One chilly morning in March 1956, as an obscure Baptist preacher named Martin Luther King Jr. was launching his famous Montgomery, Alabama, bus boycott, a solitary black woman trudged up to the Borah Post Office from her bungalow in Boise’s River District, traditional home to the city’s tiny African-American population.
In her arms, she carried a bundle. In it were two pairs of ladies shoes, with a note to King, telling him and his followers, in the face of discriminatory segregation, to simply keep walking:
“Seeing where you were asking for help in order to keep up the fight,” wrote Boise’s Mrs. Earline Browning. “Sorry I can’t send no money I were hurt year before last and haven’t been able to work since. But I’m sending 2 pairs of shoes some of my better ones to two of the ladies who can wear them and tell them may God bless all of you and I’m with you even though I’m so far off.”
Intrepid Boiseans can still spot Earline Browning’s cottage at 502 S. 14th Street. It’s on a sweet, but forlorn, little row of Queen Anne homes, now largely isolated, cut off and forgotten, in the midst of Boise’s pell-mell surge into unrestrained urban redevelopment and commercialization.
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There’s limited moral equivalency, perhaps, in the analogy of Mrs. Browning and her Civil Rights-era shoes to the emerging public debate over Boise’s destiny as a city.
But their taproots draw from the same wellspring of frustration — a perceptible tone-deafness in officialdom to the concerns of average people, and a growing restiveness, however small, to begin speaking truth to power. There’s a feeling afoot in Boise that the existing relationship between local government and powerful, entrenched economic interests may have become entirely too cozy; that regular folks are the ones coming up short as this local economy booms.
Recent uproar over plans to eviscerate a neighborhood and displace tenants for a North End CVS drugstore is but the latest local expression of pent-up citizen frustration over their seeming inability to influence metastasizing growth in the city where they live.
From the St. Luke’s East End expansion to a massive downtown ballpark/retail/office complex to proposed F-35 decibel-shattering fighter jets over Boise’s Bench, average people are growing increasingly hamstrung by their own diminishing livability in “America’s Most Livable City.”
Local politicians ignore such constituent discontent at their peril. In the recent City Council election, several quite bright, articulate, millennial-generation activists, reflecting these concerns, jumped into the electoral ring. One succeeded, another nearly prevailed, a third made a respectable, first-time showing.
That tells me that — next time — if they connect the dots, they can win.
We’ll see how CVS now attempts to re-introduce itself to Boise. In drug store location, like life, one never gets a second chance to make a first impression.
Until then, following the example of Earline Browning and her shoes, Boiseans just need to keep on walking.
David Klinger lives in Boise’s North End.