Opponents, supporters of renaming park to honor MLK weigh in at City Council meeting

Posted at 9:04 PM on May 15, 2017

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By HALEY JONES
haley.jones.svlfreenews@gmail.com

Opponents of the Statesville City Council’s decision to rename Lakewood Park after civil rights icon Martin Luther King Jr. returned to the council chambers Monday to voice their opposition to the name change.

Many of the opponents attended the council’s May 1 meeting, but they were prohibited from addressing council members because of a procedural rule that allows public comments only at the second meeting of each month. The group returned in force Monday in an attempt to convince the council to revisit the issue. Protesters wore green to symbolize their unity.

In addition to the opposition, supporters of the name change were also present. Many were there to express their gratitude for the city’s acknowledgement of MLK’s contributions to the civil rights movement.

Brian Summers, a Statesville native, who now lives and works in Washington, D.C., attended the meeting and brought a letter from the King family thanking Statesville for honoring their father.

“(Martin Luther King, Jr.’s) passion was to seek equality in America,” Summers said, reading from the letter. “It is great to learn that Statesville will be doing something in his honor. We wanted to share with the citizens of Statesville that you have our fullest support.”

Next year will be the 50th anniversary of MLK’s assassination.

More than the name change, Nicole Kershner took issue with the policies pertaining to the management of the city’s parks.

“When Lakewood Park became the topic of renaming, I would like to have been made aware,” she said. “I want it to be clear that this is not about a name change, but that there was no policy to rename this park or any park.”

Kershner told the council it should include open communications with the public in its decision-making process. In this case, close neighbors and park regulars were not notified in advance and their opinions not taken into consideration. She said the council should have found another way to honor MLK.

Melanie Shippee also spoke out against the name change, stating that she has an emotional attachment to the park as a result of spending significant time their throughout her life.

“It may not seem like that big of a deal,” Shippee said. “My question is, ‘Why rename it?’ It’s been Lakewood Park all of my life.”

“My emotions are admittedly tied to the name as much as the physical location,” she added. “It’s our park so I want to know why we didn’t have a say-so in the renaming of our park. This is not a racial issue to me and I have to believe that it really is not a racial issue at all. It’s just that some things actually do just need to stay the same.”

Ricky Fousnight and Angela Huffman asked the council why they were not made aware of the change earlier in the process.

“I wish I would have known earlier,” Huffman said. “I would have voiced my opinion.”

Another opponent, Katy Barker, suggested that the money used to pay for new signage, about $4,000, could be put to better use in the community, while Rebecca Perry and Eric Hanson spoke about the crime associated with the park and how it would be disrespectful to name an area with that reputation after the civil rights leader.

Candie Raymond suggested that the council should instead apply Martin Luther King Jr.’s name to the Statesville Soccer Complex.

“(The Soccer Complex) represents everything that Martin Luther King Jr. was about,” Raymond said, describing the park’s focus on the global sport of soccer as well as the park’s playgrounds, which include a handicap section, and the walking trails and picnic areas. “Instead of just naming a park after Martin Luther King Jr., why don’t we name a park that truly brings all of the community together and represents the way (Martin Luther King, Jr.) marched, fought and died?”

Sashay “Sassy” Smyth, an unofficial organizer of the opposition, said that she understood “the tough place” that the council was now in as a result of the name change.

“This far out, reconsidering the name change can become a racial issue,” Smyth said. “I’ve tried to distance myself from racial issues because they do not represent me or my mission.”

“It is more important than ever that we honor MLK with a meaningful park that creates the opportunity to learn,” Smyth said.

Smyth painted a picture of a park that would spark curiosity in children, one with a statue of a man helping others, a net to walk through before crossing a bridge – all symbolism of the civil rights struggles of Martin Luther King, Jr.

“The minds of children are brilliant,” Smyth said. “It’s these seeds (of children’s minds) that inspire others.”

She also offered alternatives to the name change, including naming a new park, building a community garden or making improvements to the amphitheater in the park in honor of MLK.

Meanwhile, NAACP Statesville Branch President Pastor Reginald Keitt commended the council members for renaming the park after MLK.

“We stand in support of your bold and courageous decision,” Keitt said.

David Meacham, a resident of Statesville for almost 30 years and former executive director of the Statesville Housing Authority, was also present in support of the name change.

“Change is never easy but change is necessary (and) inevitable. I don’t think everybody here is racist (just) because they don’t support our position,” Meacham said. “But people believe what they believe.”

Gary West, chairperson of the Statesville Human Relations Commission, discussed the group’s efforts toward improving relations among all members of the Statesville community.

“I’m here to comment on the strides you have made,” West said. “With this action, (you) not only honor MLK’s legacy, but more importantly you remind us that we need to continue his efforts to bring back significant improvements that bring back people. You did a good thing; you made the right decision. We proudly stand with you.”

West ended by quoting King:

“Human progress is neither automatic nor inevitable. ... Every step toward the goal of justice requires sacrifice, suffering, and struggle; the tireless exertions and passionate concern of dedicated individuals.”

“Thank you for your determination and yes, even your struggle, in making this decision” he added.

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