USA Today, January 21, 2008: 40 years after the riots, King’s vision ‘unfinished’

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By Marisol Bello and Judy Keen, USA TODAY

Four decades later, the rioting sparked by the assassination of civil rights icon Martin Luther King Jr. is a fading memory to many Americans, preserved on grainy photographs and film.

In many of the 125 cities that were hit by violence, however, the images remain vivid especially the fires and destruction that symbolized the outrage in mostly African-American neighborhoods, and that continue to reshape them today. At a time when whites were leaving cities for the suburbs, the rioting that left 46 people dead, 2,600 injured and 21,000 arrested hastened the departure of middle-class black families and made King’s dream of equality and opportunity seem more distant in the very neighborhoods where his message had resonated.

TALE OF THREE CITIES: How Washington, D.C., Kansas City and Chicago recovered

Today, some of the neighborhoods hit hardest by the rioting are experiencing a rebirth. Others are still struggling to heal.

In Washington, the once-charred corridors along H Street Northeast and 14th Street Northwest have condos and nightclubs that attract young singles, whose arrival has energized the area but raised concerns that the remaining black families won’t be able to afford to stay as redevelopment continues.

Elsewhere, the outlook is less encouraging: On Kansas City’s east side, poverty and blight have overwhelmed hopes of restoring a once-vibrant neighborhood devastated by the rioting after King was assassinated in Memphis on April 4, 1968.

And in Chicago’s North Lawndale area, there is disappointment that a community of historic homes where King himself once lived has not rebounded in a significant way.

The riots were the crest in a wave of civil unrest in the 1960s that led a national commission to warn a month before King’s slaying that the USA was “moving toward two societies, one white, one black separate and unequal.”

At the time of his death, King had been planning a campaign against poverty. Today, the neighborhoods in Washington, Kansas City and Chicago reflect the challenge of his dream of equal opportunity for minorities and the poor.

“Dr. King’s final battle was a battle of economics,” says Marc Morial, president of the National Urban League. “Disparity in America has to be at the top of the national agenda again. Dr. King said it in 1968, and it remains true. This is his unfinished work.”

KING’S LEGACY: Popular view of King ignores complexity

As Americans commemorate King’s birthday, USA TODAY asked those who endured the rioting in Washington, Kansas City and Chicago to describe the progress and challenges in their neighborhoods.

Hope in Washington

The once-vibrant H Street corridor, decimated by the riots, is coming back. Just ask Anwar Saleem.

The 53-year-old entrepreneur grew up in the predominantly black neighborhood surrounding H Street NE. He owns a hair salon and two buildings on the strip.

Saleem was 13 when the looting and violence erupted. He remembers the smoldering buildings that stood untouched for years. As an adult, he saw the crime and drug problems fueled by the neglect.

Today, he sees change.

During the past two years, bars and indie-rock venues have opened next to hair braiding salons, barber shops and mom-and-pop retailers. A 476-unit luxury apartment complex is scheduled to be completed by next month, and Saleem and other business owners are trying to attract a high-end grocery store.

Prices for the old retail buildings are up from an average of $125,000 five years ago to about $500,000 today, says Saleem, who founded a group called H Street Main Street to promote local businesses.

“I think Dr. King would have wanted any neighborhood to be economically viable,” he says. “And in H Street, people of all races do business together. I think Dr. King’s legacy is playing out here now.”

About 60% of the stores on H Street today are black-owned, and about half of those owners also own their buildings, Saleem says. “We didn’t have that opportunity in ’68,” he says. “We have it now.”

The business district’s re-emergence aided by its closeness to downtown Washington and a subway system that has been built since the riots has created what amounts to two neighborhoods.

By day, many African-Americans who moved away maintain their ties to H Street in errands to banks and pharmacies. They frequent the black-owned barber shops and salons and the dwindling number of familiar stores.

“I used to know every store owner,” says Michael Watts, 35, who grew up a block from the strip and worked part-time in several of the stores when he was a teen. “Now it’s different. There are a lot of changes on H Street.”

