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LA's MLK Boulevard got its name because of another King




Celes King III poses in front of his bail bonds business on the corner of Denker Av and, what was then, Santa Barbara Av. He worked to rename Santa Barbara Av into Martin Luther King Blvd in 1983.
Celes King III poses in front of his bail bonds business on the corner of Denker Av and, what was then, Santa Barbara Av. He worked to rename Santa Barbara Av into Martin Luther King Blvd in 1983.
Los Angeles Times Photographic Archive / UCLA Library (Creative Commons)

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Celes King III was a high-profile Republican businessman in South L.A. His family ran a well-known bail bonds outfit as well as the Dunbar Hotel, where famous musicians like Duke Ellington and Billie Holiday once performed.

The late King was also a big supporter of the civil rights movement and an admirer of Martin Luther King, Jr. Although they were not related, in the 1980s Celes King III started looking to the map of Los Angeles for a way to commemorate the civil rights leader.

"There was no street here of any significance named after a black," he recounted in a 1987 interview with UCLA's Oral History Research Center.

His idea was to rename one of L.A.'s main arteries after Martin Luther King, and he got to work in 1982.

"I felt that there was a clear need with the [1984] Olympics coming to Los Angeles for us to have an opportunity to display to the international community that Martin Luther King [Jr.] was a major factor as far as Los Angeles is concerned," King said.

He looked at many different streets as possibilities — Western Ave., Crenshaw Blvd., Exposition Blvd. — but turned to the one his own bail bonds business was on: Santa Barbara Ave.

"It went by the Coliseum. The Coliseum was going to be where the action would be in 1984," he said. "Every map in the free world, and some other worlds for that matter, would have to reflect the name of Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard."

It also made strategic sense. Not only was it in the heart of L.A.'s African-American community, Santa Barbara Ave. stayed within city limits and cut across few council districts. That meant King needed to convince fewer politicians to approve the change.

Celes King III's bail bonds business is located at the corner of MLK Blvd and Denker Av, where it's been converted into a community hall featuring his name and picture.
Celes King III's bail bonds business is located at the corner of MLK Blvd and Denker Av, where it's been converted into a community hall featuring his name and picture.
Leo Duran/KPCC

So he started to build up a coalition among locals.

"I said, 'Hey, this is going to be a piece of cake,'" he said. "Little did I know what I was facing! Very little did I know."

While a number of people backed his idea, it became a tough political sell.

Some said that Santa Barbara wasn't a big enough street to honor MLK. Others were nostalgic for the old name.

"The Hispanic folks came out because they thought Santa Barbara had something to do with their heritage," King recounted. "It is difficult to change a tradition. Santa Barbara Avenue has been here a long time."

Local business owners recoiled at the idea of spending money to change their business cards, letterheads and more to reflect the new address.

And fiscal hawks said it would cost the city too much to change signs and maps, and confuse the postal workers, too.

"The post office department said we don't care what you call it. We're going to deliver the mail," King said. "We don't care if it's addressed to Santa Barbara or to King Boulevard. We're still going to deliver the mail."

But Celes King III had a powerful army of people by his side, from the L.A. NAACP to the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. He also had the backing of several high-profile celebrities like the Reverend Jesse Jackson and Stevie Wonder.

The Reverend Jesse Jackson speaks before the L.A. City Council on September 15, 1982, in favor of renaming Santa Barbara Av to Martin Luther King Jr Blvd.
The Reverend Jesse Jackson speaks before the L.A. City Council on September 15, 1982, in favor of renaming Santa Barbara Av to Martin Luther King Jr Blvd.
NBC4

"When we went to war, we went with 350 preachers and busloads of people," he said. "When we showed up at the city hall, there was not even standing room."

The resolution passed 10-2 on September 15, 1982, after being brought before the council three times.

"Major legislation does not require over two appearances in front of the city council," King said. "Three times!"

The street name officially changed on January 15, 1983, on MLK's birthday, with a celebration that became the city's first Kingdom Day Parade.

"We had approximately 5,000 people," he said. "The Santa Barbara signs were taken down. The first one that was taken down was presented to me."

Today, life along Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd reflects the diverse spectrum that makes up L.A.'s African-American community, said UCLA historian Brenda Stevenson.

"If you walk along this street, you can see the upper-middle class in Baldwin Hills and View Park," she said, "and you have working class people, too."

So the next time you travel along MLK Blvd., remember that it took a King – Celes King III – to make it happen.

Special thanks to the UCLA's Center for Oral History Research, and KPCC's media partner NBC4 for its archival report.