Toriano Porter

African-American leaders want to rename The Paseo for MLK. Their voice should matter

A signature petition drive aimed at renaming The Paseo for Martin Luther King Jr. launched with a peace march in April.
A signature petition drive aimed at renaming The Paseo for Martin Luther King Jr. launched with a peace march in April. The Star

Kansas City is in a unique position to change the reputation of streets named for Martin Luther King Jr., which in too many cities have become symbols of crime and economic despair.

Kansas City could learn from other cities’ missteps. Instead, an entirely unnecessary brouhaha is brewing here.

Efforts by local clergy to rename The Paseo in honor of King have been met with a tepid response, a collective shrug that amounts to an affront to the African-American residents who support the proposal.

Why wouldn’t one of the only major cities in the country without a street honoring the slain civil rights leader quickly seize the opportunity to make a statement in the urban core? And why would city leaders rebuff the carefully considered proposal of a group of well-respected and influential ministers?

The Southern Christian Leadership Conference of Greater Kansas City has led the renaming efforts. The aim was to work with the City Council to authorize the name change in a historically and predominantly black community. Instead, the ministers and volunteers have encountered resistance and foot-dragging.

Dr. Vernon Howard Jr., president of the local Southern Christian Leadership Conference, said the push to rename The Paseo for King is the third grassroots, community-wide effort that he has been part of during the last year and a half. None has received support from the City Council, he said.

The others included an effort to raise the city’s minimum wage to $15 per hour and the proposal that voters approved last year to levy a one-eighth-cent sales tax for economic development on the city’s East Side.

“Here it is for the third time in three years, we get co-opted,” Howard said. “This is not the first time it has happened and who knows, it might not be the last.”

The group has been stymied at every turn it seems. The Kansas City Parks and Recreation Board rejected renaming the stately north-south boulevard running through the heart of the city for King. Then Mayor Sly James created an advisory group to begin a citywide discussion.

Why wouldn’t James support a proposal launched by the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, a respected civil rights organization that counted King as its founding president?

“This is about everyone having an opportunity to share their thoughts — not just one group,” James said.

But that group represents a large contingency of African-American residents. And the thoroughfare would benefit greatly from the city’s boulevard funding system.

The MLK advisory group was a good idea in theory. But in the end, it basically ignored the ministers’ years of research and eventual determination that The Paseo would be the best fit. Their voices have essentially been silenced.

Howard described the city-sponsored recommendations to rename either the new terminal at Kansas City International Airport or 63rd Street in King’s honor as insulting. A petition initiative to place the issue before voters in November could be divisive.

“But we will not stop,” Howard said.

Attorney Wesley Fields served on the mayor’s advisory board that considered this issue. He is also board chair for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference of Greater Kansas City. Fields said he was encouraged by the conversation that resulted from the commission. He was not opposed to the airport option, but The Paseo remains the preferred street choice, he said.

“It has such a long history in the African-American community,” Fields said.

Ignoring a group that represents people who have long been excluded from the decision-making process is not the way to strengthen Kansas City. A city cannot deny a portion of the population the right to be heard and still thrive.

The City Council could right this situation by simply introducing an ordinance to rename The Paseo for King. It would be a bold and inclusive move.

Renaming the street is a worthy investment — and a long overdue way to honor King 50 years after his death, as well as the people he fought for.