Hidden History: Martin Luther King, Jr. Drive

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DECATUR, Ill. (WCIA) — Martin Luther King, Jr. Street is one of the most recognized names in the city. However, before 1988 it was known as Broadway.

It was not until two men and a community rallied behind them to change that.

James Taylor (Right) and Bill Oliver (Left) talk about the history of getting Martin Luther King Jr. Drive’s name changed.

For some people in Decatur, that road may be just another street but for James Taylor and Bill Oliver, it’s something much more. “You got to be proud. You got to be thankful that God sends somebody like this,” said Oliver. However, 32 years ago the name of the street changed to honor a leader of the civil rights movement.

Oliver and Taylor helped make it happen. They were active in the movement. “We’re driving places and we could see streets named ‘Martin Luther King’ and we [were] in Chicago driving down Martin Luther King and he said, ‘Why don’t we have one of those streets named after him in Decatur,'” said Taylor. So they started the process.

The street name they wanted to change at the time was named “Broadway.” They said they chose that street because it runs nearly the entire length of Decatur. “We got some petitions and started down at the lake and went all the way MLK up to Mound Road and got every house and business along that street,” said Oliver. “Everybody that lived along Martin Luther King didn’t sign for it.” said Taylor. Oliver said some businesses were up in arms about it. “[They said] ‘We’ll have to change all of out stationary. We’ve got stationary that’s been here for one year, two years, three years and this is very expensive.'” Oliver said some opponents call the street dirty and said Broadway was already a historical name.

In order to make it happen, the city council had to approve. In 1981, Oliver was on the council. He was the first African American to be elected. In the end, the council voted against it 6 to 1. However, Oliver and Taylor did not give up. “Bringing more people into the movement in order to get people from all over, not just people on Martin Luther King from all over the city,” said Taylor. Then something else happened, Gary Anderson was elected mayor. “And so through his leadership and change of the council itself, we were able to get it changed the next time around in 1986.” This time, the vote was 6 to 1 in favor of the change.

Finally, in January of 1988, the signs were replaced from Broadway to Martin Luther King, Jr. Drive. “The man that it was named after has meant so much, not just to me…but to the state of Illinois, to the national, to the world,” said Oliver. Taylor said, “Every time I go down this street, I think of what it means to me and I hope it means all the same things to the people in the city of Decatur.” The street name was changed in Decatur almost 20 years after Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated.

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