Government & Politics

The Paseo or new KCI are early favorites for MLK renaming, advisory group says

Renaming The Paseo or the new single-terminal Kansas City International Airport for civil rights icon Martin Luther King Jr. emerged as the top possible recommendations of a mayoral advisory panel after a straw poll Wednesday.

The MLK Advisory Group winnowed down the suggested designations from a long list compiled through three public hearings. Eight of nine members named the air terminal, expected to be open in early 2022, as one of their three recommendations for further community discussion.

Seven members mentioned The Paseo, the north-south boulevard favored by a coalition of ministers from the city's east side who want to place the question on the August ballot.

Six members also expressed interest in an east-west street — possibly Linwood Boulevard or 12th Street or 63rd Street — that would cut across diverse neighborhoods and the city's traditional racial divide at Troost Avenue.

The public will have another chance to weigh in on the options at 9 a.m. Saturday at the Marlborough Community Center, 8200 The Paseo. The panel is expected to make a final recommendation to Mayor Sly James by May 21.

More than 900 streets, boulevards and avenues have been named for King since his 1968 assassination. Kansas City is one of the nation's largest municipalities with no street bearing his name, an oversight that has long rankled black leaders.

The petition signature drive, led by the Kansas City chapter of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), began after a proposal for renaming The Paseo was rejected in March by the park board, which has jurisdiction over the city's boulevard system.

James formed his advisory group last month in response to the ministers' campaign, saying that he he wanted a broader civic discussion on ways to honor King.

The straw poll results are tentative and subject to change, but they represent three distinct approaches to the issue. The Paseo would be the traditional choice. Supporters say a street named for King belongs in the black community, and that The Paseo's broad, tree-lined medians and rich history make it an appropriate honor for King.

An east-west street would affirm that King's legacy of peace and non-violence connects all communities.

Panel members members leaning toward the new air terminal, approved by voters last November, see it as a bold statement of the city's values, that would be projected to millions of travelers each year. The FAA lists no major airport named for King.

Rev. Bob Hill, minister emeritus at Community Christian Church, said the city's belated effort to honor King calls out for something different.

"It gives us the opportunity to do something — to make a statement," Hill said. "An airport makes a big statement."

Eric Wesson, editor of The Call, said he was not persuaded by the idea that city needs to follow suit with other communities, and that the moment cried out for something "cutting edge."

"I understand and respect the SCLC and the ministers behind this. But can we be a little more creative?" Wesson asked.

Rev. Donna Simon, the panel co-chair, also expressed enthusiasm for the air terminal, and that its completion makes the timing for naming it "excellent." But Simon, pastor at St. Mark Hope and Peace Lutheran Church, who is white, also acknowledged the questions posed by placement of King's name on a facility in Platte County, far from the city's center.

"The national narrative about this is, does it go in the black part of town or the white part of town? Which is too narrow a question but still important. Dr. King is hero to lots of us but it's probably fair to say he belongs to the black community in a way. So do we put it way up north?"

Panel member Wesley Fields, attorney and chairman of the board of the SCLC's Kansas City chapter, said it need not be an "either-or" proposition.

"I don't think you pit one against the other. I think both are possibilities," Fields said. "I don't think people are saying. 'I want this to the exclusion of something else?' I'm saying, why do you have to make a choice?"