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Bloomington streets named in honor of civil rights leaders

Henry Gay Sr. poses for a photo with State Rep. Dan Brady after Brady presented him with a legislative proclamation.
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Henry Gay Sr., left, poses for a photo with State Rep. Dan Brady after Brady presented him with a legislative proclamation.

The late Merlin Kennedy and Henry Gay Sr., two of Bloomington’s most salient civil rights leaders, now have streets named in their honor.

Kennedy, who died in 2019, is well known for dressing as Santa Claus in the 1966 Christmas Parade. He did so despite facing threats of arrest by police, who told him being a Black Santa Claus was not allowed. Kennedy also helped establish Bloomington’s first fair housing ordinance in 1967 and co-founded the city's Human Relations Commission.

Speaking at the street naming ceremony on Friday, Bloomington Mayor Mboka Mwilambwe lauded both Gay Sr.’s and Kennedy’s resolve.

“The late and great congressman John Robert Lewis implored upon us that you must find a way to get in the way. You must find a way to get in trouble -- good trouble -- necessary trouble,” said Mwilambwe. “He reminded us (to) use what you have to help make your community and our country -- our world -- a better place, where no one will be left out or left behind. That’s exactly what these two community icons did for us. And we owe them a great debt to both of them…Henry Gay Sr. and Merlin Kennedy challenged the status quo.”

The signs in the names of Kennedy and Gay Sr. have been installed at multiple locations along Main and Center streets downtown.

Kennedy helped bring change to Bloomington. His daughter, Lana Therese Kennedy White, said there's no reason to stop now.

Lana Therese Kennedy White speaks to a gathering as Peggy Gay holds an honorary street sign in her father’s honor during a celebration in the Gov. Fifer courtroom of the McLean County Museum of History.
Courtesy
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Lana Therese Kennedy White speaks to a gathering as Peggy Gay holds an honorary street sign in her father’s honor during a celebration in the Gov. Fifer courtroom of the McLean County Museum of History.

“I know our dad would want me to remind you that there is still work to be done. And every single person can do something,” Kennedy White said at the naming event.

That’s a message echoed by Gay Sr., who worked with Kennedy for 59 years. He said in their first few years fighting for change together, the two often hid away during their NAACP meetings. Being discovered could possibly have led to severe and deadly consequences.

Gay fought for the desegregation of housing, restaurants and education in Bloomington throughout the mid-1960s. And while great strides have been made in those areas since, Gay said there’s more improvement to be made in the community -- particularly regarding gun violence.

“A stray bullet doesn’t care who it hits,” said Gay. “It makes it hard, you don’t want to get outside your door. You’re not safe inside your door, either.”

President of the Illinois NAACP Teresa Haley, speaking at the street naming event, said change is made with ballots. Naming streets after Gay and Kennedy is one way to honor them. But voting, she said, is the best way.

“You must vote. It’s not good enough to say, ‘Oh, I’m registered to vote.' But what are you doing on election day? So I hope, I pray, that you show up on election day and vote,” said Haley. “Vote your conscious and think about Mr. Gay, think about Mr. Kennedy, think about all those people who died and did everything so we could be here today.”

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Jack Podlesnik is a student reporter and announcer at WGLT. He joined the station in 2021.
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