Mayor selects citizens group to explore possible honors for King

Mayor Sly James appoints commission to discuss how Kansas City should honor MLK

Mayor Sly James appointed a commission to start a civic conversation on how the city should honor Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Many cities the size of Kansas City have streets or boulevards named after the civil rights leader but Kansas City does not.
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Mayor Sly James appointed a commission to start a civic conversation on how the city should honor Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Many cities the size of Kansas City have streets or boulevards named after the civil rights leader but Kansas City does not.

Mayor Sly James has named a group of 11 community leaders to conduct a broad civic conversation about how the city should honor Dr. Martin Luther King and to make a recommendation within 45 days.

James selected as co-chairs two clergy members, Rev. Donna Simon, pastor of St. Mark Hope and Peace Lutheran Church, and Rev. Rodney Williams, president of the NAACP's Kansas City branch and pastor of Swope Parkway United Christian Church. James said they will hold a series of community forums to solicit ideas.

On the 50th anniversary of the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., Wednesday, Apr. 4, members of the Kansas City, Kan., community remembered the legacy of the civil rights leader at the John Brown memorial at the Old Quindaro Townsite.

"First and foremost I do believe that it was time for the city to do something to recognize and honor Dr. Martin Luther King," said James, who made the announcement Friday at the Bruce R. Watkins Cultural Heritage Center on Blue Parkway. James said the search for an appropriate tribute to King was in line with his wider goal of narrowing the city's racial divides.

"This is a prime opportunity to start that conversation," James said, adding that the group's 45-day calendar reflected a sense of urgency.

"I don't want this issue to linger on the vine and get stale or get contentious or get old," he said.

James, who has been in office for seven years, hastily assembled the advisory group this week after a coalition of activists, led by the local chapter of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), announced it would gather signatures for a ballot question proposing that The Paseo be renamed for King.

The redesignation has been advocated for years by congressman and former Mayor Emanuel Cleaver. The issue picked up new political energy last month after the Board of Parks and Recreation, which has jurisdiction over the city's boulevards, rejected the idea.

James' formation of the advisory group effectively creates parallel efforts to honor King. How the two will be reconciled — or if they will need to be reconciled — is unclear at this point. The buck will ultimately stop at the City Council, which must vote to place questions on the ballot after signatures have been validated, and which will also be presented with the panel's recommendation.

Cleaver indicated his displeasure with James' intervention Friday in an interview with The Star's editorial board, but he declined to criticize James outright.

“There’s a tradition in Kansas City that mayors never criticize mayors. So I’m going to practice that," he said.

SCLC officials said Friday they remain committed to the Paseo proposal and ballot initiative, which requires 1,700 valid signatures.

"This does absolutely nothing to our direction and goals," said the Rev. Dr. Vernon Percy Howard, Jr., president of the SCLC's Kansas City chapter. He credited the ministerial community's activism for forcing the issue onto the mayor's agenda.

"We do believe that if there is going to be a commission to study how Dr. King can be honored in Kansas City that is a good thing," Howard said. "We are disappointed that it took 50 years to put the commission together, and the current administration seven years."

James said that he saw no problem with the signature initiative going forward while his group deliberated.

"I don't have any problem with people collecting signatures and doing what they are able to do under the charter," he said. "That's not what this is about. Seventeen hundred people signing a petition is not a public conversation.....How could we ever possibly have a negative by having this community talk about Martin Luther King and the great things he did? That's a conversation in and of itself that is worth having."

James named two local SCLC board members to the advisory group, attorney Wesley Fields and the Rev. Bob Hill, minister emeritus of Community Christian Church. James also selected park board president Jean Paul Chaurand, who angered SCLC leaders when he informed them that renaming The Paseo for King was not consistent with board policy.

Chaurand said in a letter that roads in the park system are named only for individuals "who have made significant and outstanding contributions of land, funds, goods or services" to the city or parks. He also suggested formation of a citizens commission to study the issue.

Chaurand, who attended Friday's announcement, said there might be some flexibility in that stance.

"We do recognize that from time to time exceptions need to be made," he said.

James called his selections for the group "some of the finest this community has to offer." The other members are:

  • Roger Williams, principal of Hickman Mills High School.
  • Eric Wesson, editor of The Call.
  • The Rev. Modest Miles, pastor of Morning Star Missionary Baptist Church.
  • Bob Kendrick, president of the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum.
  • Joanne Collins, former Kansas City Councilwoman.
  • Stanley Archie, former president of the Missouri State Board of Education and member of the City Plan Commission.
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