At night, new residents in the neighborhood seem to take over, cramming the hip bars and restaurants. The newcomers are mostly young, professional and white.

Dakota Bixler, 24, raised on a farm in South Dakota, and Michelle Warren, 25, from suburban Maryland, have rented a partly renovated five-bedroom house off of H Street since September.

“A few years ago, it was not so wise to live here, but they’re really cleaning it up,” says Bixler, a U.S. Senate aide.

The revival brings hope but also worries for longtime residents and business owners such as George Butler. After the riots, Butler opened his men’s store, George’s Place, at 10th and H streets NE with the help of a government grant.

He’s happy that the transformation means more police patrols, new store facades and cleaner sidewalks, but he fears that King’s dream of equal opportunity will be threatened if blacks are pushed out as the neighborhood gentrifies.

“The neighborhood now has taken a different type of turn because what they’re trying to do here is to bring another Georgetown to this area,” says Butler, 68, referring to Washington’s tony historic neighborhood.

Such concerns about H Street’s revival stem from what has happened in Washington’s other riot corridor, the area around 14th and U streets NW. Trendy bars and expensive condos have replaced family-owned stores, which were pushed out by rising taxes and high-end stores.

“Hardly any African-Americans live on 14th Street,” says Walter Fauntroy, who grew up near 14th and U and was King’s representative in Washington.

“If you go to every major city in the country where low- and moderate-income people lived on valuable city land, it’s now being gentrified,” he says. “They are moving all those people out. If ever we needed the kind of programs that Martin Luther King Jr. had in mind, we need them now.”

Butler, who also is concerned that black residents are being “priced out of this city, and this corridor,” doesn’t want his business to be left behind. He plans to sell more polo shirts, button-down collared shirts and khakis that he hopes will appeal to the new residents.

“I’ve got to change my operations,” he says. “I’ve got to do a whole lot of shifting if I’m going to stay on this corner.”

In Kansas City, it ‘all fell apart’

On the forlorn streets in parts of Kansas City’s east side, where one-third of the mostly black residents live in poverty and one-fifth of the buildings are vacant, King’s dream labors under crushing unemployment and poverty.

It wasn’t always this way. Back when Rep. Emanuel Cleaver moved to the city in 1968 and worked as an organizer for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, low- and middle-income blacks lived together on the east side. Doctors, dentists, teachers, even a few pro football players for the Kansas City Chiefs lived in the same neighborhood.

As fair housing laws were passed and blacks had more options, those who could afford it started moving out. The riots of 1968 accelerated the exodus, says Cleaver, who in 1991 became Kansas City’s first black mayor. Eventually, those left behind were poor blacks.

“Things that were meant for good in turn created bad,” Cleaver says. “Middle-class African-Americans were gone from the urban core, and that wreaks havoc in the lives of the people remaining.”

Today, the areas destroyed in 1968 have seen little change. One of the rioting hot spots, at 31st and Prospect streets, was rebuilt with a library, fast-food joints and a strip mall, but other areas have not recovered. Vacant lots dominate the landscape, broken up by shuttered or run-down buildings and an occasional small store.

Three days of rioting left six dead and 312 buildings damaged. The violence began April 9 after police fired tear gas at 1,000 high school students who had gathered at City Hall to protest schools staying open the day of King’s funeral.

The areas that saw the most unrest are in the 3rd District, which has lost 60% of its population since 1960, more than any other part of the city. Now, 70,000 people live there, down from almost 170,000 in 1960.

Opal Blankinship, 78, moved out seven years ago after her home was burglarized three times in 13 months. She and her husband, former city councilman G. Lawrence Blankinship, lived there 48 years. As families left, crime worsened.

Shirley Briscoe has seen the impact of white and middle-class black flight. The community spirit that bound the residents of her block has unraveled, she says.

When Briscoe and her husband bought their four-bedroom bungalow 42 years ago in a working-class neighborhood called Ivanhoe, it was on a street of well-manicured lawns, moms who joined the PTA and movies in a nearby park.

“There’s a lot of history here, but that all fell apart after the riots,” says Briscoe, 74. “As the years went by, families moved in and out. It was more transient.”

