Winter Park now has a monument to America’s most celebrated civil rights leader, and its name, for now, is Lake Island Park.
The City Commission voted Monday to rename one of the city’s largest parks as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Park in honor of the assassinated civil rights champion who fought for equal rights for minorities and the working class.
But encounters Mayor Ken Bradley had with “bigots” left him “appalled” by some who had injected their voice into the process.
“I have been amazed and appalled by this process,” Bradley said. “There have been citizens who have said things to me that I would expect to hear if I were a mayor in the 1950s.”
The park’s ties with the city’s historically black west side community go back to the 1950s and beyond, when the land upon which Lake Island Park stands was a predominately black neighborhood. The city purchased the area to make it a park. A decade later, King was marching for the rights of black sanitation workers when he attained martyrdom in the wake of his assassination in Memphis, Tenn.
Bradley said he didn’t appreciate some comments that hearkened back to pre-civil rights movement-era sentiments. Those emails and exchanges weren’t just matter of fact racial tirades, Bradley said, pointing to coy subliminal racism, which he said was even worse than were it plainly spoken. Such coded language attempted to exploit the gray area between racism and genuine concerns, he suggested.
“When it’s being code named, I think that's just appalling,” Bradley said.
Perils in the process
Regardless of some negative reaction to the renaming, the response was overwhelmingly positive, Commissioner Steven Leary said. But he also said the process leading to the decision was flawed, which may have affected which areas of the city were eligible to be in the renaming process.
Leary questioned how a survey was carried out during the past two weeks to vote on what landmark the citizens thought should be renamed. During that questioning he discovered that the survey was open to all attendees, including non-residents.
“So it could have been the Johnson wedding, and they just flew in and [voted]?” Leary asked.
He said that most recently more surveys were in favor of Shady Park than for Lake Island Park.
“I still think the correct place is Shady Park,” Leary said. “The Martin Luther King celebration is held in Shady Park…. I personally feel like it’s a better fit.”
In total, City Manager Randy Knight said 275 votes were cast for Lake Island Park to be renamed, and 157 were cast for Shady Park.
Uniting a community
At Monday’s meeting, Commissioner Carolyn Cooper said she still believed that the city should concentrate on naming landmarks after local residents who have impacted the community. The city currently has a policy restricting renaming of streets, parks or landmarks to people who impacted Winter Park directly, making the honoring of Martin Luther King Jr. an exception.
The mayor said that the city should work toward unanimity in the decision, to set a precedent for cooperation throughout the city.
“If we can’t be in unanimity, I don't know how the community can be in unanimity,” Bradley said.
In the end the Commission voted 5-0 to rename Lake Island Park after the fallen civil rights leader, which Bradley said the city should use as an example for all residents.
“This is a beginning point, not an end point,” Bradley said. “This needs to be far more endemic in how we discuss issues in our community, things that could be volatile.”
Carolyn Fennell, who led the task force for the renaming process, agreed, saying the renaming has a larger purpose for the city and for civil rights in general.
“It’s about naming a park for someone who's not just for the west side,” Fennell said. “It’s about a global symbol that the city of Winter Park can stand for. It's about integrity. It’s that we can stand up and we can get along.”