Mayor Sly James keeps poking the bear.
And now, the “bear” — that fellowship of highly influential black ministers in town — is white-hot angry over the mayor’s handling of the ongoing effort to name something after Martin Luther King Jr.
The ministers now pledge to protest — and even block — any push to rename the new airport terminal after King. “It’s unfit and a dishonor to Dr. King,” said the Rev. Vernon Howard, a spokesman for the ministers.
That’s especially true, Howard said, now that the mayor has said the renaming would apply only to the new terminal and not the entire facility. King is worthy of far more.
As to the recommendation calling for the renaming of 63rd Street, which runs from Kansas City through Mission Hills and Prairie Village in Kansas, the ministers also are opposed.
Howard points out that neither 63rd Street nor the airport in the far distant Northland touches the heart of the African-American community.
“These two recommendations simply do what the city has a pattern of doing, and that’s simply flying over the inner city,” Howard told me.
The ministers pledge to continue their petition effort to rename The Paseo after King. The goal now is to get the question before voters in November.
Kansas City could wind up with two major public assets named after King: the airport or 63rd Street and The Paseo, which may not be the worst thing in the world. The City Council will decide between the first two options, while voters likely will weigh in on The Paseo.
What really has the ministers excised is the way James navigated this issue. The ministers say the mayor hijacked the debate after the ministers had worked on it for three years.
The mayor could have left it alone. Instead, he’s ignited a firestorm that threatens to divide people when the city has plenty of issues on its plate.
From the ministers’ standpoint, their proposal for honoring King when no one else was talking about it has morphed into a sweeping debate that’s failed to produce a consensus.
“How dare the city simply reject and ignore cries from the constituency for the last three years to focus on The Paseo?” Vernon said. “It’s disrespectful. It does not represent governance that has its ear to the ground.”
On the subject of the mayor’s decision to name an advisory group, Howard had harsh words.
“You can quote me on this,” he said. “I believe it’s a political ploy.”
He doesn’t know what the mayor’s goal is. But he can’t get past the idea that the pastors working on the issue heard barely a peep from James or any council member as they toiled away. The mayor stepped forward last month with his plan for an advisory committee only after the pastors scheduled a rally to voice support for renaming The Paseo.
“This is a classic example of city leadership not hearing the organized, indigenous, grassroots cries of people in our community,” Howard said.
The mayor’s spokeswoman, Laura Swinford, said the renaming issue “shouldn’t belong to just one group or community, but to all of us.” Lots of meetings are ahead, she said, and James hopes the dialogue continues in King’s spirit of respect.
No question the naming fight is far from over. The advisory committee’s recommendations failed to calm the waters. This bears repeating: The black ministers are a force. Battling them over a civil rights hero gets you nowhere.