A street isn’t simply something we drive on. It's a connection, a way to get somewhere.
So when we honor people by naming streets after them, the memorials become much more than a reminder of their legacy. These streets can point us in the right direction. They can serve as a symbolic road map to follow.
As almost every city in America knows, no one is more deserving of such a tribute than Martin Luther King Jr. But Kansas City, like Nashville, is one of the only major cities in the nation without a road, avenue or boulevard named after the civil rights icon.
But here we are on Wednesday, April 4, the 50th anniversary of King's assassination. And naming a street after the man who had a dream is a nightmare.
The Board of Parks and Recreation last week declined a request by black religious and community leaders to rename The Paseo to Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard.
“Not honoring who we believe to be the greatest African-American leader in the history of this country in a day and age where there is so much racial healing and reconciliation to be done is a great social tragedy,” said the Rev. Dr. Vernon Percy Howard Jr., who is the local head of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and has helped lead the renaming mission.
Organizers are determined to place the issue on the ballot this August. All they need is 1,708 signatures of registered voters by mid-May. U.S. Rep. Emanuel Cleaver, who has been supporting renaming efforts for years, says pastors will have those signatures on Sunday before benediction.
“It’s already turning into what I think will be a big embarrassment for Kansas City,” Cleaver says. “We are going to end up in the national news over an issue most cities dealt with four decades ago.”
Parks and Recreation board president Jean-Paul Chaurand told pastors in a letter that the council’s naming policy is to honor individuals "who have made significant and outstanding contributions of land, funds, goods or services" to the city or park system. He went on to suggest the city form a citizens group to figure out how to honor King “in a meaningful way.” Chaurand couldn’t be reached for comment.
But make no mistake, renaming The Paseo would be plenty meaningful. It’s one of the city’s oldest, longest and prettiest boulevards.
Renaming The Paseo after King would properly pay homage, says Clara Irazábal, UMKC director of Latinx Studies and an urban planning professor.
“Naming a street after King, especially The Paseo, since it crisscrosses into many communities of color, would be bold and important. People of color need more recognition for their contributions to this country, and naming a public space after King would be a symbol of resisting segregation and inequity.
"His dream has yet to be realized. We are still struggling for equality. We are still struggling for justice, the respect for life and the respect for black life. Renaming The Paseo after King would serve as continuous motivation to fulfill that dream.”
But when we’re talking about King’s legacy, we can’t help but think about segregation. Kansas City, one of the country’s most segregated metros, was crafted this way partly because of the handiwork of developer J.C. Nichols. And he got a fountain and a parkway on the Country Club Plaza.
Councilman Quinton Lucas supports the efforts to rename The Paseo, but he also thinks we need to confront our racist truth. And changing J.C. Nichols Parkway to Martin Luther King Jr. Parkway could make a powerful statement.
“Having stronger economic and racial justice and equity is not just a lesson for black folks, but a lesson for the whole community. So why can’t J.C. Nichols Parkway become MLK and run through white neighborhoods?" he says. "Segregation didn’t just hurt the black community, it hurt the whole community. So we need to push for policy changes that create change, but we also need to reject the governance that segregated us.”
But The Paseo was chosen for very specific reasons: It represents black economic stability, growth and development — all pieces of King's dream.
Cleaver, a friend of the King family, said it was important to choose a street that wouldn’t fit in with the Chris Rock joke about how the nonviolent King always gets named after streets in violent neighborhoods. The biggest plus? The Paseo is a gorgeous drive.
“Paseo, even after all of these years,” is a beautiful street,” he says. “There are 13 churches with predominantly black congregants, and all of them have expressed unwavering support for the renaming. It is a statement of the community’s willingness to not only accept the work of Martin Luther King Jr., but it’s also a statement about the progress of a community. And we are going to keep making progress.”
On Friday, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference of Greater Kansas City will host a March for Peace to honor King and gather signatures for the ballot. It starts at 5:30 p.m. starting at 34th and The Paseo. Organizers are committed to make Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard a reality.
“It would raise the sense of pride in the African-American community and bring more awareness, care and respect to our community and our people and the legacy of our heroes and sheroes,” Howard says. “And from my own personal perspective, having lived and grown and played and matriculated right here, as a native son of this town, my footprints having been scattered across Paseo, renaming it would be a powerful symbol of my own pride in this city.”
No more wrong turns. Kansas City needs a Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard.
People can avoid monuments. They don’t have to visit a painting. But a street, especially The Paseo, will always be filled with people.
Let the civil rights icon continue to show us the way.
When it comes to social and economic justice and representation, as King said in Selma, Ala.: "We ain't going to let nobody turn us around."