Selma renames street in honor of Martin Luther King Jr.

Portion of E. Railroad Street is now Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Way

dquizon@newsobserver.comJanuary 22, 2013 

— In the last few months of her life, Geraldine Whitley campaigned to get a street here named in honor of Martin Luther King Jr.

She died just one week before her dream came to fruition Monday, when a portion of East Railroad Street became Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Way.

The renaming resulted from the efforts of many, including alumni from Smithfield-Selma High School and the Richard B. Harrison School, but it was Whitley who gave it a final push. Town leaders and community members have wanted to name a street after the civil rights leader for at least three years, but debate over which street to dedicate in his honor had stalled the idea.

While the proposal was stuck in local political gridlock last fall, Whitley and her sister Josie Jean began collecting signatures on a petition to have East Railroad Street renamed.

“She couldn’t walk very well,” Josie said. “I had to go door to door to get the petition signed.”

Geraldine drove her sister around Selma to knock on doors. They presented the results – 100 signatures from around Selma – to the town council in November.

Mayor Cheryl Oliver was on hand with town council members to dedicate the new street on Monday morning. Council members tied a yellow ribbon on the new sign and posed with members of the Richard B. Harrison alumni association.

“I wish she could’ve been here,” Oliver said of Whitley. “But she was with us in spirit.”

The rededication ended a debate that lasted about three years. Some people were concerned that the street was not fit for a tribute to the late Dr. King. The street begins and ends in Selma, and is bound by an auto garage on one side and a housing project on the other.

Council member Jacqueline Lacy, who was in favor of the rededication, said renaming that street in King’s honor was fitting. The housing project includes many of Selma’s low-income residents, she said.

“That’s who he was concerned about,” Lacy said. “I thought this would be ideal.”

The road is also centrally located and close to the railroads that made Selma a town to begin with. Jerome Benton, a resident who works as an associate minister in Wilson, said he likes the location because it intersects the town’s main thoroughfare, U.S. 301.

“People from all walks of life cross that intersection,” Benton said. “It’s not a privileged area. It’s for everybody.”

People at the Richard B. Harrison reunion remembered Whitley – who succumbed to liver cancer at age 64 last Wednesday – as a dedicated community volunteer. She was always willing to help the alumni association, recalls her friend Beulah Carmichael of Pine Level.

“She never said no,” Carmichael said. “It was just something that was in her.”

Although she never saw the result of her efforts, her friends have a good idea of how she would have reacted to the town’s rededication.

“She would be tickled pink,” Carmichael said.

Quizon: 919-836-5768

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