A grass-roots effort under way to rename Portland Boulevard for civil rights heroine Rosa Parks passed its first milestone Wednesday when the proposal was aired at a Portland City Council meeting. The council unanimously passed a resolution to change the North Portland street's name to Rosa Parks Way.
An enthusiastic contingent of supporters filled council chambers for the hearing. The plan was conceived by the Albina Ministerial Alliance — a coalition of local clergy — and is being championed within the council by City Commissioner Dan Saltzman. A vote on an ordinance to make the name change official could come up before the council as soon as next Wednesday, Oct. 25.
"The hearing was overwhelmingly positive," said the Rev. W.G. Hardy, of Highland United Church of Christ, who testified at the hearing. "There was an excellent turnout, good representation from the community."
Hardy said the choice of Portland Boulevard is a good one for a range of reasons, not the least of which would be its symbolic intersection with several streets, including Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard.
"One of the reasons we believe Portland Boulevard, which would be Rosa Parks Way, is an appropriate choice is that it speaks a statement and is symbolic. It would cross Omaha Street, it would go across Boston and Denver, it would go across Atlantic and Missouri, it would even cross the racist-state-of-Mississippi Street," Hardy said. "It would also intersect Congress Street … .
"Knowing that it would intersect with all of those really speaks to the heart and passion of what Rosa Parks stood for."
Hardy said that Commissioner Saltzman has been behind the name change ever since he heard about it during a visit to Cornerstone Community Church of God in Christ, where the Rev. B.E. Johnson proposed the idea during a service.
"Pastor Johnson announced the idea from the pulpit," Hardy said. "Commissioner Saltzman picked up the idea and took it back to the council, where it has continued to gain momentum."
There is a great deal of excitement about the name change in City Hall and in the greater community, said Promise King, a staffer for Saltzman.
"It's a popular idea because Portland Boulevard intersects with MLK … and it adds a name to the community with which people there can really identify," he said. "It's really been an experience for me to see the level of passion that people have for this idea."
After Saltzman was on board, Hardy said that he, Johnson and their fellow members of the Albina Ministerial Alliance pushed the idea among their congregations, and word began to spread. Now, he said, as Rosa Parks Way is on the brink of becoming reality, the whole of Portland can be proud.
"We are excited. I think it's a good day for the city, for the simple reason that we didn't have to jump hurdles and go through a lot of bureaucratic red tape like we did with the Martin Luther King issue," Hardy said, referring to the difficult struggle in the 1980s to change the name of Union Avenue to Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard.
"I think the city has grown a lot since then. We have a lot to celebrate."
However, while the community has been largely united in backing a tribute to Ms. Parks, there has not been unanimous support for the choice of Portland Boulevard as the street that should bear her name. The Rev. Joe Corpora of Holy Redeemer Catholic Church — located on Portland Boulevard — and members of the Piedmont Neighborhood Association have lobbied for Parks' name to be attached to a larger, more-traveled thoroughfare.
"Portland Boulevard is the shortest street in all of North Portland," Corpora said... "We believe that renaming Portland Boulevard is too small a gesture for a woman whose civil disobedience edified all of us. What she did moved the entire nation to rethink things."
Parks sparked a yearlong bus boycott in Montgomery, Ala., in 1955 when she refused to give up her seat at the front of the bus to a White man. The boycott galvanized the national civil rights movement and catapulted to prominence the young Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.
Corpora said he had proposed renaming the downtown bus mall for Parks in a letter to Saltzman, but that the commissioner had decided to support the Portland Boulevard plan instead. He added that the notion of continuity was important to many members of his parish, noting that Portland Boulevard had been home to Holy Redeemer for more than 100 years.
Not all of Corpora's parishioners, however, agree with his position. Lou Boston, a member of the African American Catholic Community of Oregon, said his group is solidly behind the plan to rename Portland Boulevard for Parks.
"We were sensitive, because we understand the Catholic Church's historic position in the civil rights movement, being part of the marches," said Boston, "and also our church's doctrine of equality and social justice. So we felt we needed to do something to solicit the support of Holy Redeemer Church."
Boston's group went to work to change the minds of the members of Holy Redeemer members and the Piedmont Neighborhood Association, and it was successful in many cases, he said.
"Here you have Portland Boulevard," Boston said. "It goes past Holy Redeemer church and school, which has a population that is more than 50 percent African American, and near its western end you have Portland's only Catholic university (the University of Portland).
"We think the name change will send a positive message."
But, Corpora said, he and his like-minded parishioners are prepared to lay aside their differences and honor Parks, regardless of which street bears her name.
"We are not going to make an issue out of this," he said. "We'd just rather see something grander. If that's what the city wants to settle on, that's fine."