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Mary Cook, 97, is one of the original residents on Martin Luther King Circle in Phoenix, a small six-house cul-de-sac that once was known as 11th Place or Circle.

Phoenix: Martin Luther King Circle is so small, it isn't on all the city maps

The Arizona Republic

PHOENIX - Her little house faces the Arizona sunset, and orange afternoon light illuminates hundreds of photos and clippings on her living-room wall. Nestled among the family and friends is the smiling face of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

Mary Cook, 97 years old and not as many pounds, sits quietly looking out her screen door onto the city's Martin Luther King Circle, the six-house cul-de-sac that is the street in Phoenix named after the civil-rights leader.

Martin Luther King Circle is so small it isn't on all the maps of the city, though the holiday itself is - although that happened only after a protracted, nationally publicized fight.

Marches in the late 1980s to win approval for a King holiday in Arizona passed just two blocks away from Cook's door on Washington Street. After then-Arizona Gov. Evan Mecham repealed the then brand-new Martin Luther King holiday in 1987, thousands of people from all races marched on MLK's birthday every year until their persistence helped reinstall MLK Day as a state holiday.

Things have settled down a bit since, but efforts to get a major street named for King never succeeded.

Attempts in 1989 and 1990 to rename Buckeye Road, an east-west route through the center of Phoenix, fell flat. About 2,500 signatures were gathered, but black activists couldn't get support from Phoenix City Council members.

Over the years, Phoenix civil-rights activists have learned to look for modest victories.

Back in 1975, one of Mary Cook's neighbors, a teacher's aide named Shirley Johnson, nudged the city to rename the modest circle of six homes for her hero, Martin Luther King. Johnson's son, Reginald, who still lives on the street, says it was one of his mother's proudest moments before she died in 1985.

Cook had lived in a small house near the Phoenix airport, but when that neighborhood was cleared for an industrial park, she moved to her present street, originally named 11th Circle or 11th Place - nobody remembers for sure.

In the 25 years she's been there, she's seen the other original five owners die or move away. One of the houses at the center of the cul-de-sac was a drug house; a murdered man was found there two years ago. Now there's a new group of neighbors, including the first non-black owners on the street, a Hispanic family. Things seem to be on the upswing.

Several monuments and plaques around the city honor King, including an elementary school, which former longtime City Councilman Calvin Goode considers the best type of tribute to King. "Better than a street," he said.

But don't tell that to Cook.

"I didn't cry when Martin Luther King Jr. died," she said. "I said to myself that he was God's child and he brought God's light to us. He wouldn't have died unless God was ready to have him back."

Years ago, Cook and her husband worked the fields of Arizona, California and Mexico. He died of a heart attack driving his truck along the fields of Bakersfield, Calif.

Her left foot, crushed decades ago under the steel avalanche of a capsizing potato harvester, still hurts a bit and gets a gentle massage from her tiny hand.

An inexperienced driver made too sharp a turn and the machine pitched forward on the workers, leaving them pinned in the mud. The driver, who was white, ran off and left the black and Mexican workers in the darkening field. A farmer eventually heard their cries. They were disentangled and taken to a rural hospital.

Three months later, Cook was using a crutch and back picking cotton.

These days, most of Cook's hearing is gone. Her left eye doesn't work anymore. But no matter.

Mary Cook, farm worker, granddaughter of a slave, does not live in a shack by the river bottom as a woman of modest means may have in the past.

She has a fine house on Martin Luther King Circle and she lives in the dignity that King's work helped make possible.

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