Two sides of the street: Paseo vs MLK Blvd

Is there really a right answer to the Paseo/MLK Blvd debate? These two sides think so.

Dr. Vernon Howard, Jr., president of the Greater Kansas City Southern Christian Leadership Conference, speaks in favor of keeping the MLK street name. Other speakers included(l-r) Rev. Susan McCann, Anita Crayton, Cheryl Barnes, and Diane Euston.

Paseo name change debated

By Jill Draper

Last January the City Council voted to rename The Paseo to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard, angering some citizens who said the name change ignored proper procedures and disrespected history. Others approved of the change and said it was all about respecting one of history’s most outstanding leaders—something long overdue in Kansas City.

Voters will make the final decision on Nov. 5 after a citizen-led drive collected enough signatures (1,700) to put the question on the ballot.

Advocates on both sides of the issue spoke passionately at a recent meeting of the South Kansas City Alliance. Standing before a packed audience, Diane Euston and Cheryl Barnes claimed The Paseo is a unique name that represents our collective past. Euston, a historian, teacher and writer for the Telegraph, told the crowd the City Council blocked discussion when it waived an ordinance that requires approval from 75 percent of stakeholders along the route of a name change. 

“There’s overwhelming evidence that people were upset,” she said. “Our voices were shut out of the conversation.” She noted that Alissia Canady, then representing the City Council’s 5th District which includes part of MLK Boulevard, received letters against the name change, but none in support. Canady voted against the change.     

“Why didn’t we have some sort of public discourse like we’re having now? How come you left us out?” echoed Barnes, president of Blue Hills Neighborhood Association. According to Barnes, the residents felt disenfranchised and redlined. “Our City Council ignored us, so we’ve got to have a do-over,” she said.

Presenting the opposite view, the Rev. Vernon Howard Jr., president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference of Greater Kansas City, said his group did not believe, and in fact, was offended, by statements saying there was no outreach or the name change was illegal. He said the action was supported by a broad-based coalition, including the NAACP, Urban Summit, Baptist Ministers Union and Freedom Inc.

Howard said Dr. King’s message to white people today would be similar to his message in 1963 in his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” when he implored them to move outside of their historical constructs of what they believe to be fair and just. 

“This boulevard in the heart of the African American community means peace and hope,” he concluded, saying the name change was “the good thing and the right thing” to do.

Euston and Barnes said they are 100 percent behind finding a way to honor Dr. King and look forward to working with Howard and the SCLC on a compromise. “The conversation doesn’t belong to one group,” said Euston. “It belongs to everybody.”

Meanwhile, the city’s Public Works Department reports a total of 189 street signs were changed along the nearly 10-mile MLK Boulevard for approximately $60,000 in labor and materials. The department estimates it would cost $30-$40,000 to put the signs back, depending on the condition of the old signs and other factors.

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