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Selma: Martin Luther King Street is also the location of the First Baptist Church, where King frequently spoke

Selma Times-Journal

SELMA, Ala. - In 1976, Sylvan Street was changed to M.L. King Street by a 6-5 vote of the Selma City Council.

Of the six who voted for the change, two were white, including current Council President Carl Morgan Jr. Morgan was also council president during the 1965 civil rights marches that brought international attention to this city of 25,000.

Morgan doesn't recall much controversy over the renaming; the main concerns came from the small businesses that had to change their addresses.

Councilwoman Jean Martin said the renaming was an important step in the history of the city. Sylvan was one of the town's original streets, but Martin said it was important to honor King, who spent many nights along Sylvan working for civil rights during the 1960s.

Martin is also the curator of the Old Depot Museum on M.L. King Street. She notes the street was the beginning of the route from historic Brown Chapel to the Edmund Pettus Bridge, site of the infamous Bloody Sunday march on Selma to the state Capitol building 50 miles away in Montgomery, which was led by King. Last year, Congress named the route a National Historic Trail and the U.S. Department of Transportation made it an All-American Highway.

Martin Luther King Street is also the location of the First Baptist Church, where King frequently spoke at the height of the voting rights struggle, and which was considered the financial headquarters for the movement in Selma.

The street is about a mile and a half in length and includes other smaller new churches like Freewill Gospel Church and Grace Temple. Most of the smaller businesses have either closed, been torn down or moved to new locations since the 1960s, but Selma Machine Shop and Holley Farm and Garden Supply remain from the Sylvan Street era.

Brown Chapel is located in the middle of Selma's first public housing complex, George Washington Carver Homes, which was frequently photographed in the 1960s demonstrations and provided the backdrop for a famous Time magazine photograph of King just before the Selma-to-Montgomery march.

There are mostly older homes along the street now, the vast majority of them owned by older African-American families.

There is some irony here, too, which perhaps exists nowhere else in the U.S.

At one point in its route, Martin Luther King Street intersects with Jefferson Davis Avenue. During the Civil War, Davis was the president of the Confederacy.

In the 1860s, Sylvan Street was home to the Confederate National Naval Ordnance Works, where the Brooke Canon and several ironclad ships were built. The last remaining section of the war factory today is undergoing renovations as a tourist attraction. For several years, Selma's Chamber of Commerce has promoted the city's place in civil rights and Civil War History.

After crossing Jeff Davis Avenue, M.L. King Street passes through one of Selma's poorest residential sections before running again through a section of middle-class family homes.

The city has made sections of the street part of its "walking tour" of civil-rights-era sites designated by large markers that tell the story of the people and events that helped bring about equal rights for all Americans.

With a monument honoring Dr. King in front of Brown Chapel, those who live on the street or just come to visit are reminded of his tireless efforts to keep the dream alive.

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