The name Martin Luther King Jr. can evoke lofty images of peace and unity, of demonstrators marching for civil rights, of black and white children playing together. But add the word “Boulevard” or “Drive” after his name, and, in many cities, starkly different images can flood people’s minds: blight, poverty, crime.
That dichotomy is at the center of a debate in Kansas City over how best to honor the civil rights icon.
Kansas City is one of the few big U.S. cities without a street named after King. Residents have tried to change that for years, and, most recently, a coalition of black leaders asked Kansas City’s Parks and Recreation Board to rename one of the city’s oldest boulevards after him. The board said no.
This is not a split over whether King should be honored. It is mainly a debate, 50 years after he was killed, over where a Martin Luther King street would best be placed: In a predominantly black neighborhood, as is common, or in a predominantly white neighborhood?
Some residents argue that choosing a street in a disinvested, mostly black neighborhood would perpetuate stereotypes of thoroughfares that are already named for him in other cities, and would fail to force white people to consider King’s legacy and the racism that still exists so long after his death. Others, though, say that choosing a street in a white area would be an affront to the city’s black residents and disrespectful of the fact that King fought primarily for the rights of black people.
“There’s something to be said for the fact that you don’t need to honor black folks by pleasing white people,” said Quinton Lucas, a city councilman.
Lucas said he leaned toward giving the name to a street where white people tend to venture more often, because it could have a greater impact there. “There’s something to be said for the fact that you need to make sure the entire community honors it, instead of saying, ‘That’s something the black folks are doing for the black folks in a black area.'”
Complicating this naming fight is a simple truth: Kansas City, like much of the country, struggles with segregation.
Troost Avenue separates the east side of the city, where black residents are heavily concentrated, from the west. The coalition of black leaders, which includes Emanuel Cleaver II, a Democratic congressman and former mayor of Kansas City, has a street on the East Side in mind: Paseo Boulevard.
The Paseo, as it is known, cuts a 10-mile north-south path through Kansas City that is a mix of promise and struggle. Parts of the boulevard have wide, grassy medians, Grecian columns, pergolas and classically styled mansions. But it also passes blighted homes, empty lots and depressed property values. It was named after Paseo de la Reforma, a grand thoroughfare in Mexico City.
For two years, advocates have lobbied the parks board, which oversees the city’s boulevard system, to change the name. Jean-Paul Chaurand, the board president, responded last month with a letter stating that long-standing policy has been to name streets after local residents who made significant contributions to the city. He suggested creating a commission to discuss the renaming further.
That did not sit well with the advocates, who are pushing for the City Council to act, or for a referendum that would allow voters to decide the issue.
“It is a travesty to the progress of racial justice and racial integration that it’s being stopped,” said Vernon P. Howard Jr., president of the city’s chapter of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and a leader of the coalition pushing to rename Paseo Boulevard.
“Let’s have white folks cross east of Troost,” Howard said. “Let’s have them make this an integrated street, where they are required to stretch themselves and be a part of the African-American community.”
One prominent black leader who is skeptical of the idea is the mayor, Sly James. He worries that, by naming a street in a mostly black part of town after King, “are you just moving a dividing line?”
“I’m harkening back to all the cities that I’ve been to, and have seen an MLK Boulevard,” he said. “I’ve never seen one in a shopping area. I’ve never seen one that’s been in anything other than a black neighborhood. Is Martin Luther King strictly a black hero? I would say not. I think he’s a hero for everybody, and he ought to be honored that way.”
At least 955 streets in the United States have been named after King, and they tend to be in lower-income areas with predominantly black populations, said Derek H. Alderman, a professor of geography at the University of Tennessee. But the idea that placing King’s name on a street somehow causes a community to decline is inaccurate, Alderman said. It is more likely the other way around.
“It’s because of the politics of the naming process,” he said. “Those were often the only streets that some African-American activists could get named for Dr. King.”
Since the first renaming of a street for King — in Chicago in 1968 — such moves have spurred debates in cities like Indianapolis a decade ago, and High Point, North Carolina, in 2015. Businesses and residents often complain about the hassles of address changes. Some people lament the supplanting of historical street names. Others say bluntly that the King name would hurt their communities.
In Kansas City, residents vehemently opposed a proposal years ago to rename Prospect Avenue on the East Side after King, saying it would do nothing to benefit a deeply struggling part of town.
Some residents have wondered whether it might be better to name an east-west street after King, because those streets connect black and white neighborhoods. Others have proposed streets in upscale areas that are mostly white, like the J.C. Nichols Parkway, which runs near the Country Club Plaza shopping district. Nichols, a developer who died in 1950, used racially restrictive covenants to prevent nonwhites from living in certain neighborhoods.
James, the mayor, appointed an advisory group this month to talk to residents and figure out the best way to honor King.
“Why not put it right in the heart of the affluent part of the city,” said Rita Hoop, a 50-year-old lawyer who is white, as she walked through the plaza, which Nichols designed. “That racial divide will not be addressed until every community addresses it, not just the black community.”
But when Warren Turner, 53, was asked if a King street should be placed in a white neighborhood, he did not mince words: “Hell, no.”
Turner, who has lived on the Paseo for a quarter-century, said it would be an honor to have it renamed because of what King meant to black people like him.
“I think, maybe it would bring some of the prestige back to the Paseo,” he said.
Susan Beachy contributed research. Follow John Eligon on Twitter @jeligon