A group seeking to change the name of Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard back to The Paseo staged a silent protest Sunday at a rally of their opponents at a Kansas City church.
The protest occurred about 4:30 p.m. inside the Paseo Baptist Church at 25th Street and Dr. King Boulevard. It came days before Tuesday’s city election, which includes a citizen-led ballot question to decide whether to keep the street name after it was changed earlier this year.
The question was put on the ballot by a group called Save The Paseo. Members of that group entered the church Sunday during a rally at the church supporting the current name honoring the slain civil rights leader. The rally featured U.S. Rep. Emanuel Cleaver II as a speaker.
The protesters stood silently in the two aisles, refusing repeated pleas from several clergy to sit down.
The demonstration angered the Rev. Vernon P. Howard, president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference of Greater Kansas City, who helped lead the effort to rename the boulevard after King.
“If this is some kind of perverted attempt to demonstrate a spirit of protest and activism, then it is evil, wrongheaded and harmful to race relations, to the spirit of Dr. King and certainly to the Paseo Baptist Church,” Howard said.
Those who disrupted the rally were not told to leave but were asked to sit down because they were disrupting the event and blocking the views of participants.
Kellie Jones, a spokeswoman for Save the Paseo, participated in the protest. She said those who attended felt passionate about the issue and had the right to be there.
“They were symbolically standing for the people that were unheard in this process,” Jones said. “They wanted to stand up for justice, they wanted to stand up for those that were unheard and that is what they did.”
Jones declined to say why her group refused the requests to sit down.
The measure will appear on the Nov. 5 special election ballot in Kansas City as Question 5. Voting “yes” supports returning the street to its former name The Paseo. A “no” vote keeps Dr. King’s name.
Paseo vs. MLK
The idea of naming a Kansas City street in honor of King had been proposed for years. Cleaver, who had led the SCLC in Kansas City decades ago, first broached the idea in 1979.
Kansas City was thought to be one of the nation’s only major cities without a street named after King.
The Kansas City Council approved changing the name from Paseo to Dr. King Boulevard in January. New street signs were installed in February.
Howard said the Save the Paseo protesters who disrupted the rally Sunday were disrespectful.
Children who were scheduled to sing and dance left early because their parents were afraid of trouble, Howard said Monday.
Video of the rally and the demonstrators was posted to the Facebook page of the supporters of King Boulevard.
Howard said the protest group is led by white residents from outside the urban core.
“This is a white led movement that is trying to dictate to black people in the black community who our heroes should be; who we honor; where we honor them and how we honor them,” Howard said. “That is the pathology of white privilege and that is the epitome of systemic structural racism.”
Jones, the Save the Paseo spokeswoman, said the group is multi-racial and includes residents who live on Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard.
Save The Paseo and its supporters argue that the boulevard, with its ornate fountains, pergolas and broad green space, has a historical significance that should remain untouched.
Paseo supporters have argued the renaming was pushed through without citizen input. They point to a city statute the council waived that requires input from those who live along the street before it can be renamed.
“We want Dr. King to have an honor and we have been pretty clear about that,” Jones said. “This is about how it is done.”
Advocates for retaining the name maintain there was adequate community feedback. They said they gathered signatures of 100 residents of the street that support the name change, handed out literature and attended neighborhood meetings as requested by the council.
More information about the Nov. 5 special election is available through the Kansas City Board of Election Commissioners at kceb.org. The board’s offices can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org and by phone at 816-842-4820. Polls open at 6 a.m. and close at 7 p.m.