Along with parades, school concerts and other memorial services to observe the first federal holiday in honor of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., Prince George's County officials decided to do something more permanent: name a road after him.
The difficult part has been deciding which road.
Before settling on renaming the George Palmer Highway, a six-mile divided thoroughfare that runs from the District line through the towns of Seat Pleasant and Glenarden, local and state politicians changed their minds twice about what road would be a proper memorial to the slain civil rights leader.
The name game began last fall, when Democratic state Sen. Decatur Trotter, at the request of the county chapter of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, proposed that Palmer Highway be named for King. The Seat Pleasant Town Council unanimously endorsed the idea, but Glenarden was not so sure. "We're not oppposed to it," Mayor James Fletcher said Friday. "We just don't think it does anything for the name of Martin Luther King."
Trotter, fearing that getting General Assembly approval would take too long, suggested that County Council member Floyd Wilson sponsor the measure in the council. Maryland Secretary of Transportation William K. Hellmann said he would follow whatever recommendation the county officials made.
Wilson did so, but his resolution ran into an unexpected roadblock: council members did not like the idea of renaming a road already named for someone.
"I'm ashamed to admit I don't know who George Palmer was," said Council Chairman William Amonett, "but I don't like renaming George Palmer Highway." On Nov. 27, the resolution was defeated, 5 to 4. Palmer, who had been active in county Democratic politics, was a banker, Seat Pleasant founder and planning commissioner who led the fight to build the highway that, after his death in 1941, was named for him. Palmer Park is also named for him.
Undaunted by the Palmer Highway decision, proponents of the King memorial found an alternative: Landover Road. They reasoned that it is named after an area, not a person, and that in running all the way from Bladensburg to Landover, it passes through a number of racially varied areas.
Early this month, at Trotter's suggestion, the county's Transportation Oversight Committee -- an advisory group of state and county officials and business representatives -- endorsed the idea. All that remained before Hellmann could sign an order effecting the change was for the county's state Senate delegation to give its approval.
But at a meeting last week, the senators unanimously decided that renaming Palmer Highway would be more appropriate after all.
"We just couldn't get a consensus" on renaming Landover Road, Trotter said. "People on the road just didn't want it." He explained that the four-lane road, also known as Rte. 202, has many family-owned shops and other small businesses -- "more businesses . . . than on any other road in the county except Rte. 1" -- and owners complained that the name change would mean new stationery and other expenses.
There had also been complaints from Palmer Highway businesses and residents, Trotter acknowledged, but not as many.
So, on Jan. 20, the first federal Martin Luther King Jr. Day, Palmer Highway will become the Martin Luther King Jr. Highway. Officials are planning a ceremony that they hope King's widow, Coretta Scott King, will attend. There will be a two-year phase-in period during which the U.S. Postal Service and other government agencies will recognize both names.
Not surprisingly, the choice of Palmer Highway has drawn mixed reviews. One of the favorable ones came from council member Hilda Pemberton, who represents Seat Pleasant. "George Palmer Highway connects two of the larger black communities in the county and that seems to be an appropriate monument," she said.
Glenarden Mayor Fletcher disagreed. "It doesn't befit his King's name at all to just go through a black area," he said. "Martin Luther King was much bigger than that." Fletcher said renaming Landover Road "would have meant something" because it goes "through black areas as well as mixed and nonblack communities."
While agreeing that renaming Landover Road would have been preferable, Trotter said he supports renaming Palmer Highway. "George Palmer was just not someone of our persuasion," he said. "When the road was named during the 1940s , there were no blacks in the metropolitan area. Now, with a majority of blacks on the street, I think it's appropriate to make the change."
Seat Pleasant Mayor Frank Blackwell said he was "elated" with the choice, which he said "will bring home the name of Martin Luther King to our youngsters" and might attract new business to Seat Pleasant. "George Palmer Highway goes right through the heart of our city. This could generate life and help revitalize the commercial area."
But Robert Zinsmeister, director of the county Chamber of Commerce governmental affairs office, said, "Every business we've heard from along that road is opposed" for reasons deeper than just short-term costs. "Some of our large office parks -- such as the Palmer-Fifty Office Center and the Hanson-Palmer Business Park -- are very concerned about losing the identity that goes along with having Palmer in their names."
King memorial proponents could have chosen a library, a park or an unnamed road, Zinsmeister said. "They should have found something everyone can agree on."