Some Of Kansas City's Black Leaders Rally To Rename The Paseo After Martin Luther King Jr. | KCUR

Some Of Kansas City's Black Leaders Rally To Rename The Paseo After Martin Luther King Jr.

Apr 3, 2018

Nearly 900 streets in the U.S. are named for Martin Luther King Jr. But there's not one in Kansas City.

Several prominent, local black political and religious leaders want to change that by renaming The Paseo to Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard, but say they've been met with bureaucratic resistance. So, they want to take the fight to the ballot box.

The Kansas City Parks and Recreation Board, which typically gives the go-ahead on changing street names, opposes the modification, pointing last month to a policy that streets be named after people making significant contributions to Kansas City. The board also argues that there's a 42-acre park named for the civil rights leader at Swope Parkway and Woodland Avenue.

The Rev. Dr. Vernon Howard is president of the local chapter of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, which is one of the groups leading the way on the proposed name change. 

"Principle ought to guide policy," said Howard, who is also the senior pastor at St. Mark Union Church. "The principle is that Dr. King is one of the most iconic and impactful voices for peace in the globe, the country and certainly in our community and so principal ought to trump policy." 

Howard, Urban Summit president Ken Bacchus and the Rev. Sam Mann, pastor emeritus at St. Mark's, spoke Tuesday on KCUR's "Up To Date" with host Steve Kraske about why they believe it's important for Kansas City to have an MLK Boulevard and how they're planning to triumph. 

"It is organically tied to issues of racial justice, racial identity and the contributions of a black man to the broader society," Howard said. 

When asked about picking a street like Troost, which has long been considering the racial dividing line in Kansas City, or 63rd Street, which runs nearly the entire length of the city from east to west, the men pointed to the more residential nature of The Paseo.

It's one of the city's original boulevards, about 10 miles long, and was designed by landscape architect George Kessler in the 1890s.

"We think The Paseo embodies the spirit and peacefulness of Dr. King and what he stood for,” Bacchus said. "Every 10 blocks or so you have different groups of people, it's racially mixed.”

The renaming issue has come up several times, most recently in 2016. In 1979, before he became mayor and a U.S. representative, the Rev. Emanuel Cleaver worked on a renaming proposal and there were discussions in the 1990s during his mayorship as well, Bacchus said. Bacchus previously served on the Kansas City Council alongside Cleaver. 

Howard said he was “baffled” that the park board would say no after the issue had gained support from prominent political and religious leaders, neighborhood residents as well as justice organizations in Kansas.

"This is not just some fly-by-night organizing," Mann added.

While the City Council could choose to override the board's decision (and several members have spoken out in favor of doing so), proponents are gearing up for a different way to get King's name on the boulevard: by ballot. They'll begin gathering signatures Friday to put it to a vote in August. 

"We will take it to the people and let the people decide," Howard said.

The event in support of renaming the boulevard is scheduled for Friday. People are asked to gather at 5 p.m. at 3400 Paseo. The march will kick off at 5:30 p.m. and conclude in a rally at 27th and Prospect Avenue. U.S. Rep. Emanuel Cleaver II will be the keynote speaker. 

Listen to the entire conversation on "Up To Date" here.

Kathleen Pointer is an assistant producer on "Up To Date." Follow her on Twitter @kathleenpointer.