The Politics of “MLK Boulevard”

In our current polarized political climate, yesterday’s slate of elections, held in an odd-numbered year (thus off-cycle for US House, Senate or Presidential votes) gathered unusual national interest.  But while the big stories happened at the state level  – a Democratic Governor elected in Kentucky, Virginia officially turning Blue and Mississippi remaining Red – a local vote is also getting attention. Residents of Kansas City, Missouri took the unusual step of un-renaming a major street, reverting the city’s Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Boulevard to its previous name, Paseo Boulevard, less than a year after “the Paseo” was renamed in the first place.  Now, you’re probably guessing that this naming decision was controversial and potentially has racial undertones. Congratulations, you’re right! But it’s also potentially more complicated than you assume.

Some history: Beginning with Chicago in July 1968 (just three months after King’s assassination), nearly 1000 cities in the United States and around the world have named streets after Dr. King.   In many of these spaces, MLK Boulevards, Avenues or Streets are complicated due to the tension between honoring Dr. King and applying his name to urban areas that are still impacted by enduring de facto segregation and the negative effects that come along with systemic racism. You’ve probably heard the joke about the irony of MLK Boulevard. If not, you should hear it from Chris Rock (quite NSFW):

Ok, for those of you who can’t watch edgy late 90s comedy at work, the gist of the punchline is that Dr. King stood for nonviolence, yet if you go to MLK Boulevard, chances are there’s violence going on.

While Mr. Rock is hilarious, his routines should not be the basis for public policy (well, except for “bullet control (NSFW)” – let’s legislate that one right away).  Not all MLK Boulevards fit the stereotypes of being hotbeds for violence or drugs.  Many MLK Boulevards and Streets are doing quite nicely for themselves, and there are concerted efforts to revitalize these streets in other cities as well.

Yet, opponents of MLK naming (and there have been many opponents over the years), and people who (pretend that they) do not understand the difference between correlation and causality, have been using these stereotypes to fight naming streets in King’s honor, arguing that giving streets the King name will bring violence, crime and the other negative social outcomes associated with these streets in other cities.  As an argument, it’s deeply flawed: King’s name is not a cursed incantation that summons crack cocaine (the word you’re looking for there is “CIA” – look it up if you don’t believe me, or go watch that Tom Cruise movie where smuggling cocaine into the US was cool because a handsome white guy was doing it). As a political rallying cry, however, fear of King’s name has been effective in the past.

Meanwhile, as racial tensions and white nationalism have become increasingly activated in recent years for some reason (a reason roughly located around 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington DC), MLK streets and monuments have been dragged into debates about Confederate monuments and other racially-charged symbols, with advocates of the latter drawing (false) equivalence between the two.  In one particularly provocative move, a Confederate memorial was recently constructed in Orange, Texas adjacent to that city’s Martin Luther King Jr. Drive.

In many ways, MLK’s legacy – much like the man himself – remains both controversial and revelatory about  America’s racial progress and its continuing problems. I reached out to Professor Derek Alderman of the University of Tennessee-Knoxville, who has done extensive research on the naming of streets after Dr. King, for his thoughts. Professor Alderman reflected on the larger context of this country and its remembrance of MLK:

It’s amazing that we’re well over 50 years past the assassination of Dr. King – and he’s become an internationally recognized iconic figure of the Civil Rights Movement – but we still have debates about how to remember him, and the Kansas City case reflects that. Cities are keen to embrace diverse pasts and histories and are more willing to recognize people of color, but Dr. King remains a big center of debate. In my mind, it reflects the unresolved issues of race that still exist in this country.

MLK Boulevard or “The Paseo”

Which leads us to Kansas City.  The street there that briefly bore MLK’s name has its own complicated history.  The Paseo, as it is now named again, is one of Kansas City’s oldest streets.  Paseo Boulevard was constructed between 1893 to 1899 in an effort to ease congestion and beautify the city. The street was not without controversy even back then: the city engaged in “slum clearance,” displacing poor residents to gather the land to build the road, and many businesses were wary of the city using eminent domain and raising taxes to construct the road. Nevertheless, the Paseo became an historic feature of Kansas City.

The Paseo was named after the Paseo de la Reforma, a notable street in Mexico City known for its beauty and its location, which connected the modern Mexican capital to the site of a castle that once housed the region’s pre-colonial rulers.  Likewise, Paseo Boulevard has become a symbol of Kansas City’s past and the development of the city as a whole. It has also, like MLK boulevards and streets in other cities, come to symbolize the remaining segregation and inequality that remain in America: 70% of the street’s residents are black, more than twice the percentage of Kansas City as a whole, and parts of it are indeed marked by above-average levels of crime and unemployment.

On the other hand, for a number of black residents in the city, both the street itself and its old name – the Paseo – hold significance as symbols of both the history of the city’s black community and the aspirations of many member of that community, who viewed owning a home along Paseo Boulevard as a sign of success. It’s hard to tell whether black residents who support the “Paseo” name represent a majority or minority of the black community; indeed, one of the complaints about the initial name change was that it was done without significant and mandatory community consultation.  But the results from yesterday’s vote, in which nearly 70% of voters chose to revert the name back to Paseo, likely indicates that at least some of the street’s black residents were among those wanting the old name back.

The push to rename Paseo was an elite-led project, with Paseo chosen after various other potential sites were ruled out.  The local branch of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, the Civil Rights organization that King co-founded and led, has been one of the main proponents for renaming the street after King.  Rev. Vernon Howard, President of the Kansas City SCLC, was among a number of black clergy and community leaders in the city who have been pushing for the street to be renamed after King.  The black church has been a key part of the campaign – for example, Paseo Baptist Church hosted a get-out-the-vote rally in favor of keeping King’s name on the street, which was met with silent protests from members of the Save the Paseo group that advocated returning the street to its old name.  Those wanting to change the name back to Paseo deny that race has anything to do with their position – they say that they are merely trying to preserve the separate historic significance of the street and oppose the process by which the renaming was conducted without proper community consultation.  They’re more than happy to name another site after King, they argue.  At least anecdotally, it seems that some black residents agree.

This debate, however, does not exist in a vacuum.  A recent proposal suggested declaring racism a public health crisis in Kansas City, noting that white women in the city had life expectancy 20 years higher than black men, among other disturbing statistics.  Racism in Kansas City is both the title and subject of a recently published book.  And now, Kansas City returns to its notoriety as perhaps the largest American city without a street named after Dr. King.  Whether or not Paseo Boulevard is the proper venue for honoring Dr. King, the street, by either name, is symbolic of the unfinished legacy of King’s crusade for racial equality in the US.  We will see if those who organized so strongly to undo the renaming of Paseo will participate in finding a new way to commemorate King, and whether the symbolic issue of a street name will lead to more substantive attention to the remaining issues of racial inequality in Kansas City and throughout the country.


Leave a Reply