Overall, blacks in Kansas City haven’t fared well since 1968, says Gwendolyn Grant, president of the Urban League of Kansas City. “In every quality-of-life area, health, education, economics, social justice, we lag behind. None of the things Dr. King dreamed of reached this place.”

In Kansas City, she says, blacks are three times more likely than whites to be unemployed and half as likely to have access to quality health care, a pattern consistent with what nationwide studies have found. “We have a whole lot more work to do,” Grant says, “to make Dr. King’s dream a reality.”

Impatience in Chicago

Driving through North Lawndale reminiscing about the shoe stores, dress shops and theaters that once prospered in the Chicago neighborhood, Art Turner lists the reasons the area should be booming again: The Loop, as Chicago’s downtown is known, is 10 minutes away. Two interstates and three El (rail) lines are nearby. Historic greystone houses line the streets.

He’s frustrated and disappointed by the lack of progress since 1968. “There has been some improvement,” he says, “but no one would have thought it would take 40 years.”

Turner grew up in North Lawndale, watched as scores of businesses burned in the riots, left to attend college in Indiana, then came home.

“The scars were still there,” says Turner, 57, a Democrat who represents the neighborhood in the Illinois House. “I always felt that all those vacant lots, all those old burned-out buildings would eventually be businesses again. It never happened.”

No other Chicago neighborhood has more vacant lots. In 1960, 124,937 people lived in North Lawndale. Today, there are 41,768. More than 40% of them are in families with incomes below the federal poverty line, about $20,650 for a family of four.

Every few blocks, there are a couple of new condos or a restored old home, but the housing slump has left many unsold. On South Hamlin Avenue, where King lived briefly in 1966 during a fair housing campaign, litter clutters the vacant lot where his tenement stood.

There’s a new community center and a health clinic in the neighborhood. There are new small businesses. A high school is being built. On Roosevelt Road, a new Starbucks is near a large chain grocery.

There’s concern, Turner says, that the grocery might close soon another potential setback, because other franchises won’t move into the neighborhood unless such anchor stores are there already. Strip malls have been lured into the neighborhood by tax incentives, then the stores quickly found they couldn’t make it, Turner says.

It’s difficult to attract people without basic services such as groceries and good schools. The blinking blue lights that identify police surveillance cameras in high-crime areas also seem to discourage potential newcomers from settling in North Lawndale.

When Zelma McMillan moved to North Lawndale in the 1950s, she thought her family was “moving up in the world.” Unlike their old neighborhood closer to downtown, there were grand stone houses, thriving shops and people of all races. She felt safe. She had never seen so many trees and flowers.

Things began to change in the early 1960s. Many white families moved away, but everything you needed was within a few blocks, people still looked after each other and “everybody had a mother and father in the household.”

Then King was assassinated. The neighborhood erupted, and the North Lawndale that McMillan loved was consumed by rage and flames.

David Dawley, a white community organizer in North Lawndale during the riots, remembers how the unrest began: “It was spontaneous combustion. The sidewalks were full of students shaking their fists and walking. Then they started attacking white-owned stores. I saw a friend throw a trash barrel through a window. Pretty soon there were walls of flame everywhere.”

McMillan, 60, is still waiting for her neighborhood’s rebirth. A full-time volunteer at Operation Brotherhood, a community center, she walks six blocks from home to work feeling grateful for the cops who often are parked on the corner. King’s message of hope feels distant to her now. “He’s not a force in our lives,” she says.

Many of North Lawndale’s problems exist in other inner-city neighborhoods in Chicago and across the country, but longtime residents say King’s death and the riots were catalysts for North Lawndale’s decline.

“Our community just went down with the fires,” says Sandrel Scott, 59. “That’s what started our deep hopelessness. We just didn’t build ourselves back up. We’ve never had another leader like him to instill pride in us.”

Willie Brooks, 55, a daughter of Mississippi sharecroppers who moved to the neighborhood when she was 13 and already in awe of King, still believes in his dream. She’s less certain about North Lawndale’s future, though.

“It’s coming back,” she says, “but it will never be like it was before.”

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