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What Kansas City Can Learn From Dakar, Amsterdam And Memphis About Naming Streets For MLK

Michelle Tyrene Johnson
KCUR 89.3
Students at Martin Luther King Jr. Middle School in Dakar, Senegal, relax after classes.

Kansas City, Missouri, is internationally recognized as one of the cradles of  jazz and nationally known for its barbecue and its sports teams. 

But late last year, it earned national headlines as the city that waited until 2019 to name a street after the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., only to have voters reverse that decision ten months later.

Commentators — many of them ignorant of complicating factors such as location, history, government process, and, yes, race to some extent — concluded that this is simply a racist city where people didn’t want to honor King.

But bestowing King’s name on a public street, park or monument usually involves such complexities, at least in America. 

"I think for many people, looking at renaming a street after Dr. King is a challenge because then are you now committed to living out the principles, right? How are you maintaining that street? What is the messaging behind it?" says Noelle Trent, director of interpretation, collections and education at the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis, Tennessee.

More than 900 streets in the United States are named after King, as are another hundred elsewhere in the world (Italy has nine). And that doesn’t include parks, museums and other monuments.

Kansas City's recent struggles to do what so many other places have done begged to be considered through a wider lens.

So, with support from the Pulitzer Center, I set out to visit three other cities on three different continents – each with a street named after King – in an effort to gain a global perspective on Kansas City’s challenge.

Dakar, Senegal

Credit Michelle Tyrene Johnson / KCUR 89.3
KCUR 89.3
In Dakar, a street sign with King's name is placed high on a building for people walking down the street to see.

At the westernmost tip of Africa is Dakar, a city of around a million people. It was a fitting first stop for exploring the reach of King, one of the most famous African-American men in history. Senegal is also one of the few countries in Africa to have a street named after him.

Just off the coast is Goree Island, which is where people who’d been captured by slave traders were held. There, a cultural site called the House of Slaves is known for its Door of No Return: an opening in the stone walls that offers a haunting view of the Atlantic Ocean. It would have been the last thing people saw from home before they were loaded onto ships for a future of death and enslavement.

Eloi Coly, the chief curator, said King’s life and his death had an impact on Senegal and other parts of Africa.

"That made Africans make decisions and to go deeper, to stand for, to fight against the violation of human rights," Coly said.

"The obligation is for us to link the two parts of our common story," Coly said of the need to make a stronger connection between American history and African history.

Credit Michelle Tyrene Johnson / KCUR 89.3
KCUR 89.3
Eloi Coly, curator of the House of Slaves on Goree Island, sits in his office after giving a talk to visitors.

Though I’ve been in environments where everyone is black, it was still much different to be in a place where everyone was black, everywhere I went, for almost a week – the opposite experience of living in Kansas City. But language was a barrier. Everyone I met spoke either French or Wolof, and I could not have understood the place without help from my guide and translator Fallou Toure.

Many of the streets in Dakar look out over the ocean, and everywhere, people were running, exercising or just sitting on overlooks enjoying the view. Streets were sandy because it was Harmattan, a season of dry winds blowing in sand from the faraway Sahara Desert. The pace is languid except for the energetic outdoor entrepreneurs, and the African heat is no joke – it was in the 80s during the day in mid-November, and still warm after the sun went down.

Even though my hotel was located on Martin Luther King Boulevard, not many people out walking – which is how most people seemed to get around – were aware they were on a street named after King. Street signs are prominent in the U.S., but here most of them are small and mounted on buildings. People seemed to have an invisible understanding of how to share and travel the roads.

The street had been named after King for at least 10 years, but people in Dakar still used its old name, Corniche, which is French for "a road running along a coast." Senegal gained its political independence from the French on April 4, 1960, eight years to the day before King was assassinated.

But not knowing the street was named after King was less about King than it was about the informal way Dakar organizes itself. You won't see a Starbucks, but someone on a corner will have coffee brewed on the spot to sell you. You won't find an Office Depot to buy a new memory card, but you will find a small street vendor who can make whatever you need materialize. 

Woodworker Bassirou Seck, who hand carves, paints and sells beautiful pieces from a storefront stall, didn't know his shop was on a street named after King. But he knew King.

"Martin Luther King, he was so influential, so he showed him the way, to have more courage, to (better) themselves and to be proud to be black," Seck said through Toure's translation.

And even though few people knew that a street named after King existed, practically everyone I met knew of Martin Luther King Middle School, visited in 2013 by Barack and Michelle Obama.

Though many of the young people I met were shy about talking to a journalist from the U.S., they knew what they admired about King.

