Kansas City’s battle over the renaming of The Paseo for Martin Luther King is headed to the ballot — and the national news
Adam Lopez never expected to be part of a group that’s opposing the renaming of a Kansas City street for Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
“It is not a good look,” the neuroscience graduate student says with an awkward chuckle. “It’s not. It’s not the aesthetic that we want.”
Lopez counts King among his idols. Nevertheless, he’s been working to have the signs erected in King’s honor taken down.
“It wasn’t just white people, it wasn’t just people of color like myself,” Lopez says. “Everybody loved The Paseo. It’s not that we don’t want to honor MLK. We definitely want an MLK boulevard. We just don’t want it to be Paseo.”
There’s no shortage of serious issues facing Kansas City, from affordable housing to violent crime. But the conversation currently eclipsing all others centers on the name of the city’s oldest, longest boulevard. In January, the city council voted to rename the iconic Paseo, which runs for 10 miles along the city’s east side. The boulevard was designed by famed city planner George Kessler and named for the Paseo de la Reforma in Mexico City upon its completion in 1899.
The measure to rename the street for King followed an intense campaign by local black leaders. Opponents formed a group called Save The Paseo and have now gathered enough signatures to put the issue before voters in an upcoming election. It’s a racially charged battle that will play out in the first days of the tenure of the city’s new mayor, who will be elected on June 18, and under the glare of national media. Already, the issue has been covered by the Washington Post, the New York Times and Vice.
“Kansas City seemed to finally shed its distinction as one of the largest cities in the U.S. without a street named for King,” wrote an Associated Press reporter who described Save The Paseo as a group of people who are “white and don’t live on or near the street.”
A deeper look at the battle over the street reveals a nuanced picture.
The fight over the boulevard’s name has roots in the darkest chapters of the city’s segregationist past, but it also involves a generational power struggle, Latino heritage and the levers of municipal power.
It’s a fight that could get nasty, warns Derek Alderman, a professor of geography at the University of Tennessee who has been researching the renaming of streets for King for 30 years. Alderman, who studies the intersection of race and place, says that changing the name of a street to honor King is often contentious.
“It’s very common to see a fight. I don’t know many of these renaming discussions that have not had some sort of debate involved in them. And the lines of debate can cross a whole lot of different issues and terrain,” he says. “At the heart of these struggles to name streets over King, there is this battling over who has a right to the city and who has a right to remember the past. There’s something much more at stake than simply this effort to remember King as a historically important figure. King is really a symbol of a much larger fight that is ongoing.”
According to Alderman’s research, there were 955 U.S. cities with streets named for King as of 2017. As with many of the grassroots movements that pushed for renaming, the Kansas City effort was spearheaded by the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, the civil rights group that King once ran.
In Kansas City, the change was pushed by Dr. Vernon Howard, who heads the local chapter of the SCLC. Vernon, who did not return an email seeking comment, did not answer several calls and whose voicemail would not accept new messages, “scoffs at the idea that race isn’t a factor,” according to the AP.
“Anyone attempting to vote to take honor from a man that died for their right to vote is a betrayal not only of Dr. King but the community that fought so hard to make this happen,” Howard told the Kansas City Star. The pro-Paseo side also includes a number of black community leaders.
Three of the five petitioners who collected signatures to put the issue on the ballot are black. Opponents include city councilwoman Alissia Canady, who came in third in the mayor’s race, and voted against the naming, saying “You can’t honor Dr. King by disenfranchising black voters that live on the street.”
Most of the people posting with the #SaveThePaseo hashtag on Twitter and Instagram are black. As are most of the customers buying Paseo t-shirts from Walter Edwin, who raps as The Popper and who runs IMKC clothing at 18th and Vine. Prominent film critic Shawn Edwards, renowned jazz saxophonist Logan Richardson and rapper Tech N9ne were among those who Edwin says lobbied him to make Paseo shirts.
“They were like ‘Man you should really do a Paseo shirt because we want The Paseo back to The Paseo,’” he says. Edwin sees his store as “a gateway from the streets to the politicians.”
As businessman who prides himself on bipartisanship, he declines to state his personal opinion on the matter.
“I speak for the streets, and so when the streets come and they have something on their mind, that’s what I come with,” he says. “What the streets ask for is what I give them.”
And the streets want Paseo back?
“That’s for sure,” he says. “From the people who come to me, one person said keep it Martin Luther. All the people I talk to, black people and white people, they say they want The Paseo back. I know there’s people who oppose that, but for me personally, there’s been one person compared to 70 or 75 people who want it back.”
