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Do the street name changes in Grand Rapids really honor Dr. King and Cesar Chavez?

October 12, 2021

On Tuesday morning, at the Committee of the Whole, the Grand Rapids City Commission unanimously approved the funding for changing Franklin Street to Martin Luther King Jr Street and Granville Avenue to Cesar Chavez Avenue.

Besides comments from City Commissioners, there were comments from the street naming committee as well, both of which talked about how the street names are a way of honoring the legacy of these two men.

The question for all of us is, how does naming streets after two Civil Rights icons honor their legacy? 

Let’s start with Cesar Chavez, the labor organizer who fought for decades to organize farmworkers and fight for their rights. Chavez, who was mentored and recruited by Fred Ross Sr., the radical organizer. 

Chavez, along with Dolores Huerta, helped to found the United Farm Workers (UFW), a union specifically for farmworkers, that began in California. The UFW engaged in strikes, boycotts, work slowdowns, leafletting campaigns, marches and hunger strikes, all of which were tactics used in the farmworker movement. 

The United Farm Workers were effective in getting better wages, working conditions and fighting for bargaining rights with the agribusiness industry. The UFW created their own banking system and community-based health care, which were things that the community of farmworkers had made priorities. 

Cesar Chavez and other organizers with the UAW came to West Michigan several times over the years, yet there has never been a labor union created for migrant farmworkers here in West Michigan.

Wouldn’t an organized campaign, consisting of fundraising and legal support be a better way to honor the thousands of farmworkers that live in the area, particularly along the Grandville Avenue corridor and the Burton/Buchanan area? What about a food cooperative or a tenant union for those migrant farmworkers who are often exploited by absentee landlords and property management companies? Wouldn’t these kinds of organizing efforts be a better way to honor the legacy of a farmworker and an organizer?

In addition, it should be mentioned that some of the same commissioners that agreed to the street change, presided over and said nothing about the GRPD showing up at the homes of students who were organizing with the local transit union, to intimidate them into ending their efforts to support transit workers. The United Farm Workers, the same union that Cesar Chavez founded, sent a scathing letter to Mayor Bliss, that read in part:

On behalf of the more than 10,000 members of the United Farm Workers, I am writing to express our deep disappointment in the breathtaking hypocrisy demonstrated by your administration this past week. On Thursday, March 17, you marched under our banner to commemorate the work of an American icon and our founder, Cesar Chavez. The very next day, on Friday, March 18, you dispatched Grand Rapids Police to the homes of student activists to intimidate them for organizing a January sit in to support transit workers represented by Amalgamated Transit Union (ATU) Local 836.

You cannot march in the name of Cesar Chavez one day and use police officers to suppress all that he fought for the next. The United Farm Workers stands in solidarity with our ATU brothers and sisters struggling to preserve their retirement security and the United Students Against Sweatshops (USAS) who, in an inspiring acts of selflessness, have embraced their elders fight as their own.”

Now, we can move on to talk about Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Here was a man who was part of the Black Freedom Struggle/Civil Rights Movement, specifically working through the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. Dr. King was a great orator and a prolific writer, but his legacy is really about his commitment and sacrifice in service to freedom and justice.

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was arrested dozens of times for civil disobedience, spent many days in jail for civil resistance, used strikes, boycotts, marches and other tactics to fight against the White Supremacist policies of the Jim Crow South. 

When Dr. King moved north to Chicago in 1965, he became even more radical, condemning landlords, police brutality, the economic system of Capitalism and the US war in Southeast Asia, specifically Vietnam. Dr. King famously stated, “A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death.”

In his last organizing campaign, the Poor People’s Campaign, Dr. King helped to bring together Black, Chicano, Puerto Rican, Indigenous and white people to demand an economic bill of rights, which included a call for the federal government to prioritize helping the poor with a $30 billion (in 1968) anti-poverty package that included, among other demands, a commitment to full employment, a guaranteed annual income measure and more low-income housing. 

Now Blacks in Grand Rapids have the highest levels of poverty and unemployment in the city. Since the May 30th, 2020 uprising in Grand Rapids, mostly young Black organizers, along with other allies, have been demanding an end to the GRPD’s targeting of Black and Brown residents, the repression of activists who organize with Justice for Black Lives, and to defund the GRPD. 

Considering the living conditions of so many Black people in Grand Rapids and the GRPD’s repression of Black organizers, do you honestly think that naming a street after Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. is the best way to honor his legacy?

In the case of both Cesar Chavez and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., doesn’t it seem a bit hypocritical for the City of Grand Rapids to change the names of streets instead of fighting for the same demands that these two civil rights icons, and the movements they were part of, fought for?

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