Kansas City holds the dubious distinction as one of the largest — if not the largest — city in the nation to lack a prominent thoroughfare named after Martin Luther King Jr.
As the nation pauses Wednesday on the 50th anniversary of the famed civil rights leader’s assassination in Memphis, the city should step up efforts to shed that distinction. That a new push is in progress to rename The Paseo after King is more than timely in this milestone anniversary year. It is also a glaring reminder that far too many years have passed without Kansas City taking action on a symbolic and important issue.
Missouri Congressman Emanuel Cleaver, who first broached this idea in 1979, and a group of pastors are spearheading the latest drive. The Kansas City Parks and Recreation Board is opposing the change in part because the city already has a 42-acre park at Swope Parkway and Woodland Avenue named after the civil rights leader.
But the park is not well-known and lacks the prominence that the city’s original boulevards have.
Cleaver and the pastors’ group say renaming The Paseo would bring benefits that include enhanced economic development in the vicinity of the boulevard that stretches from Lexington Avenue in the city’s northeast to East 79th Street. The Paseo’s historic ties to the city’s African-American community also make the street an appealing option. Today, this central artery is home to 13 black churches, and many of their pastors have voiced support for the idea. So has a large landowner in the area, barbecue baron Ollie Gates.
Finally, the group regards the boulevard as a respectable thoroughfare that has not been marred by the blight that has tarnished so many of the other 900 streets around the nation named after King. An earlier proposal to rename largely dilapidated Prospect Avenue after King was rightly rejected precisely because Prospect fell so short of King’s vision.
The Paseo may lack some of its majesty from another era. Yet the boulevard has escaped those irritating strip-mall eyesores that proliferate in so many neighborhoods these days. It still holds the potential to uplift and serve as an attractive model for inner-city residential stability.
Other streets might be worthy candidates for renaming. Troost Avenue would be a popular choice. But Cleaver and the ministers have worked on this current plan for more than two years, and it’s a worthy one.
To be sure, this move is little more than symbolic. It won’t boost personal income or home ownership rates. A new name won’t create jobs. But symbolism has meaning, and re-christening a street sends a message. King stands even today as a beacon of hope and promise and as a rallying force for generations of African Americans. That’s important.
On Friday, the pastors will launch a petition drive with a goal of collecting 1,700 valid signatures by mid-May to get on the August ballot. A march commencing at 5 p.m. Friday from 3400 The Paseo will move north, then east to Prospect, where Cleaver will speak.
Those leading the petition should easily reach their goal. And voters likely would overwhelmingly approve the proposition at the polls.
Given that, the City Council should consider stepping in and doing what the Park Board will not, despite repeated requests from Cleaver and the pastors. Why would the city continue to delay rightly honoring Martin Luther King Jr.?