Long Beach is opening a new Main Library this Fall, and my family and I couldn’t be more excited. Last summer we went on a fun tour of the city by visiting every branch, a fun way to show our kids the city while letting them feel like their growing love of books and reading was a real adventure.
When I first heard that councilwoman Jeannine Pearce was asking for public submissions to put a person’s name on the library, I balked at first. I agreed with historian Claudine Burnett’s point that the Main Library has simply been Long Beach’s “Main Library” for a century, and that there’s no reason to break with that tradition. Not everything needs to have a name plastered on it.
But then I started thinking about something else that’s bothered me the last couple of years. This city has produced one of the most culturally significant Americans of the last 100 years, both a singular athlete and an important and necessary vehicle of social change. She’s been recognized and honored by Hollywood, the New York Times bestseller list, and the United States government, but never properly honored by her hometown, in my opinion.
I’m speaking, of course, about the legendary Billie Jean King, a woman who represents all of the best things about Long Beach.
There’s no need to go down the full litany of BJK’s accomplishments, they’re well known and most people have access to Wikipedia. The highlights would be 39 Grand Slam titles, a win in the Battle of the Sexes tennis match against Bobby Riggs with 50 million people watching, numerous Hall of Fame inductions as a result of being regarded as one of the greatest tennis players of all time.
That alone is worthy of more recognition than simply having Recreation Park’s tennis center named after her (which it is). Her off the court accomplishments are why I believe the city needs to step up and do something more, as Arthur Ashe’s hometown did last week when it renamed a major street for him. King is a pivotal figure in the fight for equality on two major fronts, for women and for the LGBTQ community.
Her efforts on that front are a big part of why she received the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the Time Person of the Year Award, the Sports Illustrated Sportsman of the Year Award, and numerous other major national and international honors. Her advocacy for Title IX, testifying before congress, was a big part of why it passed–it was transformational in Long Beach, a city that has won more girls’ CIF-SS and State titles than any other, and which has seen its high school girls receive tens of millions of dollars in athletic scholarships.
King’s story is Long Beach’s story. She rose from a blue collar family to the heights of society, fighting all the way to bring others with her. To make her first trip to Wimbledon, she relied on donations from the Long Beach Century Club and went door to door asking for donations from the citizens of Long Beach to help her make the trip.
While King is certainly worthy of the honor, the move would reap real benefits for Long Beach as well. For one, it could turn the library into an immediate tourist attraction and revenue source with even a modest display of King memorabilia. For another, King has shown a willingness to honor her roots throughout her career. She talks about being from Long Beach almost any time she’s interviewed, and she’s stepped up as a big donor for former schools–after helping them raise $2 million, Cal State LA renamed their athletic complex after her. I have no doubt that King would come home with some big support were Long Beach to step up and name something major for her.
Beyond all of that, the city needs to do a better job of honoring its great history, not just with people who’ve contributed great things locally but with those who have made the city famous internationally. People from all over stop at the Sublime mural in Belmont Shore to take pictures with it, and would stop in the VIP Records parking lot to take photos with the sign that Snoop Dogg made famous.
How great would it be if our Main Library became a more official cultural touchstone for people across the country, if it honored the person who is perhaps our best representative?
Councilwoman Pearce has received her nominations for naming the Library, and the City Council will debate the matter on July 9. It’s my hope that the citizens of Long Beach can come together and decide to use our amazing new library to bring attention to our city’s great history, and one of its greatest ambassadors.