An injustice ends after 38 years: Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue finally extends into Downtown Milwaukee
After nearly four decades, the City of Milwaukee officially recognized the remaining section of 3rd Street into downtown as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue, during a street renaming ceremony on his namesake holiday, January 17.
Neither the bitter winter temperatures or the Omicron variant of the ongoing pandemic could deter residents of Milwaukee from attending the historic celebration on MLK Day. Alderwoman Milele A. Coggs and Alderman Robert J. Bauman hosted the event along with the Milwaukee Downtown BID 21, and were joined by city and state leaders at the intersection of Wisconsin Avenue and the former Old World Third Street.
“We’re bringing Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Drive to this intersection, where people of all ages, of all backgrounds, of all races and religions, where they congregate. And we’re showing everybody that Milwaukee wholeheartedly embraces what Dr. King stood for,” said Acting Mayor Cavalier Johnson. “In the spirit of Dr. King, we must acknowledge that symbolism alone is not sufficient to remedy the wrongs that he challenged in his many years of dedicated service to our nation. All of us have inherited that responsibility to work peacefully for justice, equality, brotherhood – as well as sisterhood. The obvious disparity present in Dr. King’s time has not gone away, but by continuing his work we can bring about the needed change.”
Following her initiative in 2018 to rename 4th street after the trailblazing lawyer, judge, politician, and civil rights activist Vel R. Philips, Alderwoman Coggs proposed the long overdue resolution to extend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Drive in January 2021. The unanimous Common Council resolution finally erased the geographic separation that reflected Milwaukee’s racial divisions in 1984, when the original renaming took place.
“It was Alderwoman Marlene Johnson who led that fight with community support and help. I was blessed to have the opportunity when I got older to represent King Drive in this same area that she did,” said Alderwoman Coggs. “I had conversations later with one of my mentors, Vel Phillips, during the fight to rename 4th Street after her. She shared with me how important it was that her namesake street go through downtown, next to her good friend MLK, because she felt like this city had disrespected his memory by not allowing it to come into downtown.”
In 1984, then Alderwoman Johnson led an effort in the Common Council to rename 3rd Street. It was approved by a vote of 13-3, but with conditions to appease business owners. Usinger’s Famous Sausage, for example, was one of the merchants that felt tourism would suffer by honoring the late Civil Rights leader. As a compromise, the section of road from Wisconsin Avenue north to McKinley would be known as North Old World Third Street. From McKinley to West Capitol Drive, 3rd Street was renamed in honor of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. The same street north of Capitol Drive was renamed Green Bay Avenue.
“It is because of the work of Marlene Johnson, and so many others that we are even having a conversation about the street here. And because of my colleagues and supporters today, we were able to make this happen 38 years later,” added Alderwoman Coggs. “I’m happy to be here celebrating, because we are in a city where too often the news we see is negative for those of us in communities of color. Today is truly an example of the collaborative work and effort that it took for us to get here, across demographics and racial lines. We all recognize that just because things were done a certain way in past does not mean it has to be that way in the future. If we work together towards the healing that we know needs to happen in this city, then maybe we can have a different outcome in the future.”
While the street name has finally been changed, “3rd Street” as a brand identity will continue to exist. Many downtown businesses have used it, including the newly opened 3rd Street Market Hall located in the former Grand Avenue Mall.
“Folks, this is bigger than just renaming a street. It’s about building Dr. King’s legacy into the fabric that makes up this community. It’s about solidifying the City of Milwaukee’s commitment to equity and justice for all its residents. But while we celebrate, it’s important that we also recognize what Milwaukee residents, and folks across our state, have been through – the incredible challenges so many of our communities have endured and continue to endure,” said Governor Tony Evers. “The last few years have been tough. They’ve shined a light on the many injustices facing our state and our nation. They’ve also inspired our communities to come together, united to fight for a more justice and an equitable future. We’ve heard Dr. King’s words as a drumbeat in our hearts and minds. Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. Dr. King’s vision and words have also guided us in our work to defend our democracy against the near constant attacks we’ve seen here in Wisconsin and across the country. From the assault on our democracy on January 6 of last year to the numerous attacks on voting designed to disenfranchise communities of color. We must continue Dr. King’s fight to protect and defend those rights to vote.”
Former Mayor Tom Barrett signed the ordnance renaming Old World Third Street on February 18, 2021, the birthday of Vel Phillips, at the Milwaukee County Historical Society. During that ceremony, MCHS said in a social media post that it was proud of its new address and honored to reflect Dr. King’s vision of creating a more equitable world.