The city council of this central Florida town tried to settle a bitter, monthslong dispute by voting Monday to change Martin Luther King Avenue back to its original name of Sixth Avenue, while keeping up street signs with both names.
The 4-1 decision followed almost two hours of public testimony over an issue that turned neighbor against neighbor and exposed racial tensions in this town of 11,000 founded by Union veterans of the Civil War.
“In my opinion, it’s just pure evil that has come to the citizens of this town,” Donna Church, a white resident, told the city council as she tried not to choke up. “I know people who have known each other 20 years who won’t speak to each other anymore.”
Sallie Stewart, a white resident who is married to a black man, said the debate that erupted over renaming Sixth Avenue last October to honor the slain civil rights leader had exposed the state of race relations in Zephyrhills, about 25 miles northeast of Tampa.
“Thank God the cover has been pulled off Zephyrhills,” Stewart said.
Some opponents said they didn’t want to change their addresses and weren’t consulted. Others said renaming a street after King could hurt the town’s economy, as streets named after him elsewhere frequently run through poor neighborhoods.
Supporters of keeping the street named after King rallied outside City Hall before the meeting holding signs that said “No Justice. No Peace in Zephyrhills” and singing “We Shall Overcome.”
“If we can compromise by putting both names on the signs ... that’s one token gesture we can make to bring our community back together,” said council member Celia Graham.
Ben Youmans, who lives on Sixth Avenue, said he opposed renaming the street because of King’s opposition to the Vietnam War.
“I don’t consider Martin Luther King to be an icon or a hero to be looked up to,” he said.
The council had renamed the street last year after being petitioned by resident Irene Dobson, who thought it was time the town did something to honor King.
Dobson said before the vote that the efforts to return the name to Sixth Avenue were racist.
“They say it’s not, but I wasn’t born yesterday,” she said.
But after the vote, Dobson said she was happy with having both street signs in place.
“I like it. I really do,” she said.