Planned Minneapolis Dog Park Spurs MLK Name Spat

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The conflict over a proposed off-leash dog area at Martin Luther King Park in Minneapolis has divided the opposing camps along largely racial lines. Opponents tend to be African-Americans. Many supporters are white. The controversy raises broader questions: When does naming parks or other public facilities after the great civil rights leader go too far? And who decides what is and what isn't appropriate?

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

As Americans celebrate the life of Martin Luther King Jr. today, there are reminders of Dr. King's legacy everywhere you look. Countless parks, schools and streets across the country bear the name of the slain civil rights leader. But in Minneapolis, a dispute over a proposed off-leash dog area in a park named for King shows that achieving racial unity is still a work in progress.

Brandt Williams, of Minnesota Public Radio, reports.

BRANDT WILLIAMS: In south Minneapolis, Martin Luther King Park has baseball and softball diamonds, basketball and tennis courts, and it has one of the best sledding hills around. But it lacks something that dog owner Ben Harris has long hoped for: an area where his two, rather excitable dogs can run free.

(Soundbite of two men talking to a dog)

WILLIAMS: Harris lives near the park but usually doesn't walk the dogs here. Harris says a fenced in, off-leash area would provide space for dogs to run around and socialize with other dogs. The same goes for people.

Mr. BEN HARRIS: If you've ever had a puppy come bouncing right over to you with a person right behind them, a conversation usually starts. Whether that's somebody you might normally speak with or not - probably not -you're still going to have a conversation. And all of a sudden, you have a connection.

WILLIAMS: Much of the controversy seems to break along racial lines. For Harris, who is white, bonding with other dog owners is one small way to help achieve Martin Luther King's dream of uniting people of diverse racial backgrounds.

But most of the opponents are African-American. And many say they are offended by the idea of a dog park here. They say images of dogs attacking black marchers during civil rights protests in the '50s and '60s are still vivid.

Mary Merrill Anderson is leading a meeting at the park, designed to keep the dog park conflict from splitting the community. Meeting participants are young and old, black and white. The focus of the night's gathering is to brainstorm about ways to use the park to better honor the legacy of its namesake.

Anderson says the meeting was necessary because the opposing views over the dog park revealed a disturbing racial divide.

Ms. MARY MERRILL ANDERSON: I think it made people realize how different our worldview in community was, how different we understood the reality of our community. And it's like people were talking to each other, and we just were not able to connect at all.

WILLIAMS: If it's approved by the Minneapolis park board, the dog park will not be the first to be affiliated with the name Martin Luther King Jr. There are off-leash areas in parks named for King in Corvallis, Oregon, and Sausalito, California. It's difficult to determine just how many streets, parks and schools around the nation are named after King.

[POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: The title of Tilove's book is "Along Martin Luther King: Travels on Black America's Main Street."]

Jonathan Tilove wrote the book "Along Martin Luther King: Travels on Black America's Main Street." Tilove says there are nearly 900 streets that bear the civil rights legend's name. He says since businesses often take on the name of the street where they're located, he did see some uses for King's name that might be considered less than ideal.

WILLIAMS: I did see, you know, MLK laundromat, MLK barber - you know. So yes, it's sort of the second generation of businesses on that street using that as part of their title.

WILLIAMS: Tilove says people didn't complain that these uses of King's name were inappropriate, but he suspects there are limits. For instance, Tilove says he didn't see any MLK liquor stores.

But some activists worry that King's name is being attached to things that he fiercely opposed. Author and activist Bob Zellner knew and marched alongside Martin Luther King. He says lots of things are being attributed to Dr. King that he would disapprove of.

Mr. BOB ZELLER: I think the Defense Department just came out with some kind of statement about Dr. King would understand the war in Afghanistan. I'm pretty sure he would not.

WILLIAMS: The statement was made by the Defense Department's general counsel, Jeh Johnson. As for barbershops, laundromats or even dog parks, Zellner says King saw himself as a man of the people and in most cases, probably wouldn't mind his name being associated with them.

For NPR News, I'm Brandt Williams in Minneapolis.

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