Kansas City's Paseo Boulevard To Be Named For Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. | KCUR

Kansas City's Paseo Boulevard To Be Named For Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

Jan 24, 2019

One of Kansas City, Missouri's major thoroughfares will undergo a significant name change from Paseo Boulevard to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard.

The change, which was one of several options, is more than a year in the making, and Thursday afternoon's final vote split the city council 8-4. It also could take months for switch to happen, according to city officials.

Councilwoman Alissia Canady voted against the change not because she disagreed with the new name, but because she believed her colleagues didn’t make the effort to get input from any of her constituents or from the majority of people who live on the boulevard. 

The city charter requires the support of a majority of residents who live there, and Canady is concerned the city might have opened itself up to legal action.

“And had they given that or worked to get the support of those individuals, I would vote for it," she said. 

But Councilman Quinton Lucas, one of the sponsors of the resolution, said Kansas City was long overdue to honor the civil rights icon. The vote came on the same week of the national holiday for King, who was assassinated in 1968.

“I think people have been waiting and talking about it for years, even decades,” Lucas said. “I think it (the debate) tells us about race, leaders in our community, geography and spaces and who thinks they own what and what control you have long term.”

He also said he was surprised how personal the discussion got among the councilmembers. 

Chris Hernandez, city communications director, said getting new, basic street signs can be handled internally in about three months. Bigger signs that are illuminated are a special order that can take up to six months.

“But that’s not the only thing we need to work on. We need to coordinate with the U.S. Postal Service on their timeline so we can insure correct mail delivery,” Hernandez said. Staff will inform residents and businesses of the timeline.

Sharon Sanders Brooks, former third district council member, was there for vote. She was happy with the result but not happy with how long it has taken.

“This has been a long-fought initiative,” Brooks said. “It was a biracial effort and I’m so happy today that this occurred.”

Rev. Vernon Howard, pictured in the bowtie, with the Southern Christian Leadership Council was one of the leaders in the movement to change the name of the Paseo to honor Martin Luther King Jr.
Credit Michelle Tyrene Johnson / KCUR 89.3

The effort started back in 2011, when councilman Jermaine Reed tried to rename Prospect Boulevard after King. And in 2016, a group of black clergy members proposed the Paseo name change, but the parks department declined their request. A mayor-appointed task force studied the issue and recommended renaming Paseo as the third choice.

As recently as this week, several local organizations reached out to city councilmembers to reiterate their support for renaming Paseo to honor King, including the Southern Christian Leadership Conference of Greater Kansas City and the Jewish Community Relations Bureau.

The Rev. Carmen Williams is among the coalition of ministers who backed the change. She was disappointed in the councilmembers who voted against it especially her representative, Canady.

“I live in the 5th District. Represent me,” Williams said. “There’s a time when you have to say, 'OK, if my colleagues agree this is a good thing, I’m representing the whole city as well as that 5th District.'”

The Paseo is the first of Kansas City's historic boulevards, which all stemmed from the 1893 report from German landscape artist George Kessler. It's named for Paseo De La Reforma, another grand boulevard but in Mexico City.

Michelle Tyrene Johnson is a reporter at KCUR 89.3 and part of the public radio collaborative Sharing America, covering the intersection of race, identity and culture. This initiative, funded by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, includes reporters in Kansas City, St. Louis, Hartford, Connecticut and Portland, Oregon.