As the 50th anniversary of the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. approaches, black religious and political leaders in Kansas City are turning to the ballot box in an effort to rename The Paseo in honor of the civil rights leader.
The local head of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) said Friday it will lead a drive to gather signatures to place the issue on the August ballot and rename the thoroughfare Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard. The drive is in reaction to a recent decision by the Kansas City Parks and Recreation Board to oppose the change.
"It is an affront to the African American community," said the Rev. Dr. Percy Howard Jr., senior pastor at St. Mark Union Church. "It is offensive and insensitive to our own racial and cultural identity as a community to assume that we do not have the empowerment or wisdom to desire a street named after one of our heroes."
About 900 streets in 42 states carry King's name. Kansas City is believed to be one of the larger metropolitan areas without one. The proposal would rename a once-majestic boulevard that winds through the heart of the city from Lexington Avenue in northeast to E. 79th Street. It is part of the original park and boulevard system designed in the late 19th century by George Kessler, and named for Paseo de la Reforma, an iconic Mexico City thoroughfare.
Howard said organizers will launch the petition initiative at a rally and march next Friday commemorating the civil rights icon, who died on April 4, 1968. U.S. Rep. Emanuel Cleaver, who has long supported naming a Kansas City street for King, founding president of the SCLC, is scheduled to speak.
"In this day and time, we believe Kansas City is far behind the acceptable norm for this issue," Howard said.
Howard and Bishop Mark C. Tolbert, pastor of Victorious Life Church at 34th and The Paseo, met with the park board last Oct. 3 to propose the name change as a symbol of peace and unity for the city. The five-member panel has jurisdiction over the city's boulevards.
According to board minutes, there was no subsequent public discussion of the proposal, said board secretary Karmen Houston.
On March 23, board president Jean-Paul Chaurand informed Howard and Tolbert in a letter that long-standing naming policy is to honor only those "who have made significant and outstanding contributions of land, funds, goods or services" to the city or park system.
He noted that the system already has a 42-acre park at Swope Parkway and Woodland Avenue named for King.
Chaurand added that the board "unequivocally recognizes the tremendous contributions and sacrifices made by Dr. King to our country and society." He said he would recommend that the City Council establish a commission to explore ways Kansas City could best honor King and his legacy.
Howard said Friday that the commission proposal is tantamount to a "no," calling it a "delay-denial."
A spokeswoman said Chaurand, vice president of the H&R Bloch foundation, was on vacation and not returning messages.
Efforts to rename The Paseo go back to early 2016, when clergy in churches along The Paseo began planning a proposal for the park board. In a January 2016 letter to Chaurand, Cleaver said that because the street was not named for a Latino individual, community leaders raised no objections.
In 2011, City Councilman Jermaine Reed proposed renaming Prospect Avenue, an idea that drew little community support because of the street's poor economic condition. The proposal was so unpopular it became one of the issues cited in a petition for an attempted recall of the 3rd District councilman in 2012.
Reed said Friday he supports changing The Paseo's name.
"Kansas City is long overdue for honoring Dr. King's name," he said.
Reed, who said he wasn't aware of the petition initiative, said he has been advised by city attorneys that the City Council could overrule the park board on the renaming.
"The council has an obligation to take up the issue one way or another," he said.
With its wide green medians, The Paseo may be seen as a more appropriate choice than Prospect, activists said.
"There is a lot more support for The Paseo because it is a boulevard that runs through a significant part of the African American community," said attorney Clinton Adams.
Advocates for the renaming must collect 1,708 valid signatures of registered voters by mid-May to qualify for the August ballot. The number of signatures is determined by a percentage of the total votes cast in the last mayoral election.