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Debate Over How To Honor MLK In Kansas City 'Surprisingly Controversial'

Sam Zeff
KCUR 89.3

There seem to be two competing groups in Kansas City when it comes to deciding how to honor Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

A petition drive, backed by Democratic U.S. Rep. Emanuel Cleaver, seeks to rename The Paseo, an iconic Kansas City boulevard, after the slain civil rights leader.

But on Friday, Mayor Sly James named an 11-person advisory group to explore other ways to honor King. And it has turned a bit controversial. 

"Surprisingly controversial," according to Rev. Donna Simon, pastor at St. Mark Hope and Peace Lutheran Church and a co-chair of the mayor's group.

She says the group wants an open process where everyone is heard. No matter what, she says, Kansas City needs to do something: "We could name every street in this city after Dr. King, if you ask me."

Kansas City might be the biggest city in America without a street named after King, who was assassinated 50 years ago this week. 

“I would welcome national headlines about going through the conversation about Dr. Martin Luther King because I don’t believe it would be embarrassing," James says. "I believe it would be would be an indication to the rest of this country that when we do things in Kansas City, we ask the community to participate.”

Otis Reliford was one of the community members at Friday's news conference, and would rather rename Ward Parkway for King.

"Ward Parkway is one of those boulevards that is more of what Martin Luther King stood far. Something that crosses racial barriers," he says.

There are several ways this could go. If the petition initiative gets 1,700 valid signatures, the Paseo option could end up on August's ballot. If the advisory group comes back with a recommendation to rename a street, it would fall to the Kansas City Council.

If the desire is to rename a boulevard or park, that would fall to the Parks and Recreation Commission. And while the rule for years was to only name boulevards for Kansas City natives, park board president Jean Paul Chaurand says it might be willing to make an exception if the community demands it.

“It’s not just about people who give money or give land but who contributed in other sorts of ways,” Chaurand says.

There is a little-known, 42-acre park that in 1978 was named after King off Swope Parkway and Woodland, according to the park department website. But in the end, James says Kansas City will finally do something to better honor Dr. King.

“I don’t think there’s anybody here who thinks “if” is part of the equation," he says. "It’s how."

The group is supposed to report its recommendation in 45 days.

Sam Zeffis KCUR's Metro Reporter. You can follow Sam on Twitter @samzeff

You deserve to know what your taxpayer dollars are paying for and what public officials are doing on your behalf – I’ll work to report on irresponsible government spending in the Kansas City area and shed light on controversies that slow government down. And when you hear my voice in the morning, you know you’re getting everything you need to start your day. Email me at sam@kcur.org, find me on Twitter @samzeff or call me at 816-235-5004.
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