By Ana Martinez-Ortiz
Cities across the United States have streets named in honor of Martin Luther King Jr. and Milwaukee is no exception. Originally, Milwaukee’s Martin Luther King Drive morphed into Old World Third Street, but not anymore.
Mayor Tom Barrett signed a resolution renaming Old World Third Street to Martin Luther King, Jr. Drive, on Thursday, Feb. 18. Ald. Milele Coggs, who spearheaded the resolution, Common Council President Ald. Cavalier Johnson and City Treasure Spencer Coggs were also in attendance at the press conference, which took place at the Milwaukee County Historical Society, 910 N. Old World 3rd St.
“Currently, Martin Luther King Drive stops at the entrance of Downtown Milwaukee,” Barrett said. “Today, I am signing into place a resolution renaming Old World Third Street as it spans from West McKinley Avenue to West Wisconsin Avenue to Martin Luther King Jr. Drive.”
Barrett said that all 15 Common Council members sponsored the legislation and that groups such as Young Milwaukeeans wrote letters and collected signatures in an effort to change the name.
The renaming was in large part due to the efforts made by Ald. Coggs.
This is the second time in recent history that Ald. Coggs has spearheaded a campaign to rename a street, Barrett said. The last time was in 2018 when she petitioned the renaming of North Fourth Street to North Vel. R. Phillips Avenue.
“It is an honor to now have to Downtown streets named after our great civil rights icons,” Barrett said.
Part of North Third Street was renamed to Martin Luther King Jr. Drive in 1984, Barrett explained. And while many argued it should have been done sooner, at least it’s being done now, he said.
“Displaying Dr. Martin Luther King’s name proudly on one of our most prominent streets allows us to honor his legacy in pursuit of a more just future,” he said. “It’s an important message to share with residents and visitors alike as they enjoy the heart of Downtown Milwaukee.”
Ald. Coggs said over the past couple of years she had spoken with her colleagues about the possibility of extending King Drive. The Council made the decision to unanimously sponsor the resolution before it came to committee, she said.
“I want to say thank you to those who came before us who had the foresight to fight for the Dr. Martin King Drive in the first place,” Ald. Coggs said.
She explained that conversations with Vel R. Phillips and with her daughter encouraged her to move forward with the legislation. When preparing the legislation, Ald. Coggs read the articles from 1984, which captured the debate on how far King Drive should go. There was a division there, she noted.
But this time around, business owners, legislators and organizations came together and recognized that division wasn’t necessary.
“We can be united on the understanding that there need to be one King Drive that connects it all,” she said. “My hope is that the signs and the street names change stand as a symbol for our ability to do something different here in the City of Milwaukee than has historically been.”
Johnson followed Ald. Coggs at the mic.
Train tracks, freeways, redlining and even streets names are part of the legacy of segregation in Milwaukee, Johnson said. He noted that while there has been a lot of calls for support, there have also been calls from those who disagree.
During his remarks, Johnson took the time to publicly thank Ald. Coggs for taking charge on the matter. It shouldn’t have taken this long to rename the entire street, but now it’s going to be done because of Ald. Coggs, he said.
“I’m looking forward to Dr. King’s name stretching for entire length from the north side of the city through the 6th Aldermanic District down through Harambee into our central business district right on Wisconsin Avenue the way it should have done 37 years ago,” Johnson said.
City Treasurer Coggs also made some remarks.
“Martin Luther King has always been seen as a symbol of justice,” Treasurer Coggs said. “As a young person knowing he was alive, he, in our consciousness was electric, and then in his death he became legendary.”
He recalled when he first heard that only part of North Third Street was being renamed and compared it to how feels today. It is blessing knowing this his niece, Ald. Coggs, is the one to make it whole, he said.
“Milwaukee is changing,” he said. “Milwaukee is evolving, in a positive way. [And] on this day we know that it is always the right time to do what’s right.”