The Friends of MLK have a dream, too.
The Quad Cities non-profit announced Monday — national Martin Luther King, Jr. Day — that a new $1-million park will be built to honor Dr. King, outside its building at 501 Brady St., Davenport. The MLK Park, to open this summer, will be the City of Davenport’s first official memorial for Dr. King.
“The vision for a MLK memorial began back in 2014 with a City of Davenport Task Force. It is exciting to see this vision begin to come to reality,” Ryan Saddler, board chair and CEO of the Friends of MLK, said Monday. “It is our hope that all Davenport residents and Quad Citizens will see this park as an opportunity gather and honor the life and legacy of Dr. King. This park is our reminder of the fight for equity and justice that has made America what it is today.”
The park will serve as a gathering place, celebration spot and MLK memorial.
The property was formerly the site of a mixed-race restaurant, rooming houses, and the first African-American owned business in Davenport (owned by a former slave), Saddler said. The property also was the location of the old Bluebird Tavern, a legendary jazz club and dance spot, where Bix Beiderbecke and Louis Armstrong performed.
Dr. King made his only Davenport appearance close by, in 1965, at Lyceum Hall (today’s Vickie Anne Palmer Hall), 115 W. 7th St., when he received the Pacem in Terris Peace and Freedom award.
“This is the prime location to feature the rich cultural history, located in this community,” Saddler said. “These and many other stories will be featured in the park, thanks to community partners like the Putnam Museum, the Azubuike Center for the Arts, LULAC Council 10, and many more, that are helping us collect stories that we will be able to have implemented and cemented into the story of Davenport.”
The new park will feature a stage for live music, he noted. While there will be permanent displays, there also will be rotating exhibits on other local QC civil rights leaders, Saddler said.
“We believe lifting up our shared history as Quad Citizens is part of creating a collective identity of the beloved community that Dr. King spoke of,” he said.
Half way toward campaign goal
Randy Moore, interim CEO of the Quad Cities Community Foundation and the MLK Park campaign chair, said thanks to support from the city of Davenport, the park’s construction cost is already half covered.
“It’s really exciting to start a project and we’re already halfway to that goal,” he said Monday.
Moore grew up in Indianapolis, with roots in southern Kentucky. He recalled taking summer trips to visit his family in Kentucky, and they had to leave in the middle of the night.
“My parents explained to me, driving down to the South was dangerous. If you drove at nighttime, the probability of them recognizing that it was Blacks in the car was exacerbated – it was safer to travel at night,” Moore said.
“Here we are today in 2022, in a much, much different environment. I don’t know that I can really say better,” he said. “Things we were fighting for in 1963, ’64, voting rights – we’re still fighting that today. Poverty, we’re fighting that today. The list goes on. We’ve gotten a little better, but we still have a long way to go.”
Dr. King was instrumental in changing all that, Moore said, noting we can drive to Kentucky in the daylight. “We can travel with the windows down, and we can stop at gas stations. We can stop at restaurants, whereas before we couldn’t do that,” he said.
“Dr. King said, if can fly, do that. But if you can’t fly, run,” Moore recalled. “If you can’t run, walk. If you can’t walk, crawl. But no matter what happens, don’t stop moving. I think this, what we’re doing today, is our way of never stop moving.”
The park also will honor QC civil rights leaders like Henry Vargas, Monsignor Marvin Mottet and the local Catholic Church.
“I don’t want people to think this will be highlighting just Black citizens,” Saddler said. “The park is meant to mention those who paved the way for us to enjoy the amenities we have today.”
A partnership among nonprofits
The MLK Park will reflect a partnership among several QC nonprofits, he noted.
“We will be sharing those stories, what we gather from those stories, with the Putnam Museum,” Saddler said. “We’re also working with Davenport Schools.”
It’s important to get this history into the local schools, he said. “Us as adults also need to understand our history – the struggle that we as a people, all of us.”
One of the highlights of the park will be changing history panels, Saddler said. They could be on the influence of Hispanic Heritage Month, Latino leaders, and stories of Black Quad Citizens and early pioneers.
“What I hope this park represents most is our community, that we are better together,” he said. “What the example of Dr. King showed was that we actually be that and do that. But it takes effort; it’s gonna take effort on behalf of all of us. We have to understand and learn from people who look different than us.
“Dr. King had a number of individuals who helped him; Dr. King didn’t discriminate in his struggle,” Saddler said. “He wanted a spot where we could be comfortable being uncomfortable, and having those conversations.”
The Friends of MLK works closely with the longtime Martin Luther King Center and MLK Park at 630 9th St., Rock Island. The new Davenport park will have more of an educational emphasis, Saddler said.
“The focus will be the city of Davenport history,” he said. “There is so much to our story; the challenge is where do we start and how do we pare this down, so it fits stories on the panels.”
Friends of MLK wanted to go beyond Black history, because that’s what Dr. King was about, he said.
“The letter from Birmingham Jail, for instance, was a challenge to white clergy,” Saddler said. “He had these folks, people working together, that I think Dr. King’s legacy, it goes beyond the Black community and the Black story. It’s that aspect of, I can’t be who I ought to be until you are who you ought to be. We need one another to survive in this beloved community.”
“It’s really exciting,” Putnam Museum president/CEO Rachael Mullins said of the plan. “I think the mission of the Putnam is to bring these kinds of stories to life across the Quad-Cities region. We love that there’s this collaboration that will bring these stories directly to this neighborhood that was so instrumental to the Black history movement and emblematic of the incredible entrepreneurship and opportunities in the African-American community.”
“It’s a tremendous opportunity and a tremendous honor to be working with the Friends of MLK on this initiative,” she said.
The Putnam is working on collecting oral histories with the nonprofit, documenting those stories, both for the museum’s update to its regional history exhibit and the new park. Visitors will be encouraged to see both places to learn about the important history, Mullins said.
“Friends of MLK is dedicated to not just African-American history, but the broader story of Martin Luther King and what he was trying to accomplish,” she said. “Bringing his vision of that beloved community here to the Quad Cities. For those of us that love the Quad Cities and have found tremendous opportunity here, it’s now our responsibility to make sure this is a beloved community that has equal access, social justice and love and care for all of our citizens.
“So I love that there’s that broader outreach and mission to make sure everyone’s history is represented, and we understand that as part of our collective identity as Quad Citizens,” Mullins said. “Our community has extraordinary stories across the board, for fighting for social justice and civil rights, from a variety of standpoints, in all different cultures. It’s exciting to see that manifested here in the central city of Davenport.”
Work to start in April
The Friends of MLK has partnered with Streamline Architects to design the park. The tentative groundbreaking date is April, with an opening in summer 2022. Fifty percent of the construction funds have been raised to date, from a city grant of $500,000 (including federal COVID relief funds) for it.
“As Mayor, I am pleased to see this exciting project come to fruition,” Davenport Mayor Mike Matson said. “The Davenport City Council appreciates the great work of the Friends of MLK, who have sought to find ways to honor the great legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr. in our community.
“Through their diligent work and partnership, the Davenport City Council has made a funding commitment to create a new park in memorial of Martin Luther King, Jr.,” he said. “This park will provide Davenport residents with a place to gather, celebrate, remember and honor the legacy of someone that fought for the freedom of many.”
“We’re proud and happy to do it,” Matson said Monday of city funding for the project. “We’re excited to be part of it.”
To donate and for more information, visit the Friends of MLK website.