The Billie Jean King Library? Long Beach’s city council likes the idea

The city’s new Main Library is one step closer to being named after tennis star and Long Beach legend Billie Jean King after the Long Beach City Council voted Tuesday night to advance a naming recommendation to a committee discussion.

A 7-0 vote propelled the issue to the city’s Housing and Neighborhoods Committee, which will take up the issue in the coming weeks. The new library is set for a Sept. 21 opening, and it appears likely a decision on a name could be settled before then.

Councilwoman Jeannine Pearce, who represents the district that includes the library and led the naming campaign, pointed out that Sept. 20 would mark the 46-year anniversary of when King defeated Bobby Riggs in the infamous “Battle of the Sexes” tennis match.

Tuesday night, Pearce said King stood for more than just athletic achievement. The councilwoman highlighted King’s record of fighting for equality for women and the LGBTQ community.

“The Main Library, being the heart of our city, it’s important that it be a place that teaches the power of inclusion and equity,” Pearce said. “This name is not about naming an athlete or a poet, but this is a name about inspiring greatness.”

Tuesday’s vote was not the final vote in the process. And a number of people turned out to voice disagreement with naming the library after King or anyone. Some community members argued that King was not tied closely enough to education or literature.

One woman said that Long Beach should follow the lead of other cities like Chicago, New York and San Francisco, all of which have no names tied to their main libraries. She said that distinction should remain with the branch libraries, which often are referred to by a shortened version of their names, something she said could lead to confusion if this naming process is completed.

“This would become the King Library,” she said. “Is it the Martin Luther King Library? The B.B. King Library? The Stephen King Library? It’s really confusing.”

Advocates for naming the library after King focused on her work to promote equality in schools through her fight for Title IX, a federal civil rights law passed in 1972.

The law mandated that all genders be treated equally in education. It has vastly expanded the number of scholarships for women athletes. Leading up to its passage, King was a vocal advocate.

Darrick Simpson, executive director of the Long Beach Community Action Partnership, said that without athletics he and others in his family might not have been able to pursue education.

“My story is rooted in athletics, but it was because of athletics I was able to get an education in Alabama in the ’70s with a scholarship,” Simpson said. “It’s because of Billie Jean King’s efforts that my sister was able to get a scholarship and pursue her education without cost to my parents. It’s because of such efforts that my granddaughters will be able to do the same.”

This is not the first time that naming a library created a divide in the Long Beach community. In late 2015, when the idea of naming the North Branch Library after former First Lady Michelle Obama was introduced, a series of letters and public comments flooded City Hall calling for the library to be named after someone with ties to the city.

Some of the alternative suggestions included former Long Beach Unified School District Superintendent Carl Cohn, The Bixby Family and former First Lady Laura Bush.

While the timing for this item to return to the City Council is unclear, a recent example suggests it could happen before the opening of the library in September. In March, a recommendation for the new civic chambers to be named after former Mayor Bob Foster was introduced and the City Council approved it by late April.

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Jason Ruiz covers City Hall and politics for the Long Beach Post.