Group urges city to rename street for lawyer in civil-rights case that desegregated Little Rock schools

Posted: February 21, 2018 at 4:30 a.m.

A map showing the section of Alabama St. considered

A group wants Pine Bluff to rename eight blocks of Alabama Street for Wiley A. Branton Sr., the principal lawyer in the civil-rights case that desegregated public schools in Little Rock.

The Rev. Jesse Turner, senior pastor at Elm Grove Baptist Church, said he got the idea after talking to students at the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff and realizing few of them knew about Branton, who was one of the school's most famous alumni.

They might know who Thurgood Marshall was, but not Branton, Turner said.

Branton and Marshall worked together on the case that resulted in the desegregation of Central High School in Little Rock in 1957.

Marshall, a lawyer for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, went on to serve on the U.S. Supreme Court.

Branton became executive director of the Voter Education Project in 1962 and represented Freedom Riders during voter registration drives in the South.

Turner sent out a news release on Monday saying Pine Bluff Interested Citizens for Voter Registration Inc. was spearheading the effort to rename the section of Alabama Street from Talbot Avenue north to 12th Avenue. The group has a 12-member board, and Turner is one of the organization's directors.

Turner said the group was successful in 2003 in getting the Pine Bluff bypass on Interstate 530 named for Branton. The section honoring Branton is 11.73 miles long, said Danny Straessle, a spokesman for the Arkansas Department of Transportation.

But Branton's name is omitted from many maps, Turner said.

"It took us 10 years to get Wiley Branton's name on that stretch of highway," Turner said. "We thought that name would be carried on all maps."

But Straessle said the highway department sticks with numbers for maps, not names.

"For highway purposes, it's Interstate 530," he said. "The highway name is really just more local. It's honorary."

That's the way it is across Arkansas, which has a couple dozen memorial highways, Straessle said.

Turner said he believes Branton's name should be on the interstate and a street in Pine Bluff.

Having a street in the middle of the city named for Branton would better honor his legacy and pique the interest of young people to know more about him, said Turner. It would help preserve local history and might also provide an economic boost from tourists who want to see the house on Alabama Street where Branton lived and Marshall stayed when he visited, Turner said.

Turner said he wants the Pine Bluff City Council to consider his proposal.

Win Trafford, chairman of the council's Traffic and Aviation Committee, said Turner talked to the three-member committee about the proposal several months ago.

"None of us liked the idea," Trafford said. "There's already an interstate named after him. We try to avoid renaming different streets because it causes so much confusion with the 911 system and just for people in general, with them having to change their addresses. The negatives so often outweigh the positives in that situation."

Turner said there are two or three businesses on the residential stretch of Alabama Street that would be renamed. The rest of Alabama Street could also be renamed in honor of Branton if it would be confusing to rename only part of it, he said.

"It's a win-win situation if our councilmen drill down and see the real impact it can have on our city," Turner said.

Turner said the group would also like to see a bust of Branton placed in Pine Bluff Memorial Garden, which is a median in front of City Hall where a tree is planted in honor of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.

Branton, a former dean of Howard University Law School, died in 1988.

"He was one of my closest friends," Marshall told The New York Times after Branton's death. "He was a great guy, a warm person who believed in people and believed in what was right."

Marshall died five years later.

Wiley Branton Jr., a Pulaski County Circuit Court judge, said he liked the idea of honoring his father with a street named for him in Pine Bluff.

"I'm always supportive of anything that would honor my dad, but I'm not taking a position into the politics of how that should be done," he said.

Metro on 02/21/2018