Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard in Harlem, New York.
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Dr. King's Streets

Where does a street named for MLK belong? The answer isn't as simple as one might think.
The name Martin Luther King Jr. can evoke lofty images of peace and unity, of demonstrators marching for civil rights, of black and white children playing together. But add the word “Boulevard” or “Drive” after his name, and, in many cities, starkly different images can flood people’s minds: blight, poverty, crime.

That dichotomy is at the center of a debate in Kansas City over how best to honor the civil rights icon.

Kansas City is one of the few big American cities without a street named after Dr. King. Residents have tried to change that for years, and, most recently, a coalition of black leaders asked Kansas City’s Parks and Recreation Board to rename one of the city’s oldest boulevards after him. The board said no.

This is not a split over whether Dr. King should be honored. It is mainly a debate, 50 years after he was killed, over where a Martin Luther King street would best be placed: In a predominantly black neighborhood, as is common, or in a predominantly white neighborhood?

Some residents argue that choosing a street in a disinvested, mostly black neighborhood would perpetuate stereotypes of thoroughfares that are already named for him in other cities, and would fail to force white people to consider Dr. King’s legacy and the racism that still exists so long after his death. Others, though, say that choosing a street in a white area would be an affront to the city’s black residents and disrespectful of the fact that Dr. King fought for the rights of black people.

“There’s something to be said for the fact that you don’t need to honor black folks by pleasing white people,” said Quinton Lucas, a city councilman.

Mr. Lucas said he leaned toward giving the name to a street where white people tend to venture more often, because it could have a greater impact there. “There’s something to be said for the fact that you need to make sure the entire community honors it, instead of saying, ‘That’s something the black folks are doing for the black folks in a black area.’ ”

Complicating this naming fight is a simple truth: Kansas City, like much of the country, struggles with segregation.
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