Each year on Martin Luther King Jr. Day there is a big parade down Martin Luther King Jr. Drive.
Both the street named after King and the parade celebrating his life are largely the work of one man from Durham – Chairman of the Guilford County Board of Commissioners Skip Alston.
This week, after more than three decades of successful parades down Martin Luther King Jr. Drive, Alston reflected on the origin of the road’s dedication and the start of the parade celebrating the life and words of the country’s best known civil rights champion.
Alston said that back in the late 1980s after he had moved to Greensboro from Durham, he believed Greensboro should have a street named after King.
That effort got off to a rocky start. The Greensboro Planning Board overwhelmingly shot down the idea after even the local president of the NAACP spoke against renaming the road. Alston said the NAACP leader didn’t think King should have a road named after him in Greensboro before the Greensboro Four did, since the four North Carolina A&T State University students’ Woolworth’s lunch counter sit-in sparked a national wave of civil rights protests.
Undeterred, Alston appealed the decision to the Greensboro City Council after a lot of leg work going around the community door to door and having King advocates sign a petition.
The City Council approved renaming request on an 8-to-1 vote.
Alston said the particular road – formerly Asheboro Street – was chosen with a great deal of care.
“I thought about Lee Street; I thought about Florida Street,” he said, adding that Asheboro Street fit the bill perfectly because it was a lengthy stretch of road through an African-American part of town with a lot of history.
He said he also wanted a street that connected to the highway system.
“People driving by see the exit – that was intentional,” Alston said.
Once the street name changed in 1989, Alston thought it would be a great idea to celebrate the name change with a parade, so the young Alston, who knew zero about holding that sort of event, got back to work.
“I knew nothing about putting on a parade – absolutely nothing,” he said, laughing. “But I got out a typewriter and I typed up the application myself and put the word out that people could be in the parade.”
Then he did his best to put the rest of the pieces in place, he said.
Alston said that even though everything was done by the seat of his pants, the parade came off better than he could have dreamed.
That event, which was supposed to be a one-time thing, ended up an annual event that’s still going strong in 2023.