While slain civil rights leader Dr. Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. often dreamed that his nonviolent crusade would lead to racial equality, he also envisioned the arrival of housing and economic fairness that would lead the downtrodden out of sub-human living conditions.
If alive to see the transformation of the decrepit Hawthorne Square housing project and its immediate surroundings, King himself would be proud.
That was the overriding sentiment when city and housing officials on Wednesday unveiled a plaque at 13th and Fitzwater streets, renaming the vicinity Martin Luther King Jr. Plaza. Symbolically, the renaming of the plaza brings to a close at least one of the chapters of public housing in the city; planners decided to name the new plaza after King to memorialize his famous visit here in 1965, when he addressed hundreds of Hawthorne residents and demanded fair and equal housing for them.
“We continue to feel the ripple effects of the Fair Housing Act of 1968, which was a direct result” of King’s work in that arena, said Philadelphia Housing Authority Commissioner Karen Newton Cole. “So it is really important that, moving forward, we commemorate what Martin Luther King did, especially as it relates to housing.”
King visited what was then known as Hawthorne Square for a two-day visit, August 2–3, 1965, and more than an estimated 2,300 people gathered on that corner to hear him speak. In 1970, longtime politician James Tayoun — then the councilman for the district that included Hawthorne Square — petitioned PHA to change its name. Tayoun was also one of the earlier supporters of King’s visit to Philadelphia — a notion that wasn’t all too popular at the time.
“We are standing on hallowed ground,” the veteran politician said, joining the ranks of Council members Jannie Blackwell and Kenyatta Johnson — who grew up in the neighborhood — who made stirring remarks about the neighborhood’s transformation. “It’s hallowed because I remember the faces of the young men and women who died here because they couldn’t get affordable housing. It’s my pleasure to have a small part in his role here.”
PHA Administrative Receiver and Executive Director Michael P. Kelly echoed the sentiment of many when he said that Dr. King, “on this spot, held a rally that addressed economic injustice and housing for the poor. Those ideas are still valid today.”
The negative impact of the housing policy to warehouse the very poor in high-rise dwellings that lack the necessary social infrastructure cannot be overstated. Dr. William Tucker, president of the Philadelphia MLK Center for Nonviolence said King should be commended for bringing attention to the housing disparity, noting that the late leader spoke out when authorities began “substituting horizontal slums with vertical slums,” Tucker said. “Now, Philadelphia is ahead of the curve in eliminating housing projects.”
Mayor Nutter, Fire Commissioner Lloyd Ayers and a host of other city and state politicians also praised the works of King. The dedication also commemorates the 40th anniversary of his assassination.
MLK Plaza joins Martin Luther King Jr. Drive as two of the city’s most prominent renaming initiatives, and joins a nationwide trend of cities embracing King with major renaming moves. CNN reported that more than 900 cities have streets named after King, and Memphis, Tennessee — where King was slain while on the balcony of a downtown hotel — is finally dealing with its past and renaming a one-mile stretch of Linden Avenue in King’s honor.
Departing, Blackwell was reminded of King’s overriding compassion.
“Nothing is more important when we think of Dr. Martin Luther King than love,” Blackwell said. “During a time when people were deathly afraid, King stood up for them, and loved them.”