Joining the Fray

by Nathan Stubbs

State Rep. Wilfred Pierre enters the MLK naming debate ' and the issue gets even more complicated.

State Rep. Wilfred Pierre says it's disheartening to see the way an effort to rename a major Lafayette expressway in honor of civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. has hit an impasse before the Lafayette City-Parish Council.

"I think that it's very sad that our parish council members cannot come to an agreement to name Willow Street after Dr. King," Pierre says.

Beginning last September, north Lafayette Councilman Louis Benjamin has brought up the issue of renaming either Willow Street or the Evangeline Thruway after King four times without success. The votes have consistently fallen along racial lines, with the council's seven white councilmen voting against the issue. The opposing councilmen say they don't support the name change because residents and business owners along Willow Street don't want the burden of changing their addresses. The issue has drawn increasingly large crowds to council meetings and exacerbated existing racial tension among councilmen.

In an attempt to assuage the debate, Pierre has begun drafting a resolution to designate the Lafayette Parish stretch of I-49 as a memorial to King. "I've spoken to a couple of the parish council members," he says. "Since they were not successful [in renaming Willow Street], then we will make the attempt to do it on the state level."

When a stretch of interstate is designated as a memorial it does not require the change of any street addresses. The state typically marks these types of memorials with signs on each end of the designated stretch of roadway.

But Pierre's proposal isn't winning over any city-parish councilmen. Benjamin adamantly reiterates that he is committed to naming a major Lafayette street, such as Willow, after King. Further complicating the issue, the council unanimously passed a resolution at its Dec. 5 meeting last month requesting that the Lafayette Parish section of I-49 be designated as a memorial to military veterans.

A letter went out from the council in early December to all Lafayette Parish state representatives requesting they bring the effort before the state Legislature. Pierre doesn't believe the military veterans memorial will make it through the Legislature since a similar tribute already exists in New Orleans, with Veterans Memorial Boulevard.

"I don't think that's feasible here in Lafayette," Pierre says.

Councilman Bobby Badeaux, a Vietnam veteran, says he brought the resolution for a veteran's memorial along I-49 to the city-parish council because Lafayette does not have a memorial to veterans. He believes Pierre should give it a chance to pass through the Legislature before bringing an alternative proposal.

"Mr. Pierre can certainly do what he wishes," Badeaux says. "I think he should allow the [veterans memorial] to go through. He doesn't know what the Legislature's going to do."

Pierre also says he spoke with Benjamin about his intentions and that the two agreed to both pursue a tribute to King. "He says if I'm successful, go for it," Pierre says. "If not, that they are going to continue to try Willow Street."

Benjamin says Pierre is free to make that motion, but that when they spoke, he made it clear that the local effort to rename Willow Street in honor of King was "non-negotiable."

"Our effort remains the same," Benjamin says. "I don't know why Wilfred is just coming out with this now. I think he probably should have been at some of the earlier community meetings we've been having on this."

Pierre and Benjamin's split over the King issue is surprising given that the two have long been political allies ' Pierre walked door-to-door with Benjamin during his last re-election campaign.

Benjamin says he and other supporters are meeting at 6:30 p.m. Thursday evening at the Clifton Chenier Center to determine how they should proceed with the initiative. One option is to get 51 percent of the property owners along Willow Street to sign a petition to rename the street, in which case the issue will go straight to the Planning and Zoning Commission and not require council approval.

"The community will decide what the next step will be," Benjamin says.

Councilman Chris Williams, who along with Benjamin is the only African-American member of the council and supporter of renaming Willow Street, says he worries that proposals to designate a Martin Luther King and a veterans' memorial along I-49 in Lafayette Parish may both come up in the state Legislature. "[The council] passed [the resolution supporting a Veterans Memorial] already," he says. "And I don't want to pit the veterans against King. I don't think that's fair."

Pierre hopes to introduce the resolution at the upcoming legislative special session. However, because the governor largely controls the agenda for special sessions, Pierre says the measure may have to wait until the spring session, which begins in late March.

Pierre, a former Lafayette city councilman, is an influential veteran of the state Legislature who has held his current seat since 1992. He will be term-limited out of the seat next year and is planning a run for the state Senate in District 24. Sen. Don Cravins of Arnaudville, who is also term-limited out of office in 2007, is running for mayor of Opelousas this year.

Last week, Pierre began circulating notice of his resolution to other Acadiana delegation members. Once he finishes drafting the bill, he hopes other local state Reps. will sign on as co-sponsors. He has not heard any feedback from the delegation.

Pierre says if an I-49 memorial to King comes to fruition, it will only partially resolve issues the city-parish council is wrestling with. "I don't think it'll ever resolve the conflict between parish council members," he says. "But I think it will certainly assist in the parish having a major thoroughfare named after a very important leader. A lot of people are very disappointed. This is a very progressive city and to have that blight on us certainly does not speak well for Lafayette. Every major city has a major street named after Dr. King and certainly Lafayette is considered a major city."