A year after a divisive debate that ended with Kansas City residents voting to remove the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.'s name from a prominent boulevard, the city is trying again to find a way to honor the civil rights icon.
Missouri's largest city started discussions about finding a new way to honor King shortly after last year's vote, but that effort stalled when the coronavirus pandemic began in the spring.
Now, the Board of Parks and Recreation is considering a proposal to rename a 5-mile-long (8-kilometer-long) route along thoroughfares that run east and west between a mostly-Black area of town and the well-known Country Club Plaza for King.
The discussion revives issues that arose when, at the urging of the Southern Christian Leadership Council-Greater Kansas City and other civil rights advocates, the City Council in 2019 renamed one of the city’s most historic boulevards, The Paseo, as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard.
A group of residents who wanted to preserve the street’s history and said the city had not followed proper procedures before the renaming collected enough signatures to get the issue on last November's ballot, and voters overwhelmingly chose to reinstate The Paseo name, leaving Kansas City as one of the largest cities in the U.S. without a street named for King.
Testimony at two public hearings last week suggested that finding a solution won't be easy. Some speakers supported the new proposal, while others said it wasn't a big enough tribute to King, suggested different sites or opposed the renaming of any streets.
Teresa Rynard, director of the parks department, said the park board wants to listen to all opinions to avoid making a decision that will contribute to current tensions over social justice issues in Kansas City and the nation.
“It's really important that this not be seen as ‘let’s just name a street and we’re done,'” Rynard said. “When we finally agree on an honor, let’s use this as a starting point of how to heal and deal not just with the past but with present concerns involving Black Lives Matter and racial injustice that we're confronting.”
Ajamu Webster, a former parks board member, said during one hearing the board should honor the man who was assassinated while working for the benefit of minorities, even if the decision isn't popular. He said opponents should stop worrying about whether changing a street name will inconvenience them and see the bigger picture.
“Do we want to be remembered as people who stood for healing and justice or do we want to be remembered as one of the people who stood back in the background and let other people make the sacrifice?" Webster said. "I plead with the citizens of Kansas City to have a broader vision about what this city can become.”
Not everyone agreed, though.
Asia Campbell, a 27-year-old Black woman who works for a local economic development organization, said she thinks that naming a street for King would be divisive and wouldn't help the city’s Black community. Instead, the city should concentrate on providing economic opportunities for its Black residents.
“Naming a street is not going to change anything,” she said. “What will bring change is if we can get more assets into skills and training.”
The SCLC-GKC, which has pushed for years to have a major street named after King, believes the proposal to rename Volker Boulevard, Swope Parkway and a section of Blue Parkway would appropriately honor King. The route would imprint King's name in an area where the Black community, particularly Black children, could see it. It also runs through a sales tax boundary that supports economic development in the area, the organization's president, Dr. Vernon Howard, wrote in a letter to the board.
The route also goes by Martin Luther King Square Park, which has been neglected since it was dedicated in 1978. Renewed efforts to improve the park got a boost in September when a foundation created by Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes pledged support for a play site at the park estimated to cost from $800,000 to $1 million.
The proposed route would end at a fountain near Country Club Plaza, which until this summer was named after J.C. Nichols, a prominent local developer who used racist policies to keep Blacks out of his developments in the early 1900s, creating racial boundaries that still exist.
The parks board voted this summer to remove Nichols' name from the fountain and an adjoining street __ a proposal that faced little public opposition.
With the subject of honoring King back before the public, Raynard said the parks board will take in more citizen input before deciding how to move forward. She said the board does not have a timetable for making a decision.