WHAT IS THE MLK DISTRICT in CHARLESTON, SC

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by Victoria MOORE

Centrally located within Charleston’s Cannonborough / Elliotborough neighborhoods are Spring Street and Cannon Street.

In 1968 civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated. That same year on Spring Street you would have found the only hotel in Charleston that catered to black people, Hotel James. You also would have found the Lincoln Theatre (opened in 1920 for an African American audience), Taylor’s Bakery, where residents looked forward to buying snack-bags of crumbs for just a nickel, and a number of other black-owned businesses. So many black-owned businesses, in fact, that some have referred to this time and space as Charleston’s African American “Prosperity Street.”

Dr. King’s links to Charleston are more than folklore. During his 1967 speech at Charleston County Hall on King Street he was quoted saying, “I come here not as an outsider but as an insider with real associations and connections in the state of South Carolina and in Charleston.” [source: https://bit.ly/2DoIRuW]

charleston sc martin luther king jr memorial district

In 1999, though the racial demographics of the area (and downtown Charleston, at large) were already shifting, then council member Wendell Gilliard established an ordinance to name Spring Street and Cannon Street the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial District. He proposed identifying a green space in the area as Martin Luther King Park and placing a statue of Dr. King as the centerpiece in the park. To-date, the memorial is only identifiable by the two signs hanging on either end of the district.

It is known in Charleston that a population which was once majority black (in 1980 two-thirds of the Charleston peninsula was black) has completely shifted. By 2010 the demographics flipped; the population had become two-thirds white. The trend has continued in that direction and an African American “Prosperity Street” does not exist anymore.

Artist Neill Bogan wrote on his work Rehearsing the Past, Spoleto Festival USA 2001, “What does it take for African American memory to find a physical space to show itself on the peninsula of Charleston? … The question soon transformed, what will space for African American memory mean in a locale in which there is no more space for African American life?”

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