Kansas City looks for another way to honor Dr. King after renaming street

“I’ve been black and living in this city for a long time, and there are lots of things I find more troubling than this,” Lucas said.

DR. MARTIN Luther King, Jr. addresses the crowd from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, during the March on Washington on August 28, 1963. (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
DR. MARTIN Luther King, Jr. addresses the crowd from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, during the March on Washington on August 28, 1963.
(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
The day after a landslide vote to restore The Paseo as the name of what is now Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd., Kansas City Mayor Quinton Lucas said the city would begin to find another way of honoring the martyred civil rights giant.
But the mayor said Wednesday that the city needed more clarity about what it is trying to achieve.
“Are we trying to remove names that are offensive: JC Nichols, Troost, etc.?” said Lucas, who championed the MLK Blvd. proposal as a City Council member earlier this year. “Now that we have learned the challenges of renaming a street, do we want to go through that process this soon? Do we just want to build some fountain that doesn’t exist now to make somebody happy?”
The vote has drawn national attention to Kansas City, where city crews will soon remove more than street 100 signs bearing King’s name. A leader of the movement advocating for the King street name called the election results a stain on the city.
“It is a shameful day in Kansas City,” said Vernon Howard, senior pastor at St. Mark’s Church and president of the local chapter of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, which King helped found.
“We are one of the five most violent and crime ridden cities in this nation,” said Howard, one of several East Side ministers supportive of MLK Blvd. “The blood of our children flows through the streets. Yet the 1964 Nobel Peace Prize Winner was rejected by most of us as a symbol of who we are in this town. We needed Dr. King on that sign, and we don’t even know it.”
Asked if the city had been stained, Lucas paused for a moment and then said, “Maybe.” But then he added:
“I’ve been black and living in this city for a long time, and there are lots of things I find more troubling than this,” Lucas said. “I think what we need to do is figure out a way to not just honor Dr. King but make sure we’re honoring a diverse set of leaders.”
Congressman Emanuel Cleaver II, who supported the name change, said while many had hoped MLK Blvd. would prevail, “the voters have spoken.”
“This affords an opportunity to bring together all Kansas Citians for a consensus approach to honor Dr. King and inspire future generations to both remember as well as live his legacy,” Cleaver said.
Lucas said he would speak with his peers on the City Council, Howard, other ministers, and Save The Paseo, the grassroots group that put the issue on the ballot through an initiative petition.
Advocates for restoration of The Paseo name contend that their position is not a rejection of King but of a political process that never took into account residents’ wishes.
Tara Green, a member of Save The Paseo, said in an email that the city needed to have a conversation about next steps to honor King. She referred other questions to former Councilwoman Alissia Canady, one of four council members to vote against the original renaming in January.
Canady did not return a request for comment Wednesday.
Lucas said Wednesday that one of the lessons he takes away is that no amount of community engagement is going to achieve consensus around renaming a civic asset like a major street.
“Even after we’ve convened the best group, even after we’ve had 20 community meetings, if we pick a street again, if we pick something that actually exists, there will be frustration and some level of friction.”
Lucas suggested that the most realistic approach is to return the issue to the Board of Parks and Recreation Commissioners, which rebuffed an earlier attempt to rename the Paseo. He said the board could invest more money in the Martin Luther King, Jr. Square Park at Swope Parkway and Woodland Avenue.
Already named for King, it would be “incredibly non-controversial” to develop the park into some kind of honor for him.
The Paseo, designed in the late 19th century by landscape architect George Kessler, was part of the city’s original parks and boulevards system. Dotted with columns and pergolas and marked by expansive green spaces, it was the boulevard’s history and beauty that led pro-Paseo advocates to argue it should remain untouched.
But its prominence also served as the basis for why MLK Blvd. supporters thought it a good choice.
“This is a gorgeous street,” Sam Mann, a retired pastor at Saint Mark Union Church said last month. “It is a beautiful street and will be maintained...by Park and Rec, which historically gets better attention and more attention than the street department.”
The effort to rename The Paseo for King began a year and a half ago when Howard and others approached the Board of Parks and Recreation Commissioners, which oversees boulevards, only to be rebuffed.
After that, the group launched an unsuccessful petition drive to put an MLK Blvd. question on the August or November 2018 ballot.
At the same time, then-Mayor Sly James appointed a commission to recommend landmarks that could be named for King. The group suggested Paseo third after the forthcoming single terminal at Kansas City International Airport and 63rd Street.
Lucas, then a councilman, attached an amendment renaming The Paseo to then-Councilman Scott Taylor’s economic development ordinance called “Revive the East Side.” But the amendment was stripped out before passage.
Council members briefly debated naming the street “Martin Luther King Jr. on The Paseo,” a compromise suggestion that never gained traction. After numerous delays, they voted 8-4 in favor of the name change. Weeks later, crews began installing the first signs along the boulevard.
Shortly thereafter, the group that became Save The Paseo began collecting signatures to undo the renaming. In all, they gathered more than 2,400 names, including, they said, many who live on the boulevard. Aside from the beauty and history of the boulevard, the group often said they objected to the way the City Council operated, waiving a requirement that the city get signatures from residents of a street before renaming it.
While Save The Paseo has numerous black members, Howard said that “the notion this issue is void of race is not realistic.”
“A predominantly white group with black supporters has led a stripping of Dr. King’s legacy from our children and community and is now deciding whether a black hero should be honored and where and how,” Howard said. “We here in Kansas City are far behind in issues of racism, racial justice, and white privilege if we don’t understand something is wrong with that picture.”
Howard said the group of MLK Blvd. supporters remain “vigilant, poised spirited, engaged, open to dialogue and determined in the fight for peace and racial justice.” He did not respond to follow up questions about how Kansas City might best honor King aside from renaming The Paseo.
The Star’s Bryan Lowry contributed to this report.
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