A year ago, African-American civil rights activists in Kansas City, Missouri convinced the city council to rename a major city artery in honor of slain civil rights hero Martin Luther King, Jr.
Many city residents, Black and White, cheered.
But under pressure from critics, who say the city council forced the name change through without proper consultation, the city’s been forced to change the name back.
Earlier this year, organizers of the “Save the Paseo” movement collected enough signatures to place the name change issue on the local ballot.
And this week, fully 70% of Kansas City residents supported the idea of restoring the street’s original name, Paseo Boulevard.
Predictably, the city’s African-American leaders that promoted the name change say the backlash – spearheaded by a largely White protest movement, they say — is “racist,” a charge the movement steadfastly denies.
Many American cities have streets named in honor of King. In Kansa City, until last year, a small statue in a dilapidated public park was the only sign of public remembrance of King.
Local civil rights activists say naming a street after King was long overdue.
But critics who opposed the move say the name Paseo Boulevard has its own proud legacy. The street has been listed as part of a national historic registry for years, they note
They accuse civil rights activists of pursuing their own ethnic/racial agenda at the expense of city residents as a whole.
Local Black leaders say that their largely White critics don’t live on the contested street, which runs through a largely African-American neighborhood.
But Save Paseo leaders say that no one consulted the residents that actually live on the street, either More than anything, they object to the way the change was imposed, in a snap city council vote, without public consultation
Save Paseo members even took a page from the book of the civil rights movement by staging a civil disobedience action at the Black church that initiated the name change.
Members entered the church during a Sunday service and stood in silent protest in the aisles. Some leading Black church figures, including the pastor, expressed outrage and asked them to leave. But they refused.
The controversy over re-naming Paseo Boulevard seems, in part, to reflect changing perceptions of King and his legacy, in part due to shocking revelations that the slain leader was a serial adulterer and may even have encouraged the rape of one of his followers.
Those claims are contained in a book published earlier this year by David Garrow, who earlier won a Pulitzer Prize for his acclaimed biography of King.
Garrow reviewed summaries of FBI surveillance records that revealed King to be involved in one romantic tryst after another in the hotels where he stayed while touring the nation and giving speeches.
Earlier eyewitness accounts by some of King’s associates had suggested that King was obsessed with sex and was often inebriated during his encounters. In fact, the night before he was assassinated, King had enjoyed the company of one of his young admirers, who quickly disappeared after his murder.
It turns out that those opposing changing Kansas City’s historic street to Martin Luther King Boulevard weren’t just White.
Alissia Canady, one of the leaders of the Save Paseo movement, who is African-American, said she resented the implication that her movement was “racist.”
“The majority of the property owners on Paseo are black, the residents and property owners are black,” she told CNN. “The majority of the businesses, the majority of the residents are black. So this is black leaders oppressing the voices of black property owners.”
Opponents of changing the street name to honor King say they have no problem with the city finding some other way to honor the civil rights icon.
Canady, for example, said she would favor naming the city’s new airport terminal after King, or another major street that runs through black and white neighborhoods alike.
Black activists say that changing the name back to Paseo Boulevard sends the wrong message to the city’s young Black children who struggle with self-esteem issues and need positive role models to look up to.
But in the end, that argument carried little weight with Kansas City residents.
Even many African-Americans joined in the overwhelming 2-1 vote to restore the legacy of Paseo Boulevard.