It's hardly news for a town to honor Martin Luther King Jr. by naming a street after him. But when the municipality was off-limits to black families until the New Jersey Supreme Court ruled otherwise, the re-dedication takes on special meaning.
The Burlington County community of Willingboro renamed Salem Road for King on Sunday, adding another to the roughly 900 MLK streets, roads, boulevards and circles honoring the slain civil rights leader in the United States as of 2010, including more than a dozen in New Jersey.
Barbara Chaney, the sister of murdered civil rights activist James Chaney, was on hand for the dedication. So was Olympic track icon Carl Lewis, who grew up in Willingboro, and Jesse Epps, the workers' rights advocate who helped get King to Memphis during a 1968 sanitation workers' strike, where he was assassinated.
"I didn't notice that street sign for days, and all of a sudden I saw it there," said Chaney, who was a year older than James and has lived in Willingboro nearly 30 years. "I was so excited, I stopped my car — I think I stopped it in the middle of the street — and people were looking at me and blowing their horns, but I was saying, 'Look at the sign, look at the sign.'"
Lewis, who developed his early track skills at Willingboro High, where he was coached by his dad, said in his dedication speech there is still work to do to end racial profiling and make educational opportunities equal for all.
"Our parents left a wonderful opportunity for their children, which is us," Lewis said. "It's our responsibility to keep those expectations high. We have an opportunity to keep Dr. King's dream alive by encouraging the best in all of us."
Epps, 75, who also lives in Willingboro, urged that the street renaming serve as a reawakening to those willing to carry out King's vision.
"To have that name and not carry out his principles is spitting on his grave," Epps said.
Willingboro became a suburban enclave when it was built up as a whites-only Levittown community in the 1950s. A black Army officer stationed at nearby Fort Dix sued, and ultimately won a state Supreme Court case in a ruling that upheld anti-discrimination law in federally subsidized housing. Levittown was getting mortgage insurance from the Federal Housing Administration.
Before the plaintiff moved to town, however, another family took advantage of the decision and bought a home there in 1960. A half-century later, 73 percent of the town's residents are black and 17 percent are white, according to data from the 2010 census.
Chris Walker, who spearheaded the renaming effort, said he was inspired to choose Salem Road for the honor after a high school student asked, "Why are all the streets that are named after Dr. King in the most crime-infested areas?"
Walker said the quarter-mile road is symbolic of King in several ways: A bus stop at the top of the road symbolizes the Montgomery bus boycotts; the school is a reminder of how seriously King took education; the municipal building and post office are places King staged protests for workers' rights; and the base of the road is anchored by two churches, as King was anchored in God.
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