If you’re just scanning the headlines, it’s easy to mistake this story for a much simpler one: the people of Kansas City, Missouri, made clear to their city leaders that they did not want to have one of their iconic streets named after Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., after all. According to a nearly complete tally of Tuesday’s vote on a proposal concerning the boulevard’s identity, nearly three out of every four people in the community voted to restore the street’s previous name, “The Paseo.” The Martin Luther King Jr Blvd. signs have only been up for about nine months.
Those who had campaigned in support of renaming The Paseo in honor of Dr. King — many of whom are prominent black ministers in the community — have characterized their position as progressive, overdue, and inclusive; after all, Kansas City is one of the few major cities in the U.S. to not have a street dedicated to MLK. Reverend Vernon Howard, the president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference in Kansas City, has been an emphatic supporter of the MLK dedication from day one. He described this week’s reversal as “shameful” and has accused white members of the community of leading the effort to erase MLK from the city.
But the voters tell a different version of the story. It’s not because the neighborhood is against dedicating a street to Dr. King — they just don’t want that street to be renamed for him. The Paseo originally got its identity from El Paseo de la Reforma in Mexico City. In Kansas City though, its name usually brings to mind iconic places and moments in the city’s history. Alissia Canady, who previously served as councilwoman for a district crossed by The Paseo, told the that the original name brings to mind a history of black success despite the level of racial segregation in the city that persists to this day. Canady had also been critical of the way that city leaders had sidestepped speaking with her district (home to a majority-black population) about renaming a street after Dr. King; in fact, many of her constituents did not want the street renamed. Others were left out of the loop completely.
And yet, instead of getting the votes needed from the city’s residents, the City Council held its own unilateral vote in favor of the dedication. To Canady, the process was exclusionary and emblematic of the way that people in power suppress the power of the people. “Dr. King’s dream is real, and black voters won’t allow anybody, black or otherwise, to disenfranchise them in Kansas City,” she declared to the Times, adding, “I will find it hard to believe if these were white property owners, the Council would have voted against their will.”
Kansas City Mayor Quinton Lucas, who as a councilman had voted in favor of the name change, struck a conciliatory note following this week’s public vote, emphasizing that it did not diminish the diversity and strength of the community, despite the irony of the situation. “This ballot measure should remind all of us in City Hall that the way we do things matters,” he pointed out to the . “We must continue to legislate by bringing people together, seeking input from people with different perspectives and working to consensus-build on the issues that matter most to our community.”