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A Solution To Kansas City's Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard Saga Could Be Near

Traffic moves past the Martin Luther King, Jr. Square park along Swope Parkway on Monday morning. Swope Parkway is part of three streets that are being proposed to be renamed in honor of the slain civil rights leader.
Carlos Moreno
KCUR 89.3
Traffic moves past Martin Luther King Jr. Square Park, located on Swope Parkway, part of three streets officials are considering renaming in honor of the slain civil rights leader.

After years of back and forth, Kansas City remains one of the only large cities without a roadway named after the slain civil rights leader. Officials hope to resolve the distinction by mid-2021.

The Kansas City Parks and Recreation Board of Directors hopes to vote this spring on a route to rename after Martin Luther King Jr., a street that might be shorter than previously planned.

On Monday, after the second of two public meetings this year, Roosevelt Lyons, Parks and Recreation deputy director of operations, said he expected to be moving forward this year.

Monday's virtual meeting was attended by less than 40 people. Public engagement sessions held in 2020 were also sparsely attended.

But comments reflected what has often been said during the debate on the King route.

"I travel a lot — before the pandemic," Kansas City resident Jerome Walker told attendees. "Every city I go to I get tired of people saying, 'You live in that big city and they don't have a Martin Luther King Boulevard, and he's been dead for over 50 years?'"

The route currently under consideration runs from the southern edge of the Plaza to where Blue Parkway meets Elmwood Avenue.

A previously proposed route ran east to where Blue Parkway intersects with Interstate 435. Extending the stretch beyond Elmwood Avenue would be a more complicated and lengthy process because that's where parks department jurisdiction ends, said Parks Director Terry Rynard.

The longer route was recommended by the local chapter of an organization founded by King — the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.

The proposed route runs from Main Street on the west to to Elmwood Avenue on the east.
Luke X. Martin
Google Maps
The proposed route runs from Main Street on the west to to Elmwood Avenue on the east.

The organization has long insisted that the designated street be a major thoroughfare, helps provide cultural and educational empowerment for Black children, and falls in the Central City Economic Development Sales Tax District, a program to incentivize development in east side neighborhoods.

Residents in the meeting expressed frustration over the shortened span, as well as concerns about trash along the route and keeping the Brush Creek basin clean.

According to a Parks Department timeline, the board of commissioners in 2016 received a letter from U.S. Rep. Emanuel Cleaver about a meeting with local clergy who proposed renaming The Paseo after King.

In April 2018, former Mayor Sly James announced the formation of an Martin Luther King Jr. Advisory Committee, which presented their findings to Kansas City Council two months later.

In an 8-4 decision, the Council voted in January 2020 to rename The Paseo for the civil rights leader, but voters overturned that attempt in November. In many cases, new street signs that had already been placed had to be removed. The back and forth made national headlines.

While protests over the police killing of George Floyd have created a new sense of urgency around the issue, Parks and Recreation officials acknowledged to the Kansas City Star that the coronavirus pandemic has waylaid their attempts to finish the project.

Nevertheless, since Mayor Quinton Lucas directed the parks board to begin gathering public input, they have received more than 400 different ideas, according to Lyons.

A small park named after King is set to undergo renovations this month, thanks to funding from Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes' foundation. The park sits along the proposed route.

Avery Gott
KCUR 89.3
New street signs bearing the name of Martin Luther King Jr. had to be taken down after voters overturned a City Council decision to rename The Paseo.

When asked in February why he thought it had taken so long to see an appropriate honoring, Kevin Woolfolk of the SCLC of Greater Kansas City said, "as great as Dr. King is, it’s just that white people don’t revere our (Black) heroes at the level that they revere their own."

"But they have to respect the fact that our founder did wonderful things to make this country the beacon of freedom that is it now," he said. "It's time to get this done in Kansas City."

For more information about the current process, visit KCParks.org.

As culture editor, I oversee KCUR’s coverage of race, culture, the arts, food and sports. I work with reporters to make sure our stories reflect the fullest view of the place we call home, so listeners and readers feel primed to explore the places, projects and people who make up a vibrant Kansas City. Email me at luke@kcur.org.
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