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Kansas City on the cusp of finally naming street after MLK 

Kansas City on the cusp of finally naming street after MLK 
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Kansas City is one of the largest metropolitan areas in the U.S. without a street named after Martin Luther King Jr., but that could soon change with a proposal expected to be voted on by local lawmakers in the coming weeks.

It will be the second attempt by officials in Kansas City to name a major thoroughfare after King in recent years. In 2018, the city council voted to rename The Paseo — a significant Kansas City parkway that runs through the center of the town — in honor of King. However, after the renaming happened in February 2019, opposition led by a group called Save the Paseo quickly mounted. 

The group claimed that the city officials had not followed the required name changing procedure, saying that it had lacked sufficient input from residents who lived along The Paseo.

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The Rev. Vernon Percy Howard Jr., president of the Kansas City chapter of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, told The Hill that the reasoning was a facade for the underlying racism in the city — which he said was the real reason for the pushback. 

“We have a Black cultural icon [in King], who is a global hero … and it seems that no matter which boulevard or parkway is selected that there is a white resistance and one begins to raise the question … is it that the treasured Kansas City boulevard system and parkway system somehow is not a good fit for the honor of the most prolific and prominent Black moral leader in this country?” Howard said. “Issues of process are not legitimate.”

Howard, along with other local ministers, first brought the idea of renaming a city road after King to the Kansas City Parks and Recreation Department in 2016. He explained that The Paseo was chosen in the initial proposal after a “broad spectrum of community stakeholders” from the area surrounding the parkway approached the SCLC.

Nonetheless, opposition to the renaming of The Paseo gained enough traction to call for a referendum last November. At the polls, city residents overwhelmingly voted to reverse the name change.

This time around, the city’s leadership is different.

Mayor Quinton Lucas (D) — who just assumed office last August — directed the parks board, which he appoints, to create a new proposal after voters rejected renaming the Paseo.

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He directed the board to do so in a way that would properly pay homage to King. Lucas also asked the board to provide a way for residents “to submit suggestions on how we can best honor Dr. King in Kansas City,” according to a statement from the mayor’s office.

The presentation of the proposal follows a summer that saw the resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement after George Floyd, a Black man, was killed by a white Minneapolis police officer at the end of May.

Last week, the city received negative attention on this front, when fans at the Kansas City Chiefs home opener booed when players linked arms at midfield in a show of unity — part of the season-long campaign the NFL is doing in response to the current social unrest in the country.

Howard called the booing a “horrible expression,” and a manifestation of the city’s “serious racism problem.”

To this point, Teresa Rynard, director of the Kansas City Parks and Rec Department, told The Hill that the parks board doesn’t want the proposal to stop with just renaming a thoroughfare after King.

“That’s just a step in the racial injustice and equity and recognition of all the work that we have left to do,” Rynard said.

The new proposal, which Howard described as “outstanding,” would rename three existing roads Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard. Along the route is Martin Luther King Jr. Square Park, which is getting a makeover thanks to Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes and his foundation.

Howard and the SCLC have a checklist of requirements that they want to see for a road commemorating King. For example, it had to be a major thoroughfare that had “exposure to Black life,” and was near areas that are focused on promoting economic equity. The new proposal, Howard said, does all of this.

“This particular parks board has done an extraordinary job in trying to advance this issue forward, and we believe Kansas City ought to get behind this parks board and support what it is trying to do,” Howard said.

The new boulevard would run east-west instead of north-south like The Paseo. Howard said that this was a compromise for some members of the community who wanted to see the east and west side of Kansas City, which are historically “economically segregated,” be connected by the road. 

An example of this segregation is Troost Avenue, a street that intersects the route of the new proposed boulevard. J.C. Nichols, one of Kansas City’s most celebrated city planners, used the street in his extensive efforts to redline the city. Nichols had a parkway and a well-known fountain named after him until June when parks officials voted to remove his name from both amid nationwide Black Lives Matter protests.

Two-thirds of the proposed boulevard is under the parks and recreation department’s jurisdiction, though Rynard said that she hopes that the resolution will be sent to the city council for a vote sometime next month. One source of concern, she noted, was that residents have been less willing to give input on the plan than previously, despite the city hosting a pair of public feedback sessions this week.

Howard said that the opposition he’s seen towards the new proposal is the same as it was in 2019.

“Is the problem that this city is so steeped in racist thought and pathology that Dr. King continues to be rejected? We hope and pray not.”