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Kansas City Parks Board Renames Iconic Connecting Route In Honor Of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

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Luke X. Martin
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KCUR 89.3
Rev. Vernon Howard holds a street sign for Kansas City's new Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard. The city Parks Board voted today to rename a stretch of roads for King.

Kansas City is no longer one of the only large cities in the country without a roadway named after Martin Luther King Jr.

After years of community back-and-forth, the Kansas City Parks and Recreation Board of Commissioners voted unanimously on Tuesday to rename sections of Volker Boulevard and Swope and Blue Parkways after civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr.

"This isn't just a trivial street naming — it's so much bigger," said Board Commissioner Chris Goode. "This is a moment for us to come alongside of each other."

Goode also addressed some common negative perceptions about roadways named after King.

"From here we don't want to say, 'Oh, well every MLK in the country has this stigma,'" he said. "We can collaborate and say we will ensure that this renaming becomes the example of what Dr. King's Boulevard should be anywhere in America."

The vote happened in a packed board meeting attended by the Kansas City Mayor Quinton Lucas, the city manager, elected officials, community activists and religious leaders.

"It's a beautiful day for this department," said Parks Director Teresa Rynard.

Rynard said, thanks to the failed 2019 attempt to rename The Paseo after King, the city had already purchased the signs, and they should start to go up within the next two weeks, “if not sooner.”

The approved route runs along Brush Creek, from the southern edge of the Country Club Plaza to where Blue Parkway meets Elmwood Boulevard.

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Luke X. Martin
This map shows a previously-proposed route that runs from Main Street on the west to to Elmwood Avenue on the east, but the approved Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard will now end at Brookside Boulevard on the west.

It also crosses the historic Troost divide, linking east and west parts of Kansas City that for decades have been populated by mostly Black or white residents, respectively.

"Hopefully, the idea of an east-west thoroughfare named after Dr. King will open us all up to the fact that we are one city, and that we are connected and that this is a major connection," said Parks Commissioner David Mecklenburg.

The change comes after a series of public engagement sessions, some of which were sparsely attended. Parks and Recreation officials have acknowledged to the Kansas City Star that the coronavirus pandemic has hampered their attempts to find a fitting route more quickly.

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

During the meeting, the Parks Board also submitted a request for the City Council to take up the renaming of this eastern section.

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

"We must understand the connection between the renaming of this corridor and justice and peace and equity for all," said SCLC of Greater Kansas City President Rev. Vernon Howard.

"Today, the Parks Board has chosen to defend and protect Black life and culture," he said. “Congratulations on being on the right side of history.”

The organization’s local chapter has long insisted that the street named after King should be a major thoroughfare, help provide cultural and educational empowerment for Black children and fall in the Central City Economic Development Sales Tax District, a program to incentivize development in east side neighborhoods.

The SCLCGKC also supported a previous effort to rename The Paseo after King.

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Carlos Moreno
Traffic moves past Martin Luther King Jr. Square Park along Swope Parkway. Swope Parkway is one of three streets with sections to be renamed in honor of the slain civil rights leader.

According to a Parks Department timeline, the board of commissioners received in 2016 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 a 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 2019 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.

Summer protests last year over the police killing of George Floyd created a new sense of urgency around the issue, and Mayor Lucas directed the Parks Board to begin gathering public input on how best to honor King. Roosevelt Lyons, Parks and Recreation deputy director of operations, said they received more than 400 different ideas.

"What you have from us," Lucas said in a press conference after the board meeting, "is a commitment that we will continue to improve it, to make it better, to build it up."

"I am so proud that finally — finally! — we are recognizing Dr. King, I think, in one of the many ways we need to," he said.

Corrected: April 14, 2021 at 2:38 PM CDT
"Hopefully, the idea of an east-west thoroughfare named after Dr. King will open us all up to the fact that we are one city, and that we are connected and that this is a major connection," said Parks Commissioner David Mecklenburg.
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