Story highlights

A 1-mile stretch of Linden Avenue will be named after the civil rights leader

Ceremony will take place on the 44th anniversary of King's death

It was on this street that King led a march in support of striking sanitation workers

"We wanted something that had a real nexus to this city," says Mayor A.C. Wharton

CNN —  

Forty-four years after the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was gunned down on the balcony of a Memphis hotel, the Tennessee city is overcoming what some call protracted guilt and embarrassment, and naming a street in his honor.

A nearly 1-mile stretch of Linden Avenue will be renamed Dr. M.L. King Jr. Avenue on April 4, the anniversary of the civil rights leader’s assassination.

The honor has been a long time coming.

More than 900 U.S. cities have streets named after King. The largest concentration is in the South, led by Georgia which, according to an article by Derek H. Alderman of East Carolina University in the New Georgia Encyclopedia, has more than 70 roads named after the Atlanta native,

More than 900 U.S. cities have streets named after the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., who was slain in Memphis in 1968.

But in the city where he died, the omission has been, to many, glaring.

“We never wanted to address losing Dr. King’s life here,” said former Memphis City Councilman Berlin Boyd, who helped lead the street-naming effort.

Born and raised in Memphis, Boyd, 34, said he always wondered why there was no official street tribute for King. During his brief five-month term in a vacated council seat – from August to January – Boyd decided to get the ball rolling.

“I had the opportunity to do something, and we got it done,” Boyd said.

The east-west Linden Avenue, while less famous than Beale Street with its many blues clubs and restaurants just a block north, was selected because that was where King marched in support of striking sanitation workers.

The avenue also was a pivotal location during the strike. A photo shows the civil rights leader on Linden, Boyd said.

The council proposal was approved earlier this year by a land-use control board.

“He marched along this street; we wanted something that had a real nexus to this city,” said Mayor A.C. Wharton.

One of Dr. King’s associates during the 1968 sanitation workers’ march was the Rev. James Netters, a former city council member.

Netters advocated for an intersection in honor of King in the early 1970s; The council decided to rename a portion of Interstate 240 as a substitute, he said.

“Naming Linden is better than nothing,” Netters said.

The downtown thoroughfare is close to the historic Clayborn-Ball Temple, a focal point for many meetings of the sanitation strikers.

King was scheduled to speak there on April 3, 1968, but, because of a large crowd, the rally was moved to Mason Temple. It was there that he delivered his famous “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” address.

Linden Avenue is a busy downtown thoroughfare and is on one side of FedExForum, home of the NBA’s Memphis Grizzlies.

The area around the street is undergoing a significant transformation, Wharton said.

“This is the right time” to rename the street, the mayor said.

Demolition of a public housing project is making way for a mixed-use development, and other projects will change the landscape.

Long-term plans include naming up to 5 miles of Linden Avenue for King.

King was killed April 4, 1968, by James Earl Ray. The National Civil Rights Museum, located at the Lorraine Motel where he was killed, will sponsor a commemoration on the anniversary date.

The Rev. Jesse Jackson, who was with King at the Lorraine, said the assassination left Memphis with a deep sense of pain and guilt.

He contends the city could “do more to memorialize Dr. King’s legacy.”

For the city, the street naming is a large symbolic step in honoring King.

“There is no way we could do enough for him … that would measure up to what he gave up the United States of America,” Wharton said.