Martin Luther King Jr. and the Birth of East Park
So what kind of a connection could there between East Park and Martin Luther King Jr. other than that it has been in the news recently as the Park Board considers changing the name from East Park to Martin Luther King Jr. Park?
Let’s go back to the 1980’s right after the Rochester State Hospital closed. Olmsted County acquired the property in January of 1983 when it purchased the former Rochester State Hospital campus from the state for $1. A year later, the county sold most of the buildings and the property on the west side of the campus to the Federal Bureau of Prisons for use as a prison hospital.
There are many of us that still remember the outpouring of opposition from the community on the proposed Federal Medical Center. I certainly do. Remember the large group formed in opposition to the proposed prison hospital called the Olmsted County Citizens for a Better Community (OCBC)? The OCBC group filed a lawsuit against the county seeking to stop the effort to use the property for a prison hospital.
The lawsuit failed and it eventually became clear that the Federal Medical Center (FMC) was here to stay. Berdine Erickson organized the neighbors in an effort do something with the vacant land just west of the Federal Medical Center. This was 14 years or so before the establishment of the Eastside Pioneers Neighborhood Association.
The neighbors told commissioners the land should be developed into a permanent park which could be used as a buffer zone between the Federal Medical Center and the neighborhood. The neighbors were successful and the property was transferred to the city and East Park was born.
So where is the Martin Luther King Jr. connection? It turns out just 15 years earlier, Berdine Erickson had participated in the Memorial March in Memphis for Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. on April 8, 1968. Just four days earlier Dr. King had been assassinated while standing on a balcony at a Memphis motel. Berdine felt compelled to go to the march. Many people told him that he would be walking into a very dangerous situation, they feared for his safety. According to a Post Bulletin article from January 1987, “Berdine, a religious, sensitive man imbued with a deep compassion for all races and especially for underdogs, wasn’t going to be turned away from a mission he deemed important.”
About 30,000 people, including Berdine, took part in the march. The Post Bulletin article goes on to say, “They came from all walks of life and included Rosa Parks, the black housemaid whose aching feet started the bus boycott in Montgomery, Alabama just 12 years earlier.”
Berdine Erickson was an active member of the Eastside Pioneers Neighborhood Association and a tireless advocate for his neighbor. Given his role in the creation of East Park and his participation in the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial March it would appear that Berdine is still at work in spirit with the current efforts to rename East Park the Martin Luther King Jr. Park.