On Tuesday morning, the Milwaukee Common Council unanimously passed a resolution to change the name of Milwaukee’s Old World Third Street to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Drive. The change applies to the stretch of downtown road from W. Wisconsin Avenue to W. McKinley Avenue. Headed north from there, the section of road from W. McKinley Avenue to W. Capitol Drive has been known as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Drive since 1984.

“Old World Third Street, from West McKinley Avenue to West Wisconsin Avenue, is renamed North Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Drive,” reads the ordinance.

The ordinance was sponsored by Alderwoman Milele Coggs and co-sponsored by all 14 remaining alders. Following the passage of the resolution, the Common Council released a joint statement:

Out of respect, honor and reverence for the work and legacy of Dr. King, to correctly continue a rightful path, and to aid this city in healing from our notorious reputation of systemic racism and segregation, we have passed (with unanimous Council sponsorship) legislation to rename Old World Third Street to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Drive. Currently, King Drive abruptly changes to Old World Third street, reminding us of the 1984 effort to limit the King street naming from entering downtown Milwaukee.

We hope this legislation serves as inspiration, hope, healing and encouragement for the quest for justice and racial equity. The geographical division between today’s Old World Third Street and King Drive reflects the segregation and division that has been pervasive in this city.

To address the street renaming concerns of local business owners, we are more than willing to work with business owners on ways to make the transition as easy as possible, and we welcome conversation about the timing of implementation and other concerns business owners might have.

We see the passage of this legislation as demonstration of our willingness to not be silent in the fight to usher in the necessary change for a better Milwaukee and a better tomorrow.

Mayor Tom Barrett also expressed his support for the renaming.

“I support the renaming of Old World Third Street, as it spans from West McKinley Avenue to West Wisconsin Avenue, to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Drive,” Barrett said in an earlier statement. “Displaying Dr. King’s name proudly on one of our most prominent streets allows us to honor his legacy in the pursuit of a more just future. It’s an important message to share with residents and visitors alike as they enjoy the heart of downtown Milwaukee.”

In 1984, the renaming of what was then known as 3rd Street was met with controversy. “A group of downtown business owners from West State Street to West Juneau Avenue opposed the change, claiming that renaming the street in recognition of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. could harm the street’s status as a tourist attraction,” explains the ordinance. In the end, the 1984-era council voted 13-3 to rename the downtown section of the street Old World Third Street, and rename the more northern section in honor of Dr. King.

“Every time one drives southbound on King Drive, as it abruptly turns into Old World Third Street, they may be reminded of the 1984 political fight over the street renaming, the tremendous effort to limit the King street naming from entering downtown Milwaukee and the vestiges of systemic racism and segregation that have been pervasive in this city,” Coggs said in an earlier statement.

“Over this past year we have seen people take to the streets in cities across the country in a renewed fight for justice and seen a rebirth in efforts toward racial equity and inclusion,” she continued. “In furtherance of the same positive and transformational spirit and direction of the nation we are seeking to correctly continue a rightful path.”

The change won’t be immediate, however. The city will work with businesses on Third Street to help with the implementation of the name change. Also, the city will work to create an honorary street name for the Old World Third Street Historic District. According to Urban Milwaukee, “such a designation, often applied to a one-block stretch in honor of an individual, would place a brown street sign above the official green one.”

An earlier letter from Westown Association’s executive director Stacie Callies offered “unequivocal support,” but asked for time to implement the change—especially for Third Street-branded businesses like Third Street Market Hall, Third Street Tavern, Who’s On Third, and Brick 3 Pizza.

“Alderwoman Coggs generously took the time to meet with the leaders of the Old World Third Street Association and Westown this week after which time she recognized and amended the resolution to include language giving the Common Council and City Departments’ commitment to work with residents/businesses owners in the Third Street area on a workable timeline to implement the name change as well as possibly deploying City resources to facilitate the transition process,” Callies’ letter read.

The letter also asked for the creation of an honorary street name.

“Today our request of the City is to begin the process to create an Honorary Street Name for Old World Third Street Historic District,” the letter read. “We are also recommending and are willing to help spearhead the creation of an implementation working group that will include representatives from Old World Third St. Association, King Drive BID, Milwaukee Downtown BID #21, Visit Milwaukee, Department of City Development Commercial Corridor team, Common Council, Westown and interested residents to develop an implementation plan to include co-branding the Old World Third Street Historic District with the new Dr. Martin Luther King Drive street name as well as incorporating an honorary street name for Old World Third Street. We ask that this working group be given the time to compile best practices, develop an implementation timeline acceptable to the business owners and common council and assess the resources and assets required to implement this change.”

And yes, there will still be a little bit of the original 3rd Street left, as Urban Milwaukee explains:

There still will be a N. 3rd St. if the measure is approved. A one-block stretch runs south of E. Michigan St., another under Interstate 794 and a third from W. Auer Ave. north to W. Capitol Dr. The last segment occurs because the King Drive name was applied to the angled N. Green Bay Ave. starting at W. Burleigh St., where N. 3rd St. is interrupted for a block.

Also on Tuesday, the Common Council unanimously approved a resolution to name the Milwaukee Fire Department Administration Building at 711 W. Wells St. in honor of Alonzo Robinson, Wisconsin’s first Black architect. Robinson designed the building, along with hundreds of others in the Milwaukee area.

Here’s the full text of the Old World Third/MLK ordinance:


Title
A substitute ordinance renaming Old World Third Street, from West McKinley Avenue to West Wisconsin Avenue, North Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Drive.

Analysis
This ordinance renames Old World Third Street, from West McKinley Avenue to West Wisconsin Avenue, North Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Drive.

Body
Whereas, In 1984, when the Common Council sought to rename North 3rd Street to North Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Drive, many citizens including a group called Young Milwaukeeans supported the change with a petition of 17,000 signatures; and

Whereas, A group of downtown business owners from West State Street to West Juneau Avenue opposed the change, claiming that renaming the street in recognition of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. could harm the street’s status as a tourist attraction; and

Whereas, After a prolonged political battle, the Common Council voted to change North 3rd Street north of West McKinley Avenue to North Martin Luther King Jr. Drive, but the portion of road south of McKinley was changed to North Old World Street; and

Whereas, Recent nationwide protests for racial equity and local issues such as Milwaukee’s longstanding racial segregation emphasize the importance of reflecting upon historical injustices in order to build a fairer and more inclusive society; and

Whereas, Renaming this particular stretch of street in honor of King would recognize a past error and represent one small but significant way of dismantling the vestiges of systemic racism in our society; and

Whereas, King was the prominent spokesperson and charismatic leader of the Civil Rights Movement who pushed for desegregation, equal voting rights, labor rights, and basic civil rights for Americans of all races and ethnic backgrounds; and

Whereas, King spoke to audiences in Milwaukee on two occasions and after King was assassinated in April 1968, 15,000 people marched through the streets of downtown Milwaukee, which was among the largest in the country at the time; and

Whereas, There are approximately 900 streets in cities across the US named in honor of King; and

Whereas, The Common Council and relevant City departments welcome discussing with residents and affected business owners a workable timeline to implement the street name change along with possibilities for deploying City resources in order to facilitate the transition process; now, therefore

The Mayor and Common Council of the City of Milwaukee do ordain as follows:

Part 1. Old World Third Street, from West McKinley Avenue to West Wisconsin Avenue, is renamed North Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Drive.

Part 2. For the purposes of this ordinance, the provisions of s. 113-3 of the Milwaukee Code of Ordinances are superseded.

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Matt Wild weighs between 140 and 145 pounds. He lives on Milwaukee's east side.

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