A single bullet was not fired into the face of Martin Luther King Jr. because the minister might someday have an airport named after him.
Powerful people wanted King dead, and they ultimately got their wish. He was dangerous for his strident calls to upend society in the name of social justice. His urgent pleading on behalf of poor people across the globe was viewed as a step too far. Not to mention his opposition to the Vietnam War.
King was agitating political power brokers in the late 1960s, attracting ardent followers who shared his convictions. Very powerful people were threatened.
And Kansas City’s reaction is to rename the airport for him?
But airports don’t generally stand out as testaments to economic justice and racial inclusion, hallmarks of King’s message. It’s a good bet ours won’t, either.
With contracts for a new terminal at Kansas City International Airport still under negotiation, developers are wrestling with the consequences of the fact that many local unions have historically been closed off to people of color. As a result, it’s going to be difficult to meet minority participation goals for the terminal project.
The last thing this city needs is to attach King’s name to a brick and mortar behemoth that epitomizes our long-term struggles to include all of our citizens in civic prosperity.
Moreover, the fact that this concept is many residents’ top choice to pay homage to King underscores the disservice that history has done the man.
King has been sanitized and simplified, his rough, fierce edges ground off to present a more palatable figure — that of a benevolent, nonviolent dreamer.
Did you know that King once applied for a gun permit? Initially, he saw nonviolence as a practical stance, not a moral one. There were simply more white people than black in America. If violence broke out, African Americans wouldn’t win.
King had good reason to fear for his life, yet his use of armed bodyguards alarmed pacifists who wanted to join his civil rights movement. It was through prayer, deep reflection and study that he embraced nonviolence fully.
Eventually, that saved his life when a disturbed woman in Harlem stabbed him so close to his aorta that had he sneezed, he would have died.
If people had a broader grasp of King and his extraordinary evolution as a leader, the idea of renaming KCI for the civil rights icon would never have risen to the forefront.
The subversive nature of King had little to do with the passages he is best known for speaking. Kansas City seems to have latched onto the lyrical King while running from his deeper messaging.
The Federal Bureau of Investigation did not have him under surveillance, nor did our government try to orchestrate a campaign to undermine his influence because King was a passive dreamer.
The great theologian the Rev. James H. Cone beautifully captured the mature King closer to his death by juxtaposing him with Malcolm X in his book “Martin & Malcolm & America: A Dream Or A Nightmare.”
Both men died at the age of 39. They were more alike philosophically at the end of their lives than is broadly recognized. Cone died in late April.
If this information makes people rethink lending King’s name to such a public marker for all of Kansas City, thank you for your honesty. That’s a start.
At the height of his advocacy, King was difficult and challenging. And that’s true no matter what your race, creed or bank balance. He was calling everybody out at the end of his life.
Throwing the King name up on a $1 billion airport terminal certainly checks the box as a dramatic move.
It does not, however, have any relevance to what King spent the vast majority of his life advocating for: the moral higher ground he died trying to achieve.