Should the Paseo be renamed to honor MLK? Mayor wants citizens' commission to weigh in

Mayor Sly James, responding to an emerging campaign to rename The Paseo in honor of Dr. Martin Luther King, plans to form a citizens' commission to lead a community conversation on how Kansas City can best honor the legacy of the civil rights leader murdered 50 years ago this week.

James is scheduled to announce the panel this afternoon at the Bruce R. Watkins Cultural Heritage Center. He will ask the group to make a recommendation within 45 days.

"If that's what the city wants, fine," James said of The Paseo plan. "But I think there ought to be some discussion about whether or not that's a good idea or whether there's a better idea. I wanted to give the opportunity for the discussion to be held in a broader way."

The mayor's action comes in response to redoubled efforts, led by Congressman Emanuel Cleaver and a group of Kansas City ministers, to realize a long-discussed goal of renaming The Paseo for King. After a recent rebuff by the city's Board of Parks and Recreation, the local chapter of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) announced plans to gather signatures to place the question on the ballot later this year.

In an interview Thursday evening after the City Council's legislative session, James said he'd consulted with Cleaver before deciding to form the commission. He said renaming The Paseo would not be his first choice, and that the matter should be the subject of a thoughtful citywide discussion.

"If Martin Luther King was fighting for equity, inclusion, equal rights and dismissal of segregation, then I think we ought to find a way that does something that actually honors that legacy," James said, "as opposed, frankly, to just automatically renaming a street in a segregated part of town and creating yet another dividing line."

In an email Thursday evening, a Cleaver spokesman said there would be no comment until after James' announcement.

James said that after visiting many cities that had renamed a street for King, he was convinced that there was a more meaningful way to pay tribute.

"I just don't know how that honors Dr Martin Luther King," he said. "I don't say that having a street named after him isn't an honor. But I've been to other cities where there are MLK streets. None of them are in any parts of town that have any economic activity or anything going on that I've been able to see. And I just don't know how that honors the man."

The mayor has spoken often — most recently at last month's State of the City speech — about finding ways to narrow divides in a city that is among the country's most economically and racially segregated. He sees the King-Paseo issue as part of that search.

"The idea of talking about this, which is to some extent a racial issue, is something the city should have a conversation about, instead of having an ultimatum about."

Local organizers seem committed to renaming The Paseo, a leafy boulevard of broad green medians that runs north-south through the heart of the city's African American community. They were prepared to begin gathering signatures at a rally and march scheduled for Friday, with Cleaver as the featured speaker. The event was postponed because of bad weather and rescheduled for April 13.

"It's been vetted for quite some time," saId Wesley Fields, chairman of the SCLC's Greater Kansas City chapter, which was founded by Cleaver in the early 1970s.

Fields told The Star's editorial board Wednesday in a Facebook Live session: "The train has sort of left the gate at this point in terms of this issue. There has been enough swelling within the community for this change. The consensus among those who are advocating for a name change has consistently been for The Paseo.

"We think this is the right cause. We think this is appropriate."

Fields said that in addition to the signature petition campaign, the SCLC would pursue the name change through the city's street-naming committee, which is part of the planning and development department. The intent would be to take a recommendation from the committee back to the park board, which rejected the idea last month.

In a letter to local SCLC leaders March 23, park board president Jean-Paul Chaurand said that long-standing policy is to name streets only after those "who have made significant and outstanding contributions of land, funds, goods or services" to the city or park system.

He noted that the board, which has jurisdiction over the city's boulevards, 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.

James said Thursday he was not aware of Chaurand had also recommended a commission.