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 to 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 man tried to defend the man and 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. Continued...