A City Votes on Whether to Undo Naming of MLK Jr. Blvd

In this photo taken April, 20, 2019, a newly changed sign for Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Boulevard stands in contrast to a yet-to-be changed sign for The Paseo in Kansas City, Mo.

In this photo taken April, 20, 2019, a newly changed sign for Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Boulevard stands in contrast to a yet-to-be changed sign for The Paseo in Kansas City, Mo. AP Photo/Charlie Riedel

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Months after Kansas City lawmakers voted to rename a historic boulevard for Dr. Martin Luther King, voters will decide whether to restore the roadway’s original name.

Kansas City public works crews began installing street signs in February to rename a historic thoroughfare after civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

On Tuesday, residents will decide whether the signs erected along that 10-mile stretch of roadway should come down.

Voters will consider a ballot initiative that would restore the road’s original name, Paseo Boulevard, locally known as The Paseo.

While cities large and small across the country have named streets after King, the Kansas City, Missouri ballot initiative underscores how controversial it can be to change a place name—even among residents who say they otherwise support honoring the civil rights icon. 

“In the case of The Paseo, the addresses are part of peoples’ heritage and they are part of the way people identify themselves and see their own place within history,” said Derek Alderman, a professor of geography at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville. “Addresses are often taken for granted but they are tremendously important to people’s identity.” That’s also why community leaders are often so driven to change the name of a road to honor King, said Alderman, pointing to the powerful message it can send to incorporate his name into the everyday fabric of a city rather than relegating it to a monument or museum. 

While initiatives to rename roadways or other monuments for King are fairly common, repealing a name change is not, said Alderman, who has studied place name changes. He could cite only a handful of cities that had reversed previous decisions to rename major thoroughfares after King, including San Diego, California and Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, which both did so in 1987. Both cities later named smaller roads in King's honor.

Kansas City council members voted 8-4 in January to rename The Paseo, noting that the city was the largest in the United States that did not honor King with a street. But some city residents, including many who live on or near The Paseo, later said the process did not adequately take their voices into account. 

“A very small group of people made this decision for us and never spoke to us,” said Kellie Jones, spokeswoman for the Save the Paseo campaign, which formed to push for the ballot initiative.

The group collected more than 3,000 signatures to get the question on the ballot, she said.

The question Kansas City residents will see on the Nov. 5, 2019 ballot involving Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard.

The Paseo runs north-to-south on the predominantly black east side of town and is one of the oldest boulevards in the city. Jones, who has lived on The Paseo for more than 10 years, said she has no problem renaming a street in King’s honor but says there should have been more public engagement with residents.

Vernon Howard Jr., president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference of Greater Kansas City, told the KCUR public radio station that his group canvassed the area about the name change before the city council vote and charged that Save The Paseo is a majority-white group that isn’t reflecting the will of the majority-black neighborhood along the roadway. 

“It might be covert and not intentional sometimes but it speaks of white privilege, arrogance that we can’t determine things, not even in our own community,” Howard told the Associated Press.

Jones, who is black, said it was unfortunate that race was brought into the controversy and said for her group it was instead about giving residents a voice. 

A city-appointed advisory group previously made three recommendations for ways to honor King. The suggestion to name a new airport terminal after King garnered the most support, followed by renaming 63rd Street which runs east-to-west across both predominantly white and black neighborhoods, and finally renaming The Paseo. 

Kansas City Mayor Quinton Lucas, who sponsored legislation to support renaming The Paseo after King when he was a city councilmember, has largely stayed out of the debate during the ballot initiative campaign.  But he told the Kansas City Star that he still supports the name change.

“I think it’s something that is a good recognition for our community, and frankly, I think it actually can enhance what people think of the boulevard,” Lucas said.

The cost to install the signs bearing King’s name was $60,000. Reinstalling the old street signs is expected to cost another $40,000.

If city residents vote to reverse the name, Jones said her group wants to be a part of any effort to find another way to honor King.

“It will be a chance for our city to get it right,” she said.

Andrea Noble is a staff correspondent for Route Fifty.

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