On January 15, 1984, hundreds of singing and chanting people walk from Seattle's Mount Zion Baptist Church to the intersection of E Cherry Street and Martin Luther King Jr. Way. For the diverse crowd, this anniversary both celebrates the achievements of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. (1929-1968) and marks the end of a long legal battle to rename Empire Way for the slain civil rights leader. In 1981, a simple idea of renaming a major artery in southeast Seattle sparked a heated, citywide debate. Despite unanimous approval from the city council and mayor, the 1982 ordinance to alter utility bills, maps, forms, marketing material, and street signs was delayed for nearly two years by a legal case brought by 36 merchants with establishments along the artery. The merchants voiced concern for the expense of the name change and challenged the ability of the City to pass the legislation without public referendum. Finally, after losing their case in the Washington State Supreme Court in December 1983, the merchants decided not to appeal. The city swiftly manufactured some 500 street signs and managed to put them up before the January 15 deadline.
A Simple, Inspired Thought
Inspired by a national movement to commemorate the efforts of Martin Luther King Jr., Eddie Rye Jr. circulated a petition for the renaming of Empire Way early in 1981. The artery had been named after James J. Hill (1838-1916), a railroad magnate described as “the empire builder.” No longer an industrial corridor, Empire Way stretched for eight miles in southeast Seattle with garages, grocery stores, small businesses, and national companies lining its sidewalks. The artery served as “the backbone of a thriving residential community” of diverse cultures including Seattle families spanning several generations as well as immigrants from Africa, the Middle East, and Asia and the South Pacific (Davila). With the easing of housing restrictions in the 1970s, a growing African American population also lived and worked along Empire Way.
Rye’s petition collected 4,000 signatures, and during a January meeting in 1981, he presented the idea to the City Council, including members Norm Rice (b. 1943) and George Benson (1919-2004). Rye argued that the cost of the project amounted to very little in the municipal budget and quipped, “We’re talking about as much money as the Washington Public Power Systems spends in 5 minutes” (“Compromise on Renaming Empire Way”). Opponents of the idea also attended the meeting and suggested naming a park or structure in honor of King, instead of forcing business owners to spend extra money.
From Petition to Law
On July 19, 1982, the City Council unanimously voted to rename Empire Way, despite persistent opposition from some citizens. In the lead-up to the decision, the City estimated that the manufacture and labor of replacing signs would cost $53,000, with $61,000 in additional costs related to the reproduction of maps, billing statements, and other literature. The City indicated that money for the expense would come from an emergency fund but expected that fundraising would replace the spent monies.
After the approval of the City Council, Mayor Charles Royer (b. 1939) conveyed his enthusiasm for the new ordinance but stopped short of expressly confirming his intention of signing it. Nevertheless, on July 29, Mayor Royer approved the ordinance. He noted at the signing that the renaming had the value of “dedication to racial equality, to nonviolence, to the brotherhood of all people” (“Royer Approves New Name..."). Because of the emergency designation of the ordinance, the decision became effective immediately and did not require a public vote.
A Divided Community
Although it started out as a simple proposal, the idea of renaming the main artery brought forth an outpouring of opinion from citizens. In the week leading up to the Royer’s approval of the ordinance, the mayor’s office received a notable number of calls, mostly in opposition to the decision. The Seattle Times and Post-Intelligencer presented countless letters from both opponents and proponents. The city seemed locked in a difficult debate. Proponents viewed the renaming as a necessary act of remembrance for the slain leader as well as important gesture of goodwill to a troubled area of Seattle. Many proponents agreed with Rev. Samuel B. McKinney (b. 1926), who viewed the decision as “something that’s long overdue” (“Royer signs and Now It's King Way”). Eddie Rye hoped the gesture would inspire children who walk down the artery every day to seek out information on Martin Luther King.
Most opposing arguments focused on the issue of excessive municipal spending; they considered the renaming to be extraneous and an empty political gesture. These opponents pointed to the economic hardship of the city government including the need for City Council furloughs. Additionally, some opponents viewed the decision as contrary to the ideas of the man it honored. A number of small-business owners on Empire Way challenged the decision due to the expense of adjusting their business forms, signs, letterhead, and billing. Two merchants in particular, Don Heider, owner of the Four Star Building Supply, and Sonny Shernod, owner of a gas station on the street, spoke out against the new legislation. By the time Royer approved the legislation, Heider, Shernod, and others had started investigating the possibility of a lawsuit against the city.
