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Tulsa, Oklahoma's racial divide bedevils plan to honor MLK

By Lindsay Morris

TULSA, Oklahoma (Reuters) - This city, where a history of racial tension was inflamed by the Good Friday shootings of five black people, plans to name a street in honor of civil rights pioneer Dr. Martin Luther King but only the section that passes through a predominantly black part of a city.

The challenges in winning approval for the move and getting it put into place -- including the need to scale the proposal down to get it passed by the largely white city council -- illustrate Tulsa's legacy of racial animosities and resistance to change.

"Is there a racial divide in this town? Just look at the signs," said Kavin Ross, 49, a black resident of Oklahoma's second-largest city whose father, former state Representative Don Ross, helped pass the state's hate-crime law.

More than 900 streets in cities and towns across the country are named after King, according to Derek Alderman, a professor of geography at East Carolina University. Tulsa was late to join them, voting last summer to rename a portion of Cincinnati Avenue as Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard.

Tulsa is not a place most Americans think of as a racial flashpoint. Unlike the Deep South where slavery was the issue, some freed slaves around the time of the Civil War came to Oklahoma, an Indian Territory that would not become a state until 1907, to escape slavery and racial oppression.

But a 1921 riot in Tulsa that left an untold number dead is considered one of the worst incidents of racial violence in American history, and residents of the 400,000-person city grew up hearing their parents' horror stories of the events.

Some citizens said that the shootings in north Tulsa on Good Friday, after which prosecutors brought murder and hate-crime charges against two white men, brought back painful memories of a rift that never healed.

"The racial divide has been there forever," said Jack Henderson, the sole black member of Tulsa's city council. "You don't have to have a street separating us to divide the city."

Henderson, who represents north Tulsa, began pushing for a King street in 2002, two years before he joined the council. The original proposal included renaming approximately 11 miles of Cincinnati Avenue that extended into the downtown area of mostly white-owned businesses.

Critics, including downtown businesses and churches, complained that the street name change would be confusing to long-time businesses in the downtown area, and the council shelved the idea.

Henderson came back in 2011 with a compromise that the name change stop at the railroad tracks that separate north Tulsa from downtown, so approximately 1.5 miles of the street in the higher profile, mostly white downtown would not be renamed. The mostly white city council approved the plan.

The railroad tracks have special significance in Tulsa, marking the racial border, said James Goodwin, a 71-year-old black Tulsa lawyer whose father's high school graduation was canceled because of the historic Tulsa race riot.

Little known outside Oklahoma, the Tulsa race riot of 1921 erupted at a time when American blacks were shut out of most jobs, including Tulsa's booming oil industry, and were segregated in schools, businesses and housing. Blacks were subjected to violence including lynchings elsewhere in Oklahoma and around the country. Tulsa's black community was determined to protect itself from such lynchings, according to a 2001 Oklahoma state commission report on the riot.

On May 31, 1921, Tulsa exploded in violence after rumors spread that white vigilantes planned to lynch a black man held in jail and accused of raping a white woman. Armed black men tried to defend the man, while white citizens, some armed by the all-white police department, burned and looted 1,000 homes and businesses in the all-black section of north Tulsa.

An official death count was never produced -- the 2001 commission said 39 death certificates were issued but conceded that the number could be significantly higher because of reports multiple bodies were buried in graves. No one was ever arrested for any of the killings. The state established a memorial park, but attempts to secure reparations for the families have failed.

To this day, many blacks are suspicious of the police. Henderson said that immediately after the Good Friday killings on April 6 some black residents wanted to take vigilante action to protect the community, but cooler heads prevailed. The police acted quickly in arresting the two white men.

In north Tulsa, where about half the residents are black and less than a third are white, the median household income is $26,000, compared to $39,000 for Tulsa as a whole, according to an analysis by the Indian Nations Council of Governments. The population of Tulsa is about 66 percent white, 10.5 percent black, 11 percent Hispanic and 5.7 percent Native American.

Daisy Rogers, 66, a retired housekeeper whose mother and grandmother fled with other black women and children to a park during the race riot, said north Tulsa is like a doughnut hole.

"If you drew a circle around this city, including the suburbs, you would see that everybody has economic growth," she said. "But north Tulsa is right in the center with nothing."

While south and midtown Tulsa and the surrounding suburbs all have chain grocery stores, movie theaters and family restaurants, north Tulsa does not.

The recent shootings - which left three dead and two wounded -- have perpetuated negative perceptions of north Tulsa, said Goodwin, publisher of The Oklahoma Eagle, a newspaper that covers the African American community in Tulsa.

Shortly before the April 6 killings, one of the suspects, Jake England, had lamented on his Facebook page that two years had passed since his father was killed by a black man, to whom he referred with a racial slur. England said in an interview from jail on April 14 that he felt no hatred or ill will toward African Americans, according to a video of the interview.

As England and Watts remain in jail, the city still has not put up the signs to rename part of the street in honor of King. They had hoped to have them changed, at a cost of $100,000, by Martin Luther King Day in January but highway signs were not ready. So the goal now is to have them erected within the next few months, Henderson said.

(The story was refiled to fix typos in paragraphs 6, 14, and clarifies jailhouse interview in second last paragraph)

(Editing By Corrie MacLaggan; Editing by Greg McCune and Cynthia Osterman)

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