Nearly 51 years after his assassination and during the week of the national holiday that bears his name, civil rights icon Martin Luther King Jr. became the namesake for a major Kansas City boulevard.
By an 8-4 vote on Thursday, the Kansas City Council voted to rename The Paseo, a 10-mile road through the heart of the city’s predominantly African American east side, for King.
Members approved the measure after a contentious months-long debate over how the city could best honor King. Kansas City is one of the nation’s largest municipalities without a street or major building that carries his name.
“We have overcome a borderline regressive electoral body that almost didn’t do this, but we thank God for the progressive leaders on this council that rose up today and are a reflection of what one Kansas City can look like,” said Vernon Howard, president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference of Greater Kansas City (SCLC), a chief proponent of the street name change.
He added: “These folks that voted ‘yes’ are folks that embody a political ideology of progressivism, of unity, of oneness, and it’s that kind of political ideology that can take our city from being two cities to one city.”
The boulevard’s transition from The Paseo to King will take some time. City spokesman Chris Hernandez said it would likely be three months before the standard street signs are all replaced. Larger, lighted signs at major intersections have to be ordered, which could take upward of six months.
A group of city staff will be appointed to work with the U.S. Postal Service to coordinate the transition for mail to addresses on The Paseo. That working group, Hernandez said, will issue guidance to residents.
Councilman Quinton Lucas, 3rd District at-large, a candidate for mayor in the April 2 primary, shepherded the proposal through the council. He said he was among a group of council members who agreed when they ran for their seats in 2015 to help residents who wanted to rename The Paseo for King.
“And then what happened? Nothing,” Lucas said. “Three years went on and we did absolutely nothing the whole time following.”
Other members, also mayoral candidates, took issue with what they saw as limited engagement of the public on the name change and voted against the ordinance.
Councilwoman Alissia Canady, 5th District, said she had repeatedly asked proponents to get more input from neighborhoods along The Paseo. Canady and Mayor Sly James say they have received letters and emails from residents urging them not to rename the street.
Canady argued that city ordinances require two-thirds of the residents along a street to sign off before it can be renamed. Proponents acknowledge that the rule is on the books but say it has never been enforced.
“The reality is that this action we’re taking is suppressing the voice of the African Americans that live on Paseo Boulevard and do not support it,” Canady said.
Howard emailed members of the council Thursday morning to report that supporters had gathered 1,000 signatures from across the city — including 100 of those who live along The Paseo. Canady said she asked Howard for additional information on The Paseo residents but received no response.
“I do not believe it’s fair, I do not believe it’s right for there to be a political process where there’s pressure put on individuals to take a stance and all this has been made into a race issue,” Canady said. “It’s not a race issue. It’s a procedural issue.”
Canady accused Lucas of politicizing the debate and making it an issue of race.
Like Canady, Mayor Pro Tem Scott Wagner, 1st District at-large, took issue with the level of engagement of residents along The Paseo. He said he walked a portion of the street and found both support and opposition.
“A good portion of the people I talked to didn’t even know that this was even being discussed,” Wagner said.
Wagner noted Kansas City has had a park named for King since 1978. He said the park, at Swope Parkway and Woodland Avenue, is in poor condition and that requests for improvements have been denied by the Public Improvements Advisory Committee, a citizen group that makes recommendations on neighborhood projects.
“And yet today we’re saying he deserves better and he needs to have a boulevard named for him,” Wagner said. “My question is what will happen to the boulevard in 40 years because I’ve got 40 years of track record on a park with his name and it’s disgraceful.”
Toward the end of the debate, Lucas recounted the various reasons council members cited for opposing the renaming: that proponents need more signatures; that he was grandstanding; that an east-west street would be better, or that improvements be made to the existing park.
“It seems like throughout this whole discussion, for all the months we’ve been going, there are a thousand different reasons that people have gotten to ‘no,’” Lucas said.
He added: “Let’s think about why yes on Paseo.”
The issue surfaced early last year when the Board of Parks and Recreation, which oversees the city’s boulevards, rebuffed an attempt to suggest renaming The Paseo for King.
When ministers, led by the local SCLC, began collecting signatures to put the question on the August or November 2018 ballot, James formed a citizens commission to hold public hearings and make recommendations on sites that could be named for King.
Based on feedback from residents, the panel favored the new single-terminal Kansas City International Airport. As second and third options, it recommended 63rd Street — an east-west thoroughfare that cuts through majority-white neighborhoods before crossing Troost Avenue, the city’s historic racial dividing line — and The Paseo.
James passed the recommendations on to the council.
After the SCLC failed to gather enough signatures to qualify for the ballot, Lucas attached an amendment renaming The Paseo to Councilman Scott Taylor’s “Revive the East Side” ordinance. But it was stripped out before passage. Taylor is also running for mayor.
Since then, several efforts to hold a City Council vote have stalled. Lucas suggested naming the street “Martin Luther King Jr. on The Paseo,” rather than dropping the Paseo name entirely. That proposal was rejected on Thursday.
James broke a tie in November between council members who wanted to hold the ordinance for more public engagement and those who wanted the debate to come to a close and to vote on the issue.
Council members Wagner, Canady, Dan Fowler and Heather Hall voted against Thursday’s the ordinance. The rest of the council voted in favor. James was absent attending a mayors’ conference in Washington.