In an almost courtroom-like setting, with a podium front and center dividing rows of chairs left and right, more than 50 Eastside residents poured into the gymnasium of the Boys and Girls Club of San Antonio on Thursday evening to listen to neighbors and community member address the potential renaming of the Martin Luther King Jr. Freedom Bridge to R.A. Callies Freedom Bridge. So far, a majority of those who attended the two meetings on the matter said they would welcome the change that would honor the Eastside community leader.
The bridge was originally named the Freedom Bridge, then briefly for R.A. Callies in the late ’90s because he led the charge to have it built. It was changed to MLK a few years later amid controversy.
The discussion got heated at times, with some attendees shouting “shut up” and “you can leave.” Constant interruptions were met with reminders from moderators that, “this isn’t a debate.” Things took an emotional turn when Callies’ children shed tears and begged the audience to name the bridge after their father, who died in 2011, for his tireless efforts in the community.
At the request of neighborhood residents, including the Callies family, Councilman Warrick (D2) began the public process for the proposed name change and appointed Pastor Patrick Jones, Director of Transportation & Capital Improvements Mike Frisbee, and City Director of Development Services Roderick Sanchez as members of a decision-making committee.
This was the second input meeting on the subject. The first took place in July at the Eastside Community Baptist Church.
“Both meetings will be taken into consideration (by the committee),” Warrick said, and then a recommendation will be made to City Council for consideration.
The Thursday evening meeting turned into a history lesson of sorts, with residents reminiscing about Rev. R.A. Callies‘ work on the Eastside, retracing his fundraising and lobbying efforts that led to the betterment of the community.
Some attendees, however, argued passionately against renaming the bridge, regardless of Callies’ local importance.
“To remove Dr. King’s name off the Freedom Bridge would be a disgrace,” said Otis Thompson, suggesting instead to name the Coleman Railroad Bridge Underpass after Callies and include other local icons as well.
Other participants in the discussion, such as Nettie Hinton and Ronnie Thomas, called for a “win-win” compromise that could include both names on the Freedom Bridge.
Many residents, such as Eugene Coleman, who believe the bridge’s name should be changed back solely to R.A. Callies Freedom Bridge, rhetorically asked the audience if they even knew why the Freedom Bridge was built in the first place. Educators and members of the Callies family said the bridge was built for students and families to be able to cross over Salado Creek.
When the area would flood, students couldn’t get to school, so Callies asked the City for a bridge. When that failed, he asked the property owners. When that failed, he tried collecting donations to purchase the land. The owners eventually donated the parcel. After the bridge’s completion, Dolores Lott, District 2 City Councilwoman at the time, named it after Callies in 1997.
“He allowed for the freedom to cross safely without disaster, for students to freely get an education, for parents to take their kids (across),” said Doris Callies-Dunlap, Callies’ daughter. “He had everybody on the Eastside in his heart and his mind.”
Years later, District 2 Councilman Mario Salas was approached by residents to have the name changed to Martin Luther King Jr. Freedom Bridge. The request was approved.
Callies-Dunlap told the audience that in addition to the Freedom Bridge effort, her father was the one who lobbied to have the neighborhood’s middle school, park, and street – formerly Nebraska St. – renamed after Martin Luther King Jr. Callies achieved this through constant trips to City Council and by collecting donations in cans with his children’s help.
Callies is widely credited for starting the Martin Luther King March, “which is the largest march in the United States,” said Pastor Andrew Roberts.
Many attendees supported the “compromise” of keeping both names and talked about the possible repercussions of taking Martin Luther King Jr.’s name down, warning it could ignite a national scandal.
“The world is looking at us, and we march every year,” Thomas said. “Dr. Martin Luther King was the one that died for freedom and non-violence and the reason why Mr. Callies was working … for the legacy of Dr. King and the community. I’m a firm believer in ‘let’s do a compromise.’”
Eastside resident Maria Green said that in lieu of Callies’ contributions, the bridge should include Callies’ picture and information about how the bridge came to be, so children can learn more about him.
Others added that “everyone knows Dr. King” but not a lot of people know Rev. Callies.
“Kids should have someone in the neighborhood that they can relate to,” said Rosa Wilson, pastor of Greater Faith Institutional Church. “This is bigger than all of us, it’s called legacy. Let’s not fight about a name, Rev. Callies paid his dues. That picture and name will be powerful.”
The Callies children stressed that their aim is “not to dishonor MLK,” but try to do “what’s right,” in commemorating their father’s work, which spans more than 36 years.
A repeated sentiment among many at the end of the night was that they learned something they didn’t know before about Callies, or they were introduced to him for the first time that evening.
“His name needs to be somewhere,” said Rev. Rey Turner. “I’m thankful for learning the history — the bridge in my opinion should be named after Rev. Callies — it took me to come to this forum to learn who he is and what he has done.”
As the discussion came to a close, it was clear that opinions had shifted, and those who were initially opposed to the name change, opted to support the compromise or the change back to the bridge’s original namesake.
“The first meeting had overwhelming support for the Callies bridge,” Warrick told the Rivard Report at the conclusion of the Thursday meeting. “It seems as though at the end of this meeting a lot of minds and hearts – that either were on the fence about a mutual naming or no name change – shifted over, and out of the people that spoke, Callies bridge (became) the consensus.”
No matter what the committee ultimately decides, Warrick said Dr. King has more memorials in the horizon.
“We’re also doing two other potential monuments for Dr. King, one on the Martin Luther King side and on the East Houston (Street) side of the park.”
The committee doesn’t have a timeline for its decision, but if it decides to change the name in any way, it would ultimately go before City Council for a vote.
Top image: A picket sign protesting the potential renaming of the MLK Freedom Bridge. Photo by Scott Ball.