Kellie Jones, who has lived on the boulevard for the past 10 years, said she “instantly did not like The Paseo for the name change” and found her way to Facebook, where she joined the Save The Paseo group.
“You get those nostalgic feelings — it’s been a Kansas City staple. Paseo is one of the oldest boulevards, it’s a beautiful boulevard, and it’s a historic boulevard,” she says. “We all want to honor Dr. King, we’re just saying not Paseo and especially not how it was done.”
Jones gathered signatures to put the street name issue on the ballot, mostly by walking up the boulevard to talk to her neighbors. She collected a dozen sheets with signatures and estimates “90 percent were African Americans.”
“We walked for hours and hours, and what we heard was ‘Nobody asked me, nobody came to my door, I didn’t get anything in the mail, I do not like the change, and I want to sign your petition,’” she says. “I think the other side has put out some little soundbytes about it being a lot of white people doing it and that’s not true.”
Jones also went to four polling places in predominantly black neighborhoods to collect signatures on election day.
“Most people, as soon as people saw our green shirts that say ‘Save The Paseo,’ they came up to us and said ‘Thank you, I’ve been wanting to sign this! Not Paseo! Not Paseo!” she says. “People feel a certain way about it.”
Jones says the battle has been “nasty, mean, ugly” and that she’s “just waiting for the Christian part of it and the leadership part of it to come out.”
“I think the media is responding to the other side,” she says. “I’ve seen a quote from — I don’t want to say the person’s name — saying ‘The people who are against it don’t even live in the community and they’re just trying to get involved in some cause.’ That is just not true. I would ask, ‘What are you basing that on?’ That is simply not true. I think this has been turned into more of a race issue and not procedural, due process, history, democracy. That’s really unfortunate.”
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The Save The Paseo members we spoke to cited varied reasons for opposing the renaming, from the hassle of changing their address to wanting a street named for King that crosses the city’s racial divides. All took issue with the process. The Kansas City Star’s editorial board, which endorsed the renaming, has nevertheless condemned the process as “a slow-rolling disaster from the start.”
The effort to rename a street for King goes back years. In 2011, councilman Jermaine Reed pushed the idea of Prospect Avenue, only to meet opposition from residents. In April 2018, a proposal to rename Paseo for King was rejected by the Kansas City Board of Parks and Recreation, which found that street renaming should be tied to contributions in the city. The group of ministers who had pushed for the renaming pushed onward. The conflict was anticipated by U.S. Rep. Emanuel Cleaver, who worked to have a little-known park off Swope Parkway named after King in the 70s and who has a street named in his honor in the city.
Cleaver supported the name change but wanted the Park Board to do it.
“I hate to see us have this kind of conflict in the name of Martin Luther King,” Cleaver said at the time. “We’re going to end up in the national news, in 2018, arguing over a Martin Luther King Boulevard.”
In the wake of the parks department’s stance on the renaming, Mayor Sly James appointed a special 11-person commission to explore the issue. In May 2018, the special committee recommended naming the new airport terminal after King. The airport objected to the move, arguing that it would confuse travelers. The committee’s second suggestion was 63rd Street, which runs from tony Ward Parkway through middle-class Brookside and across East Side neighborhoods that have seen better days. That suggestion was not pursued.
Instead, Paseo was renamed through a circuitous administrative process shepherded by councilman Quinton Lucas, who was one of 12 candidates running for mayor.
In October 2018, a provision to rename The Paseo for King was inserted into an East Side economic development plan. The renaming provision was struck from that plan but, a week later, the provision found new life from the city’s planning and zoning committee, where it had unanimous support.
According to city development code, any street name change requires the consent of 75 percent of the abutting property owners. This is a difficult and costly proposition and, as far as anyone can tell, has never actually been done in Kansas City.
Lucas — a fourth-generation Kansas Citian who is himself a longtime resident of the former Paseo — put forward a proposal waiving the provision requiring 75 percent of the landowners to support the measure.
In January, the renaming was approved by the council in an 8-4 vote.
By February, Paseo signs were coming down and King signs were going up. Lucas’ mayoral candidacy earned the support of many of the ministers who had pushed for the renaming. He also got the endorsement of Freedom Incorporated, an influential group of east side leaders who work toward empowering the city’s black residents. Lucas prevailed in the primary, winning one of two spots in the general election.
Although Lucas’ opponent, Jolie Justus, also voted in favor of renaming the street, members of Save The Paseo tend to lay the blame on Lucas.
“They didn’t do their due diligence, there was no community outreach or impact study,” says Save The Paseo member Adam Lopez. “They rushed it through — basically, I think, so Quinton Lucas could use it as a platform when running for mayor.”
