On Wednesday morning, the Common Council’s Public Works Committee unanimously passed a resolution to change the name of Milwaukee’s Old World Third Street to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Drive. The change would apply to the stretch of downtown road from W. Wisconsin Avenue to W. McKinley Avenue. From there, the section of road from W. McKinley Avenue to W. Capitol Drive has been known as Dr. Martin Luther King 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. It will go before the full Common Council on February 9 for almost certain final approval.

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 a statement last week.

“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.”

A letter from Westown Association’s executive director Stacie Callies offers “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,” the letter reads.

The letter also asked for the creation of an honorary street name for Old World Third Street.

“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 reads. “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.”

Here’s the full text of the 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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Co-Founder and Editor

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