After years of heated debate among residents and city officials, the City of Ithaca’s Board of Public Works has decided to honor Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. with a memorial. The MLK Freedom Walkway, which will begin downtown and stretch throughout the city, is the alternative to the original proposal of renaming State Street after King, a proposal that has polarized residents since 2004.
According to Alderperson Gayraud Townsend ’06, (D-4th Ward), the memorial will have a primary walkway station at the west end of the Commons, and may include a statue of King. The station will contain general information and a complete map and will mark the start of a walkway which will contain educational signposts and highlight various places throughout the City with African-American historical significance. The City still has not decided when it will build the memorial.
“Signage on the walkway will illuminate points of African-American history and connect that information to the global cause of social justice to which King dedicated his life. Emphasis will be placed on the meaning of King’s message to our community, our nation and the world at large,” said Townsend, who was part of Ithaca Mayor Carolyn Peterson’s Task Force to find a solution to the controversies.
The original proposal, which was to rename State Street after King, was first brought up and advocated in 2004 by Circle of Recovery, a youth group comprised of students in the Ithaca School District. After the group gathered 1,400 signatures with a petition, Ithaca’s residents became split on the issue.
Some residents saw the proposal as a necessary drastic step in combating racism in the city. Others saw it as a financial repercussion to over 100 businesses that would be forced to change their addresses, and as the loss of Ithaca’s most traveled and historical street. The debate among residents and city officials was heated and uncomfortable due to racial undertones, so the Board of Public Works rejected the proposal and decided to seek a solution that will satisfy both ends of the spectrum.
Geno Bush, a community activist who started Circle for Recovery, complained about the slow pace at which the City of Ithaca responded to the proposal of building a memorial. “So far nothing has happened. I think now is the time to push the issue. There are racial underpinnings in the city,” he said.
According to Bush, African-Americans in Ithaca suffer from a lack of representation, including a lack of monuments to represent their presence in the city. Time and time again he says he sees young African-American fall victim to acts of racism. He recounted a recent phone call he received from a young African-American who got kicked out of a restaurant on State St. because the manager thought “his sneakers were too gangster.”
“It’s important for the young [African-American] community to get something to identify with, because they have to deal with racism everyday. Not only in schools, but in public,” he said.
According to Townsend, the memorial can be a step in reducing racism, but it will depend on Ithaca’s residents.
“I think the memorial does play some role in reducing racism, but it does not play the primary role. This community and this country continue to face racism on a daily basis. I think a monument will significantly aid in the process, but it cannot be the only catalyst,” he said.
Alderperson Michelle Berry MPS ’92, (D-2nd Ward), supported the idea of renaming State St. after Martin Luther King, but sees the MLK Freedom Walkway as a good alternative. She believes that a memorial can inspire racism to end, but believes that a change ultimately relies on individual members of the community.
“By offering a living memorial to the work of Dr. King, more people can be encouraged to increase their knowledge about King’s vision, commitment to social justice and the end of intolerance and bigotry,” she said. “Only people willing to do this work can change.”