In Depth

Why is an American city divided over ‘Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard’?

Civil rights activist’s name removed from Kansas City street after public vote


Voters in Kansas City have decided to remove Martin Luther King’s name from a major road just months after it was renamed.

In January, the city council voted to rename the Paseo Boulevard, a ten-mile road in the city’s mainly black East Side, after the civil rights leader.

But just months later the public have rejected the name change, with almost 70% voting to change the road’s name back in a special election, according to results released by the city.

CNN reports that the vote came after months of debate between those “intent on honoring King’s legacy” and some residents “who didn’t want to lose their neighborhood’s identity”.

Why do residents back calling the street the Paseo?

Shortly after Kansas City Council voted to rename the street Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard, a group of residents formed a protest group called “Save The Paseo”.

According to The Kansas City Star, the grassroots group argued that the “Paseo name is a significant part of Kansas City’s history” and that they did not want to lose their neighbourhood’s identity.

The protesters also say that they were not notified about the plans to change the road name, a violation of “city-charter procedures”, according to The Daily Beast. A section of the street is on the US’s National Register of Historic Places.

One former councillor, Alissia Canady, who voted against the name change and was involved in the campaign to save the road name, said: “We don’t mind doing something to honor Dr King, but we don’t want you to take Paseo away from us to do it.

“They rushed to put the signs up with the hope that once the signs were up people would be afraid to take them down. That was the rhetoric: Kansas City can’t be the city that takes Dr King’s name down,” the BBC reports.

Who wants the street named after Martin Luther King?

The decision to protest against the renaming has caused tension between the Save the Paseo group and the Kansas City Chapter of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) – an organisation founded by King.

The SCLC led the campaign to have the road name changed, with its president, Rev Vernon Howard, highlighting that Kansas City is now one of the only major cities in the US without a street named after King, according to the Kansas City Star.

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Howard said: “Only if you are a black child growing up in the inner city lacking the kind of resources, lacking the kinds of images and models for mentoring, modelling, vocation and career, can you actually understand what that name on that sign can mean to a child in this community.”

He added that it was the “epitome of white privilege and systemic and structural racism” that a predominantly white group of protesters are able to determine who is honoured in a majority African American area. Canady, who is black, called the claim “a deflection of what the real issue was”, according to the BBC.

The BBC further reports that tensions between the two groups came to a head during a silent protest held by those pushing for the name change on Sunday, during which “protesters refused requests by pastors to sit down, fuelling accusations of racism”.

What will happen now?

Following the vote, the street will be renamed the Paseo Boulevard, with the Kansas City Star reporting that the city is “expected to take down well over 100 signs along the road”.

Canady has said that the vote is an opportunity to “go back to the drawing board” and find another way to honour King. She said that she would back naming the “city’s new airport terminal after King” or an east-west street that runs through black and white neighbourhoods, according to CNN.

The Kansas City Star says that Howard had been unavailable for comment since the result of the vote.


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