Guest Commentary

Fight over The Paseo looked racially driven to MLK’s nephew

The “Save the Paseo” group that fought to remove the name of Martin Luther King Jr. from a boulevard says it was all about history and process. But to the nephew of Martin Luther King Jr., it looked like race was involved.
The “Save the Paseo” group that fought to remove the name of Martin Luther King Jr. from a boulevard says it was all about history and process. But to the nephew of Martin Luther King Jr., it looked like race was involved. Associated Press file photo

American whites’ fear of racial demographic change exhibited in the 2016 presidential election has reared its head again, this time in a referendum vote by a major American city.

According to U.S. Census figures, Kansas City’s population is 60% white, 29% black and 11% other, which could explain the racially-divisive vote to remove the name of American black icon Martin Luther King Jr. from the boulevard historically known at The Paseo. The vote was 70% in favor of the removal.

The group leading the charge to remove King’s name, “Save the Paseo,” built its rationale around two central themes: the history of the boulevard and the way the name change was done. Both of these arguments divert attention away from the true racial undertones that exist. The history of The Paseo, according to the group’s own website, is not about the name of the street, but about its homes, water structures, parks, buildings, monuments and design. None of these features change with the name of the boulevard, be it Paseo or King.

The National Register of Historic Places designation that the group references says nothing about The Paseo’s name. Instead, that listing, for the Kansas City Parks and Boulevards Historic District, describes an area “roughly bounded” by the Missouri River, Hardesty Avenue, Armour Boulevard and State Line Road. Save the Paseo’s blog says some voters of Latin American ancestry felt the renaming was “‘an insult’ to their culture.” This is baffling, because the group also mentions that “Paseo” is a reference not to United States citizens of Latin origin, but is instead a nod to Mexico City’s Paseo de la Reforma and its culture and architectural heritage. It’s not about United States citizens in the first place. This might be why there is no mention of The Paseo’s history anywhere in the National Register designation. King, however, is true red, white and blue American.

In terms of objections to how the boulevard’s name was changed, last time I checked, American cities’ mayors and city councils are the authorities where all the bucks stop. The only other higher authority is the will of the voters and — unfortunately in this case — it appears that Kansas Citians decided to exercise that authority along racial lines.

Two other references on the Save the Paseo website speak to the racial undertones I believe were present in this horrible name removal. First, it says “it has been well-documented that most of the city believed The Paseo was off-limits. Its history is part of the entire community, no matter race, religion or economic status.” It also suggests that “it might be better to assign Dr. King’s name to a boulevard indicative of the racial divide — west to east — that still defines our city.”

Both of these assertions are a nice way (to some) of saying that King’s legacy is a black American thing. I find them insulting. King’s true legacy for our nation is iconic and non-racial, completing what the Founding Fathers started by applying the words they wrote in the Constitution to all Americans.

The Paseo is a 10-mile stretch that connects all aspects of Kansas City. What better way to honor it and the man whose human rights dream was for all people of every race, economic class, religious beliefs (or lack thereof), gender and age? King’s legacy meets the bar Save the Paseo speaks of in its history of The Paseo

I realize that many white Kansas Citians may think King’s dream was a black dream. As his nephew, I can assure you it was an American dream for all, black and white together. My uncle refused to ever use the phrase “black power,” because he was never about power or domination. He was about human equality for all. His nonviolent philosophy and proposal of universal love for all humankind to create the “beloved community” that he lived, worked and died for is the very prescription that American whites need to address their fear of demographic change in this country.

I have had the pleasure of visiting Kansas City several times. Based on those visits, I know and choose to believe that the vote to remove a black American icon was the exception and not the rule for the city. After all, Kansas City has never had a black majority population, but it has elected three black mayors.

I urge Kansas City to revisit its decision or find another way for all of Kansas City — not Black Kansas City or White Kansas City — to honor the multiracial American icon that Rev Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. is.

Isaac Newton Farris is senior fellow at the King Center in Atlanta, Georgia, and the nephew of Martin Luther King Jr.