Opposition to MLK Dog Park Has Deep Roots in Once-Divided City
The park, named in honor of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. after his 1968 assassination, is the focal point of a stark disagreement in the community about whether spending money on a dog park would disrespect the park's legacy.
When Charles Mays, a retired youth director for the NAACP, joined some friends at Park ElderCenter for breakfast last week, talk of the proposed dog park at Martin Luther King Park stirred some memories of times that seem far away to most city residents.
The proposed dog park has led to some contentious Minneapolis park board meetings. Supporters and opponents of the dog park have been depicted simply as pro-dog or anti-dog. But it all started when Mays and other members of the Sabathani chapter of AARP planned to host a picnic at the park last summer.
While planning the picnic, the group heard about the possible dog park, for which some Kingfield residents have been advocating. The group was angry, and they were concerned about children's safety and disposal of dog waste. But their opposition to a dog park at Martin Luther King Park goes even deeper.
"We're not opposed to dogs," Mays said, as he sat at the cafeteria-style table along with Liz Moore, who was born in Des Moines, IA, but who has lived in South Minneapolis for the last 50 years.
In the 1960s and 1970s, it was difficult for black people to buy a house in the area around the park, Mays said. "It would say right on the deed that houses should not be sold to negros," he said.
With the growth of the civil rights movement, the Minneapolis black community received some official acknowledgment of the struggle when the park board renamed the park in honor of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. on Oct. 9, 1968.
"Unfortunately many people living in the area not do not know the history," Mays said. "For us to be able to have the privilege of naming that park Martin Luther King Park—people don't understand."
Before Interstate 35W split the community in two, Mays was living at 41st Street and 2nd Avenue. He's had dogs most of his life—though he can't care for one any more because of his emphysema. He used to walk his dog through the park.
So if he doesn't have a problem with dogs, what is it about a dog park that he deems "a slap in the face to the African-American community?"
Part of it lies in symbolism, he explained. During the Civil Rights movement, dogs were used to attack protesters. During the Children's Crusade in Birmingham, Alabama, Police Commissioner Bull Connor ordered law enforcement to attack children protesters with hoses and German Shephards.
When the group finally visited the park for the picnic, they were stunned at the memorial's condition. "It was a joyous occasion until we saw the weeds growing around the statue," Moore said. "They didn't have a plaque identifying the park."
The disrepair of the memorial only emphasized for the group how out of place it would be for the city to spend money on a dog park.
"The majority of us had grown up around the park, had used the park. We were just very upset that they were even thinking about that," said 81-year-old Doris Christopher. "When I told my children, they couldn't believe it."
Virginia Richardson's late husband Samuel Richardson was president of the NAACP when Martin Luther King Park was renamed. She said her husband joined the NAACP in college and used to walk everywhere because of the segregated buses: "The Civil Rights was his passion."
She feels that there is not enough currently in the park to honor his legacy. "Dr. King has a great legacy in my life," Richardson said. "There was nothing in the park that pointed to the life of Martin Luther King, that the children should know."
Richardson said she has owned pets, including dogs. But her first priority is children and human beings. Even if, as the most recent park board meeting suggested, money is allotted for the MLK memorial as well as the dog park, it might be too late, she said.
"I think if the whole issue had been handled differently, maybe we wouldn't be where we are right now," Richardson said. "I think the way that things were played out left a bad taste in the community."