Coordinating Committee in West Palm Beach, was a part of the group responsible for the landmark.  “We were looking at some way to recognize Dr. King in a manner that would be very clear and permanent. So the idea of the monument evolved over time,” she said.

According to Becton, the City of West Palm Beach and private donors paid for the landmark.  A long-time civil rights advocate, a retired teacher, and a former Riviera Beach councilwoman, Becton said while it was important for the group to have a tangible landmark honoring King, critically important too, is keeping King’s dream alive in our communities in ways that impact the people.

“If you have the means of assisting your youth, and your seniors, and you’re not doing that – then where are you?” questioned Becton, a resident of Riviera Beach. When asked how she believes her city is faring with King’s legacy, she said more needs to be done. “I think we’re falling short,” she said.

Becton, 64, said she continues to work with the King committee because she’s been committed to the civil rights struggle all her life. As a teenager she participated in protests, marches, and boycotts and eventually she was the first black graduate from the College of Great Falls, Montana. She says she’s seen the country evolve, but we obviously still have a ways to go. “Looking back over the years and legacy of Dr. King, there’s so much that we still can learn,” she said.

Bobby Powell, 29, is District Assistant for State Representative Mack Bernard, and also business manager for the MLK Committee in West Palm Beach.

“One of the things that has to happen is that people need to be aware of the legacy, and it needs to remain in the forefront so that people can begin to embody that legacy. I believe that to an extent, we have done that, but as with anything, there’s certainly more that can be done,” said Powell.

Daphne Taylor may be reached at daphnetaylor_49@hotmail.com.

Alan Luby/For South Florida Times. Honoring a King: Ola Pla points to King Memorial in West Palm Beach.