On an otherwise quiet and cold Monday morning, the voices of elated Kansas Citians singing “Lift Every Voice and Sing” echoed off of the homes near 34th Street and The Paseo, where crews installed the first signs for Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard.
The group’s rendition of the song, commonly known as the Black National Anthem, came as community leaders celebrated victory in a hard-fought battle to rename The Paseo in honor of the late civil rights leader. City Council members voted 8-4 last month in favor of the change.
“Kansas City, you have done the right thing. You have done the good thing. You have done the best thing,” said Vernon Howard, president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference of Greater Kansas City. “And we will continue to fight for racial justice, racial equity and the unity of our community going into the future.”
The Council’s approval last month came after a months-long push by religious leaders along The Paseo and the SCLC, an organization King helped found. After initial rejection by the Board of Parks and Recreation, which has jurisdiction over the city’s boulevards, the group attempted to gather enough signatures to put the renaming to a vote.
Finally, despite opposition by some council members who didn’t believe residents who live on The Paseo were properly consulted, the group found the support to get it passed.
Over the next months, the city will replace the remaining signs on The Paseo and advise residents who live on the boulevard on changing their addresses and other important documents to reflect the new name.
Councilman Jermaine Reed, 3rd District, was the only council member to attend Monday morning’s ceremony. He said he was “humbled” to be among the leaders who fought to rename the street.
When Reed was first elected to the council in 2011, he suggested renaming Prospect Avenue for King but was met with fierce opposition because of the street’s poor economic conditions.
Reed said Nelson “Fuzzy” Thompson, a Methodist minister and former local SCLC president, encouraged him to “keep up the good fight” before he died in 2015.
In an interview, Reed noted Kansas City’s boulevard will be one of about 900 streets that carry King’s name. Reed said Kansas Citians will be able to look back on the renaming of The Paseo years from now as a historic moment for Kansas City.
“But also we as a community will be able to embrace this rich moment with the fierce urgency of now ... and making sure that we maintain and keep up this street for many generations to come,” said Reed, who is running for mayor.
To the speakers at Monday’s ceremony this was a long-fought battle finally won.
Howard said nothing happens in the city’s East Side neighborhoods without an uprising of organized community members and that the area had been passed over historically when it comes to beautification, economic development, job opportunities and more.
“And yet we stood strong,” Howard said, “and said it is time to do this because this community, our community, deserves beautification, economic investment, landmarks and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard so that the children who walk out of Lee A. Tolbert Academy can look up on the corner and see a man that fought and bled for their right for equality in America.”
He added: “This is big, y’all. You ought to give God some praise for it.”
Several area residents turned out Monday to celebrate the renaming.
Tasha Woods, who lives and works at Victorious Life Church on The Paseo, said she was thrilled by the name change.
“It’s great for the kids to come out and see that they are now going to school on Dr. Martin Luther King Boulevard,” she said. “It gives them something to look up to and be proud of.”
Cindy Middlebrooks, who lives on The Paseo, said she was “overwhelmed with emotion.” When she first heard the proposal, she said she was “shaken,” but she came around to the idea.
Middlebrooks said she has yet to hear anything about what she will need to do to change her address and other documents to reflect her new address.
Jean Johnson said she lives near Linwood Boulevard and The Paseo and told her husband she “had to get down here and be a part of this history.”
But the name change wasn’t welcome news for all The Paseo’s residents. That opposition gave pause for council members, including Scott Wagner and Alissia Canady, who questioned whether the supporters did enough to engage neighbors and ensure they were on board.
Wilburn Smith, who lives farther south on The Paseo, worried about the stigma of crime and violence associated with streets named after King. Disrepair and desertion along streets named for King in some other cities, including St. Louis, have created a negative perception to some.
Smith said he was hoping to sell his home.
“I’m trying to get out of here before the storm,” Smith said.
He considered consulting with an attorney to find a way to reverse the change, but he had hoped to do that before they began installing the signs.
‘Nobody wants it — nobody that I’ve talked to,” Smith said.
Smith said when he got his home owner’s insurance renewal information, his insurance had shot up $200 compared to the $50 increases he has seen every three years. He believed that reflected the reputation of streets named for King.
Laura Sanchez said in a letter she emailed to the mayor’s office and her 5th District council members that despite being a resident on The Paseo for more than 10 years, she was not consulted about the name change. She thought renaming a street not in a predominantly black area would have been more effective.
“Instead,” she said, ”this empty gesture negatively impacts the residents of The Paseo. Sadly, assumptions are made about streets named MLK, from investors, to insurance companies to home buyers and vacationers.”
In a text message, spokesman Chris Hernandez said the city was “still working on a timeline and will be sure to communicate with residents and businesses once details to implement the full changeover are set.”
A local U.S. Postal Service official did not immediately return a request for comment.