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  The Mercury News on Knox Freeway Renaming
April 7, 2023

Opinion: Renaming Richmond’s Knox Freeway would denigrate legacy

  • Colin Coffey
  • PUBLISHED: April 7, 2023 at 5:00 a.m. | UPDATED: April 7, 2023 at 5:03 a.m.

The late Assemblymember John Knox worked for close to two decades to gain the interstate designation and the federal funding that would follow.

The recent well-meaning proposal by former Richmond Councilperson Nat Bates to rename the Knox Freeway by adding President Carter’s name is a bad idea.

President Carter was not personally involved in the designation in the late 1970s of the then-Hoffman Boulevard project as a federal interstate highway. In contrast, John Knox. who served in the Assembly from 1961-80, worked for close to two decades to gain the interstate designation and the federal funding that would follow.

The state Legislature’s naming of the project as the John T. Knox Freeway in 1980 was not just based on Knox’s advocacy for the Hoffman Freeway project but also based on his many accomplishments on behalf of Richmond infrastructure during his Assembly tenure.

The Carter administration was certainly involved in approval of the proposal, but interstate designation and subsequent funding for the 6-mile freeway between Albany and the Richmond-San Rafael Bridge was mainly a legislative effort at the state level led by Knox, assisted closely in Congress by then-Rep. George Miller.

City leaders, including former Councilman Nat Bates, were very much involved in the advocacy. But as Knox contemporary, retired Assemblymember William Bagley, noted upon Knox’s death in 2017, “Jack traveled to Washington and almost single-handedly brought the extension of the 580 freeway through Richmond to San Rafael.”

Knox’s great legacy goes well beyond his dogged advocacy for the freeway. He was his early local supporter and advocate for the civil rights movement in the 1960s, exemplified by his leadership in efforts to raise money in Richmond for Martin Luther King Jr.’s Selma march. I recall this history because I was there in the late 1970s, living in Richmond, about to launch a law practice in Richmond, and my mother, Peggy Coffey, was Knox’s district administrator for his 20 years representing West Contra Costa.

Which is why I was appalled by the East Bay Times’ coverage of Bates’ proposal, specifically by the juxtaposition at some length of the proposed Knox Freeway renaming with the renaming of roadways nationwide following the launch of the Black Lives Matter movement. The suggestion seemed to be that the motive to change the name of structures honoring racist traitors (Confederate generals) serves as precedent for renaming the John Knox Freeway. Really? The placement of the renaming idea by the Times’ coverage within the BLM renaming context represents an epic disconnect with the Knox legacy.

There is a reason freeway names honor just one person, for example, Nimitz, Warren, MacArthur, and, yes, Knox. To add, over time, other names, however worthy they may be, just diminishes the intended honor. President Carter will have many hundreds of structures named in his honor. He, in fact, deserves much more than a short segment of a local freeway he never touched, literally or figuratively.

I applaud Richmond Mayor Eduardo Martinez’s desire to pay tribute to former Councilman Bates’ decades of public service to the city. I suggest that the City Council pursue something much better than backing Bates’ plan to name a local freeway after … someone else. Bates’ leadership contributed much to the redevelopment of the Richmond Inner Harbor into the magnificent Marina Bay neighborhoods, historic waterfront and Richmond’s modern port. The Bates name in that waterfront region, perhaps the port, would fit nicely.

But let’s leave the well-named John T. Knox Freeway alone.

Colin Coffey represents northern Contra Costa County on the East Bay Regional Park District board.