There are four blocks of a street in Kingsport named Martin Luther King Jr. Drive.
Next Friday, the extension of that street will display his full name, not just part of it.
It will also put Kingsport in the history books.
Lincoln Street, from Wilcox Drive to John B. Dennis Bypass, will soon be designated the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Parkway.
“It’s the appropriate way to recognize someone who made such a difference in the lives of not just African-Americans, but everybody in America and particularly Kingsport,” said City Manager Jeff Fleming.
A BUSY STREET
According to numbers from the Kingsport Traffic Department, that 2.3 mile section of Lincoln Street averages about 9,500 vehicles per day. Bill Albright, transportation planning manager, says that although Lincoln Street does have a lot of truck traffic, it also has a lot of commuter traffic — not just people going to Eastman, which fronts the entire street, but a lot of people going to and from the downtown area.
The new street designation will therefore get lots of views.
Linda Kincaid was part of the Riverview nonprofit Catch the Vision organization whose goal was to have a street named after Dr. King. It happened on the day of the civil rights leader’s national holiday back in 2008.
“The city was progressing, the neighborhoods were progressing and residents of Riverview wanted to be part of the 21st century,” she said. “With the renaming of the street after Dr. King, we wanted to be pacesetters for the next generation.”
The result was a four-block section of Lincoln Street in Riverview renamed Martin Luther King Jr. Drive. Longtime resident Jack Pierce was chosen to unveil the new street sign in 2008.
“It was a short stretch of street inside Riverview, but we were proud of it,” he remembered. “We all worked with the mayors and city leaders, always hoping that one day the name would extend the road all the way to the John B. Dennis Bypass.”
That time is Friday, Jan. 18, at noon.
In a ceremony that kicks off the weekend leading up to the Dr. King holiday, the signs designating the extension of the street name will be unveiled.
“Here we are at this point in time celebrating something that we never thought would ever come to pass,” said Overseer Ronnie Collins of the Tennessee/Virginia Fellowship Against Racism group. “With the street name expanding outside of Riverview, this is a way of reaching out to other areas, an outreach in fact of Dr. King’s memory.”
The public is invited to the noon ceremony, which will go on rain or shine. Lincoln Street beside the Eastman Credit Union will be blocked off, and participants sharing in the historic gathering are asked to assemble at 11:45 a.m.
Two large new signs have been made by the sign department in the Kingsport Traffic Division, with one to be placed on Lincoln Street at the Wilcox Drive intersection. The other will be placed farther down Lincoln Street at the John B. Dennis intersection.
THAT’S A BIG SIGN
Each sign measures 6 feet long by 18 inches tall and are two of the largest street signs ever made by the city.
“The letter is made from electro-cut film, placed on a high intensity prismatic sheet, much like all of our street signs,” said Kingsport traffic maintenance technician Trevor Bellamy, who made them. “But because of their size, these two will be very visible in the daytime and highly reflective at night.”
“That part of Lincoln Street is a nice boulevard with wide lanes,” said Pierce. “It’s good for the signs to be noticeable. The street also passes by one of the most important businesses in Kingsport, the state and the country. The signs and the designation for Dr. King are also big things themselves.”
Not only is the street name being extended down Lincoln Street, but Dr. King's name itself will be extended as well, hence the larger signs.
The official name of the designation will be Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Parkway.
“People might forget that Dr. King was also a minister,” Pierce said. “ ‘Reverend’ was part of his name. We know that he was a godly man who walked in the spirit of the Almighty who guided his path not just for African-Americans, but for all Americans.”
“When we were first approached by the local group,” said Fleming, “it seemed a good combination to have Lincoln Street, which was named after Abraham Lincoln, and Dr. King along the same route, honoring the values both men followed.”
A SELECT GROUP
A Google search shows more than 900 cities and communities with streets named or designated after Dr. King, most of them using “Martin Luther King Jr.” or “Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.” Some even have just “M.L.K.” or “M.L. King” or “M.L. King Jr.”
Only five cities have streets named with the full “Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.” notation.
Kingsport will join that elite group this week, becoming the sixth U.S. city to honor the civil rights leader by his full name and titles.
But the Kingsport designation goes even one step further with one special fact that recognizes the sign as the only one of its kind in the country, surpassing even the other five.
That history-making fact will be revealed at the unveiling ceremony on Friday.
“It’s awesome to stand out like that in a good fashion,” Fleming said when told of the singular notation that will set the city apart. “It demonstrates what Kingsport is all about: being unique, being so different, being happy to embrace the expectations of our city. It will forever be something that everybody in Kingsport can celebrate and be part of. I can’t wait for people to hear what it is.”
“Wow!” said Collins. “Knowing that our designation is one-of-a-kind in the entire country is monumental in a city where the African-American population is small, but where significant strides toward diversity can be made. It’s important to have mayors and city leaders thinking forward to what every city strives for: inclusion and recognition for all citizens.”
“It does set us apart,” agreed Kincaid. “It puts us right in the middle of what many other cities have done, but with a certain uniqueness. That’s especially important to our young people, the next generation.”
YEARS IN THE MAKING
Collins said designating the street is the result of phases working with city government.
“Phase One was changing the name of Lincoln Street from Wilcox Drive to Dunbar Street in the Riverview neighborhood to Martin Luther King Jr. Drive. That took 10 years to accomplish. Phase Two was perhaps one day extending the remaining length of Lincoln Street from Wilcox to the John B. Dennis Bypass, which is now being done.
“Phase Three is extending the King Parkway designation with the city’s planned extension into the Brickyard property development and over to the Cherokee Street railroad crossing into downtown,” Collins continued. “But ultimately we hope to see the designation come down and the official street name eventually become the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Parkway in its entirety.
“It takes time and patience, but we hope it can be done.”
As far as most people know, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. may have never visited Kingsport.
To most who would have knowledge of it, the famed civil rights leader may also have never spoken at a rally in the Tri-Cities, nor any part of upper East Tennessee.
But his message of nonviolence approaches to social change was well felt here.
“Designating the entire street from John B. Dennis to the Brickyard all the way to Cherokee Street is a fitting tribute to this wonderful man,” said Jack Pierce. “It will last forever and be something not just for us old-timers, but for Kingsport’s grandchildren and their generations to be proud of.”