The legal action taken by the merchants cultivated a deeper divide in the southeast Seattle community. Despite objecting simply to the expense of the renaming, Heider and other merchants received threats and allegations of racism by proponents of the decision. Heider pointed out the diversity of the business owners involved in the lawsuit with black and Asian merchants participating. In an effort to rouse public support on the matter, Eddie Rye and other proponents of the ordinance threatened to boycott the stores of the merchants. A local union, the Ship Scalers Union Local 541, distributed fliers in support of the ordinance, since a large number of its minority membership lived along the artery. Another unsigned flier captured the suspicion of racism in its call to not “shop where you can’t get R-E-S-P-E-C-T” (“Fliers Urge Boycott...”). Even a small protest attempted to bar entry into Shernod’s Shell station; however, it attracted only 15 people.
On August 8, 1982, 36 members of the Empire and Graham Merchant Association (later the Empire Merchant Association) filed a lawsuit against the City with the King County Superior Court. Represented by attorney Patrick Sferra, the merchants attempted to bring a restraining order to the decision; however, on August 18, 1982, Judge Jerome Johnson denied the attempt due to an absence of a significant threat of harm.
Additionally, the merchants claimed that the emergency clause in the ordinance, which excused the decision from public vote, was “false and unsubstantiated” (“Suit Filed to Block...”). They demanded a referendum or compensation for the expense of changing their business materials to Martin Luther King Jr. Way. Their attorney Sferra argued that the decision to rename Empire Way was a legislative decision not an administrative one, which rendered it subject to a referendum. City attorney Sean Sheehan countered with several cases in which similar decisions were viewed as administrative acts. On September 27, 1982, King County Judge Peter Steere (1929-2003) ruled that the city did not need to institute a public vote nor pay the merchants compensation. The group of small-business owners decided to appeal to the Washington State Supreme Court, and it took more than a year for the case to be heard.
The Long Wait
As the suit traveled through the court system, the City delayed producing the signs and related materials. This act of prudence on the part of the Mayor’s office spurred some supporters of the law to question the City's commitment. Tom Keefe, Mayor Royer’s spokesman, reiterated the commitment of the City and explained steps taken to “prevent going through the expense twice” (“Street name: Get on with Change to King Way, says William”).
Despite this explanation, some proponents of the decision took matters into their own hands. In November 1983, volunteer from the group August 27 Committee for Jobs, Peace and Freedom affixed stickers to 380 street signs unofficially designating Martin Luther King Jr. Way. The organizers had the silent approval of city officials. One volunteer, Luci Murphy, summed up the frustration of the advocates of the decision and the underlying suspicion of racism: “We are expressing a sense of outrage that Scoop (the late Senator Henry M. Jackson) could get his name on the airport so soon and it has taken 15 years since King was shot.” Then on November 30, 1983, Judge William Williams affirmed the decision of the King County court. The City immediately resumed the manufacture of the new signs, maps, and literature.
After losing in the Supreme Court of Washington State, the group of small-business owners decided not to appeal to a higher court. A de facto spokesman for the group, Don Heider, estimated the name change would cost him $4,000. He criticized the decision as a political gesture which “doesn’t give the black people anything to eat, it doesn’t feed them, it doesn’t house them, it doesn’t do anything for them” (quoted in “The Merchants Decide to Let King Have his Way”).
The End of a Long Journey
On January 15 1984, the diverse crowd of hundreds, including Mayor Charles Royer and Council President Norm Rice, pulled a long yellow rope and unveiled the final street sign to designate the newly renamed Martin Luther King Jr. Way. Speakers at the event recounted the accomplishments of King.
Mayor Royer called for his example to guide the present state of affairs in Seattle, like “divisiveness over the administration of the city’s schools,” as well as the country at a time of nuclear war and economic hardship (“Last Sign...”). Director of the Central Area Motivation Program, Larry Gossett (b. 1945), spoke about his hope for the commemoration to inspire Seattle citizens caught up in a “sense of hopelessness and subservience” ("Last Sign...").