Don’t let disputes over Martin Luther King Jr. and the jazz museum become a distraction

Kansas City’s long conversation about race and equality has taken a potentially distracting turn.

Earlier this year, a group of East Side ministers said Kansas City should rename The Paseo for Martin Luther King Jr. The ministers pointed out our city’s failure to formally recognize the civil rights icon.

About the same time, a debate about the future of the American Jazz Museum surfaced. The facility at 18th and Vine has struggled for years, but an ill-conceived concert in 2017 exploded the museum’s deficit, requiring a taxpayer bailout.

Both issues have consumed City Hall and the community.

Both discussions are important. A healthy 18th and Vine area reflects a firm commitment to development and recovery on the city’s neglected East Side, while honoring King is an obvious, long overdue goal.

Sadly, though, the two issues seem to have divided the city’s African-American leaders, who are arguing over the best way to remember King and to overhaul the jazz museum.

More broadly, the disputes may divert us from a needed discussion of other crucial policy questions: affordable housing, better health care and child care, public safety, transportation, education, jobs, development, inclusiveness.

That would be an unnecessary and disappointing outcome.

The MLK dispute

We like the idea of renaming the Paseo for Martin Luther King, Jr. The new name would boost the community, while serving as a model and magnet for stable neighborhoods in the central city.

Mayor Sly James had a different idea. He appointed a commission to study the issue, and members suggested the city name its new airport project for King.

We called the proposal a bold idea worthy of consideration, but it has angered supporters of The Paseo option.

“The airport identification wholly rejects and disregards the inner city and urban core where most poor people and people of color live,” said Vernon Howard, head of the local chapter of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.

The group will continue to gather signatures to force a vote on The Paseo if the City Council doesn’t rename the boulevard on its own.

The symbolism of naming an important public asset in King’s honor is undeniable. But one suspects King would not be satisfied with symbolism: He’d insist on a commitment for economic opportunity and justice, regardless of which asset bears his name.

Renaming the street or the airport for King is acceptable. Renaming the street and the airport is acceptable. A lengthy argument over the decision, on the other hand, may soon become a serious political distraction.

The mayor can play an important role here. He has suggested a conversation about race in his final year in office, and he must realize the King dispute has made that discussion much more difficult.

He should step back from the MLK issue. Let the people decide, Mr. Mayor, while you stay focused on the bigger picture.

The American Jazz Museum

The American Jazz Museum’s problems are a concern, too. The two council members from the Third District are at odds over its leadership and management, as well as the city’s oversight role.

The museum must be a good steward of the public’s money, and it needs to refresh itself with new leadership. It is counterproductive for elected politicians to try to manipulate the museum for perceived political gain or to seek oversized influence there.

Councilman Jermaine Reed suggested a particular path for the facility, prompting pushback from his colleagues.

It’s unfortunate. What the museum needs now is stability: competent internal supervision, coupled with reflection and focus. It doesn’t need name-calling and backroom dealing.

The City Council recently took important steps to calm the waters at the museum. Now, the city and the museum board should spend the summer working on a plan to reinvigorate the facility.

The way forward

Kansas City has taken small steps toward inclusiveness and equality over the years, but no one who lives here thinks the journey is anywhere close to being finished.

Unemployment and underemployment are serious problems in the African-American community. Wages are too low.

Too much of the housing east of Troost is substandard and too expensive for working families. Quality child care is hard to find at an affordable price. Public transit is an issue.

Violent crime remains a scourge.

Kansas City is building a new airport terminal, and the biggest snag so far is a disagreement over minority jobs on the project. There are other examples.

We’re not suggesting the city drop the King issue or walk away from the jazz museum. Both concerns must be addressed.

But Kansas Citians should keep the disputes in perspective. A new name for a street or an airport won’t feed hungry children or put books in their hands. A healthy jazz museum won’t increase wages or cut the grass on vacant lots or take guns off the streets.

Addressing those problems will take more hard work in the years ahead. Solving them would do as much to honor Martin Luther King Jr.’s legacy and Kansas City’s dynamic history as renaming a street or fixing a museum.