Tuesday, October 09, 2007

An avenue named “Justice,” a road named “Freedom”

I got a phone call the other day from one of the proponents of renaming Interstate Avenue for Cesar Chavez.

Apparently defeated in North Portland, the renamers were looking at Beaverton-Hillsdale Highway as a thoroughfare to honor Chavez.

I was cool to the idea.

First — but, as you will see, not foremost — is that “Beaverton-Hillsdale Highway” has been a modest plus in Hillsdale’s effort to establish its identity. Ungainly yes. Misleading, yes (little Hillsdale is hardly a counterbalance to bulked-up Beaverton). But the name literally puts Hillsdale on many maps.

Next — and this is far more significant — history does strange things to the names of our heroes. We celebrate Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday as a national holiday, but the King we celebrate each year is a caricature of the King so many of us remember. In the holiday tributes, I, for instance, see only a glimmer of the King who inspired me to go to Mississippi in the spring of 1964 to work on voter registration.

King has become some kind of gauzy, harmless dreamer, thanks to one indelible speech. The King I knew was passionate about justice and change. He was a masterful agent of change who should be remembered for the urgency of our rallying cry, “Freedom Now!”

Today we have Martin Luther King Boulevard, but who associates the name with King’s tenacity, with his moral outrage, with his commitment to non-violence, his struggles for justice, with “Freedom Now!”?

No, we are left with a street of a dreamer.

Chavez is a less well defined figure in American history, partly because his speeches haven’t become part of American lore. He was the champion of the poor and the horribly exploited, specifically those who harvested our food. In November 1960, Edward R. Murrow made a searing documentary called “The Harvest of Shame” about the plight of the farm workers. It should be viewed before each Thanksgiving meal.

Chavez bravely sought to expunge the shame of those harvests. Despite his efforts, we still consume harvests shame. Those Chavez struggled for are now everywhere, still vulnerable to exploitation.

Why shouldn’t we honor Chavez and King — and Gandhi and Mandela, and Susan Anthony and Henry David Thoreau by naming streets and bridges and schools and even entire cities and states after them?

Because their actions and ideals are their legacy. If we truly want to honor them, we should celebrate and perpetuate those deeds and ideals. Unless we can be assured that King and Chavez will be known accurately and well to future generations those street names will become hollow vessels.

Who today knows the Barbur* of Barbur Boulevard? Who knows about the Macadam* of Macadam Avenue? And who 50 years from now will know the Naito of Naito Boulevard?

Yes, there are far better names for Interstate Avenue and Beaverton-Hillsdale Highway. If we change those names, let’s name them for what King and Chavez stood for.

Is that not what they would want?

Honor them and inspire us by changing Union, Interstate, Beaverton-Hillsdale and Macadam to Justice, Dignity, Freedom and Peace.

* Anthony L. Barbur (1861-1941) served 10 years as Portland city auditor and then as commissioner of Public Works for 16 years. (The Oregon History Project)
* Macadam is the name of the mixture of sand, gravel and tar used to pave roads. Macadam Avenue was the first in the city to be surfaced with the mixture.

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