"His determination and his courage," one student said through Toure’s translation.

Credit Michelle Tyrene Johnson
Students from King Middle School welcoming visitors.

A short taxi ride from the school was the Park of Remembrance, an outdoor tribute plastered with posters of African leaders, including one of King. It was there that I came across the first American voice I had heard in several days. Robert Lee was a black man who, coincidentally, was from King’s hometown of Atlanta, Georgia. It was Lee's first visit to West Africa, and it had never occurred to him that he might encounter a monument to King on this vacation.

"It's just incredible that he reaches so far, in so many places you wouldn't think," Lee said. "And that's the incredible thing about King and what his legacy is and what his legacy is for us."

It's a legacy I also found in a country that couldn't be more different from Senegal.

Amsterdam, Netherlands

Credit Michelle Tyrene Johnson / KCUR 89.3
KCUR 89.3
A street sign honoring King in the small suburb of Diemen just outside of Amsterdam.

Listen to Michelle Tyrene Johnson's report on Amsterdam's street and park named after Martin Luther King Jr.

A 10-hour trip away from warmth, sand, ocean shores, informal commerce, overt hospitality and people whose skin tones were variations of my own, the switch to crisp weather, highly modern infrastructure and coolly glittering brand-name commerce, with very little melanin to be found, was a culture shock. 

The sidewalks were immaculate, the street signs clear and prominent. Almost everyone spoke English, but few people seemed to have time for random conversations. Bicyclists whizzed past me and across the bridges over canals.

I'd chosen to visit Amsterdam because I wanted to get a sense of how the King legacy translated to a very white, very cosmopolitan European city.

Amsterdam has a reputation for openness and tolerance, partly because of the coffeehouses where people can order marijuana to accompany their drinks (or partake of it without the caffeine). More significantly, the Netherlands is a country dedicated to social justice – it’s home of the International Court of Justice at The Hague. Still, when I was there in November, the news was full of stories about people using blackface to portray a character named Black Pete in traditional Dutch Christmas celebrations, and about a Dutch soccer player of African descent who had left a game after racist taunts.

King visited here to speak to the European Baptist Federation in 1964, one year after his "I Have A Dream" speech and the same year he won the Nobel Peace Prize. 

In a small, quaint suburb called Diemen is a street named Martin Luther Kinglaan, which runs through a residential neighborhood. Not many people were walking around, but Marrion Goorts was taking her granddaughter out for a spin in a baby carriage.

Though she frequently walked down the street, Goorts didn't know much about its namesake.

"I really don't know. Give me a hint," she said.

Given a hint, she said that while she could remember learning King's name, she couldn't remember what exactly he was famous for. (Though it was shocking for me to meet another adult who didn't immediately know who Martin Luther King Jr. was, I reminded myself that I couldn't have named one Dutch human rights leader.)

Amsterdam also has Martin Luther King Park, the site of a popular annual theater festival. Roul Jonkur, who was sitting on a bench near a small but stately statue of King created by artist Airco Caravan, was a bit apologetic that he didn't know more about King.

Credit Michelle Tyrene Johnson / KCUR 89.3
KCUR 89.3
A statue of King by artist Airco Caravan in Amsterdam's Martin Luther King Jr. Park.

"I had a dream. A nice speech with, I don't know, 100,000 people in front of the memorial square of Lincoln Park," Jonkur said. "Uh, and I think he started sort of a revolution, but that's about it."

It was the Lincoln Memorial, and the number was closer to a quarter of a million, but Jonkur was in the ballpark. 

Debbie Tankink, who teaches students with special needs, came over to talk to me as she kept an eye on the children she had brought to the park. It was obvious she was proud that Amsterdam honored King.

"His message was so important still today for the world. I'm all for equality and I think it's important that we fight racism and everything like that," Tankink said.

Kathleen Ferrier agrees. A professor at the Hong Kong Baptist University and the Lutheran Theological Seminary, and a former member of Parliament in the Netherlands, Ferrier chairs the Dutch Martin Luther King Lecture series.

"If there is one thing that Martin Luther King has been teaching us is that we have to listen to each other and not be afraid for the difficult questions," said Ferrier.

The lecture series started in 2008 and is co-sponsored by the Justice and Peace Netherlands, VU University Amsterdam, and the Martin Luther King Foundation, and its location alternates annually between Amsterdam and The Hague.

Credit Michelle Tyrene Johnson / KCUR 89.3
KCUR 89.3
Kathleen Ferrier, a professor and former member of Parliament in the Netherlands, leads the Dutch Martin Luther King Jr. Lecture Series.