“I think that’s a valid way to see things if you ignore everything else that I did in my campaign,” Lucas responds.
Lucas says he had “a hunch” that Freedom Incorporated was likely to support an African American candidate. In the primary, four of the 12 candidates were black, and among them, Lucas had raised the most money.
“Had the issue never come up, I think I was still in a very good position to obtain the endorsement from Freedom Incorporated. Regardless of my vote on that issue, it wouldn’t have been a thing,” he says. “People aren’t as nefarious as they sometimes think, even if they hold political office.”
In defense of his proposal, Lucas says the requirement to get 75 percent of people on a street to support a name change is “bizarre and overly cumbersome.”
He says he’s happy to see the issue put before voters.
“Realistically I don’t think there are 75 percent of people on any street that want to change the name of their street,” Lucas says. “They got signatures, that is totally their right, and we’re going to have an election about it. That’s how these things are supposed to work.”
— Lisa Heishman
Save The Paseo has successfully gathered enough signatures to force a reconsideration of the boulevard’s name. The city council will now have an opportunity to debate the issue, and if the council decides to stick with King’s name, the measure will head to a city-wide ballot in August or November.
Regardless of how that vote turns out, the city will likely be the subject of intense media coverage. Tara Green, one of the pro-Paseo organizers, says the media coverage has already been “nonstop” as reporters grapple with the story.
“It’s been intrusive,” she says. “We’ve had them show up at our doorstep. We’ve had them try to track us down while we’re out and about working.”
Most of the coverage so far has come from local media and mainstream national publications, though national cable news is likely to follow. The pro-segregation blog American Renaissance has also covered the topic, which could inject it into the bloodstream of the far right.
The Save The Paseo group plans to self- fund the campaign with no professional political consultants and is presently working out the wording of the ballot measure.
“We would be naive to think the Southern Christian Leadership Conference isn’t going to launch their own negative campaign in opposition, so we’re trying to prepare ourselves,” Green says. “We are absolutely not worried about a negative campaign. Anyone who’s participated in our group and has paid attention to this issue knows it’s a very diverse movement. There is not an issue of a bunch of white people. This is the most diverse movement you could possibly have.”
Green, who is white, believes that the majority of black Kansas Citians support restoring the Paseo name. Nevertheless, she worries about how the national media will treat the topic.
“It’s not a story if it’s not sensationalized as a racial issue,” she says. “It’s easy for the media to take it to a racial aspect because that’s interesting to people, especially in this political climate. Look at the administration we’re under right now.”
Fellow pro-Paseo member Lopez has already encountered some blowback on the University of Missouri-Kansas City campus. When he tells people he’s working with a group called Save The Paseo, some raise eyebrows. Lopez suspects they think he’s racist.
Being of Mexican descent, Lopez also worries that the renaming of the street could cause tensions with the Kansas City area’s growing Latino population. The Paseo was named after Paseo de la Reforma, a major road in Mexico City that is home to many of the country’s tallest skyscrapers. Lopez doesn’t believe the renaming was an intentional slight of the city’s Latin community, but some of his friends and family feel otherwise.
“Being of Mexican descent, to have this street changed, I felt it was a slap in the face,” he says. “We don’t have a lot of roads or streets named after things of Latino descent here in Kansas City. To have one of our major showings of our community actually taken away, it’s disheartening — especially with all the anti-Latino stuff going around in the news with the current administration. It really feels like you’re being targeted.”
For Lucas, who is leading in the mayor’s race in the available public polls, the renaming is an issue that may prove thorny if he wins. If the name change is rolled back by voters, he’ll have to deal with the national media running stories under headlines like “In Deep Red Missouri, Largest City Votes to Strip Martin Luther King’s Name from Street.” And then he’ll have to find a suitable replacement street. Lucas is more worried about the latter — he’s already been quoted in the New York Times on the subject and has a fresh answer prepared if he’s mayor and the voters pick Paseo.
“What I think you’d say is, ‘Like any city, people just had an attachment to The Paseo name. I personally, as you saw with my vote, supported the Martin Luther King designation. Now we’ll go back to the drawing board,’” he says. “I do not think this is a reflection of particular ill will in our community.”
But going back to the drawing board and finding another suitable street — and standing by as ministers who worked for years to win the name change watch the city take down signs honoring King — could be a challenge.
“I think in the Save The Paseo folks’ view, they think, ‘There are so many darned streets you can just pick another one,’” Lucas says. “And from what I’ve heard from the ministers, there is a real reason for this street, for how it links the largely African American community that lives on it and links a number of black churches. Frankly, it is one of the most beautiful streets that runs through a majority black community.”