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Why 19th Street in Austin was chosen to be renamed after Martin Luther King Jr.

A crowd of people march in the street past an intersection with MLK Boulevard
Cindy Elizabeth
/
for KUT
Marchers cross Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard during the annual MLK Day parade in Austin on Monday.

There are around 1,000 streets across the U.S. named for the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., but Austin’s is one of only a few that run near a major university or state capitol.

“Symbolically, it was an important street,” journalist Erna Smith said. “Ours is special in the sense that it runs through a white neighborhood and the seat of power.”

But it took a fight to get it renamed.

Back in the early ‘70s, a group of East Austin activists known as the Austin Black Assembly pushed to rename 19th Street for the civil rights leader after his assassination. They chose the street because it ran through both Black and white communities.

“I remember that time so clearly because it was such a time of activism in the Black community in Austin,” Smith said. “Wilhelmina Delco had just been elected to the state Legislature. … The city was changing from a city that had been dominated by kind of Rotary Club/Chamber of Commerce types to a city that then became this liberal kind of iconic city. And it happened all during that period of time. Students got the right to vote and suddenly the city was changing.”

A woman sits on a couch smiling at the camera with her hand against her temple.
Michael Minasi
/
KUT
Erna Smith was a student at UT Austin interning at the Austin American-Statesman when City Council was debating renaming 19th Street after Martin Luther King Jr.

Residents and businesses on the East Side supported the street’s renaming, but west of I-35 it was a different story. Local businesses and community members there said the cost of updating signs and addresses was too high, and that the majority of the property owners should have to agree to it.

The Assembly partnered with J.J. Seabrook, a former president of Huston-Tillotson University, to convince Austin City Council to change the name of the entire street.

He was testifying about it before council when he had a heart attack and died.

“I remember thinking, this is supposed to be this great liberal city, but some Black man has to die for them to rename the street,” Smith said. “For me, it was just a symbol of how hypocritical this town was.”

Austin City Council approved the name change April 10, 1975.

Smith said she had mixed feelings about it.

“I didn't feel any great sense of joy because Dr. Seabrook had died,” she says. “And I would certainly hope the city wouldn’t congratulate themselves for finally doing something to me that was so innocent. I didn't understand what the big deal was. So it was a kind of a feeling of bittersweetness in a way.”

Smith left Austin after graduating from UT in 1977. When she moved back seven years ago, her feelings about the situation changed.

Street signs showing the intersection of Martin Luther King Boulevard and JJ Seabrook Drive
Michael Minasi
/
KUT
In 1975, Austin City Council voted to change the name of 19th Street to Martin Luther King Boulevard. It renamed a section and a strip nearby after J.J. Seabrook, a former Huston-Tillotson president who died while testifying in favor of the change.

“I drove down to a completely different feeling,” she said. “The feeling was – Wow. Because I know streets like this don't exist in the world, in this country. I know they don't. … And so the street is very precious to me.”

At the same time, she said, Austin has “decimated” the Black community.

“It’s some source of pride to people in Austin that they have a Martin Luther King [street] that's in a white neighborhood, but they have no black people. … I find that dichotomy kind of interesting.”

In 2010, the city named the portion of MLK Jr. Boulevard that meets I-35 and connects East to West in honor of J.J. Seabrook.

Listen to "MLK Remembered" this week on KUT 90.5 FM. We'll bring you stories to honor the legacy of Martin Luther King Jr. and his impact on Austin and the world.

Miles Bloxson is a producer and host for KUT 90.5 and KUTX 98.9.
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