"We started with the lecture to keep the legacy and the thinking of Martin Luther King alive and we are convinced that for our younger generations and for our society, for our Dutch society in general, we need his thinking more than ever," Ferrier said.

In the almost 52 years since his death, Ferrier said, King's relevance hasn't diminished.

"What we see all around the world is that politicians, governments have difficulty discussing (issues) with the people," Ferrier said. "That is why when people go out on the streets in Hong Kong, in Chile, all over, they feel not listened to."

Memphis, Tennessee

Credit Michelle Tyrene Johnson / KCUR 89.3
KCUR 89.3
In Memphis, an industrial business area on the street named after King is not far from downtown, where it intersects with a street named after B.B. King.

Listen to Michelle Tyrene Johnson's report on the street named after Martin Luther King Jr. in Memphis.

Memphis, where King was assassinated in 1968, named a street after King in 2012. It was one of the last cities in the United States to do so.

That was a matter of more pressing priorities rather than intent, said A.C. Wharton, who was mayor at the time of the street name change.

"We're not denying our past – how can we? You don't have to put a Scarlet Letter on us to say that this is the place that was just filthy with hatred and racism. Because it snuffed out the life of our leader, so we can't deny it even if we wanted to," Wharton said.

But Memphis had bigger, immediate problems.

"This city has been in a survival mode for so many years in terms of debt, crushing debt," he said. "We really didn't have time to just sort of stick our head up and breathe."

Credit Michelle Tyrene Johnson / KCUR 89.3
KCUR 89.3
A.C. Wharton was the mayor of Memphis when that city named a street after King in 2012.

Memphis' street is called Dr. M. L. King Jr. Avenue. It runs about a mile long into the downtown area, near an industrial area and two colleges. 

Wharton said it's not significant that the street name changes to Linden once it hits a predominantly white and residential area, because the street makes a physical break and loses its continuity. 

Because of a receptive city council, the location of the street and no emotional attachment to the name of the previous street, there wasn't a controversy over the change in 2012, he said.

Lloyd McNeal, who was walking to a store near the split where Linden becomes King street, was a fan of the street's impact.

"It made me think about how he helped Memphis out a lot and straightened out segregation and made everything better," McNeal said.

But Mikey Thomas, who works as a security screener at the National Civil Rights Museum, said he didn't find the street name as significant as other people do.

"I believe that it's great to commemorate him. I mean his final place of living was here, so I do think it's a good thing that we have the street. But it doesn't really have much of an impact on the community or the city," Thomas said.

The museum wraps around the former Lorraine Hotel, where King was assassinated on the balcony outside his room.

"The city is wrestling with the legacy of being the place where Dr. King was assassinated," said Trent, the director of interpretation, collections and education. "That is a yoke that the city has wrestled with since hours after Dr. King was assassinated."

Naming streets after him has been controversial, she said, starting with the first effort to do so in Chicago the year of his assassination.  

"He's still a very polarizing figure for a lot of people and the neighborhoods that people want to see them in," Trent said.

At least in America.

"There are still legacies that have been put in public spaces all across this country that are memorials or signals of sexism, racism, misogyny, anti-indigenous aspects. And there is a swing to correct that. And in doing that, there's a resistance," Trent said.

She said the naming of a street in Kansas City isn't just about which roads current residents want to rename.

"We have to deal with the fact that the legacy of what's happening here traces back to dynamics surrounding race and racism that has existed in this area, this territory, literally since the founding of the state," Trent said of Missouri.

These physical markers of King are not just symbols, Trent said. They can be the very point of how a legacy continues.

"When you change the physical environment by putting up a statue, by putting a street in there, you are forcing someone to deal with that," she said.

As Kansas City continues to debate where to put its street named after King, residents are consciously and unconsciously trying to figure out what that decision will ultimately signify.

"And whether or not people can articulate that this is where their discomfort comes from," Trent said, "it's psychological."

Join KCUR's Michelle Tyrene Johnson on January 29, 2020 at 6 p.m. at the Bruce R. Watkins Cultural Heritage Center & Museum for a discussion of this reporting project, and Kansas City's struggle to commemorate Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

This reporting project was supported by a grant from the Pulitzer Center.

Michelle Tyrene Johnson is a reporter at KCUR 89.3 and part of the public radio collaborative Sharing America, covering the intersection of race, identity and culture. This initiative, funded by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, includes reporters in Kansas City, St. Louis, Hartford, Connecticut and Portland, Oregon. She can be contacted at michelle@kcur.org.

Michelle is a reporter covering race, identity and culture and is an assistant talk show producer.
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