There has been increasing contention on the connotation of Martin Luther King “Boulevard” or “Drive” as, despite the great sentiments of peace, equality and unity that is embodied behind his name, these streets in many cities are oftentimes associated with poverty and crime.
This debate is especially vehement in Kansas City, as it has yet to name a street after Dr. Martin Luther King. Recently, there has been a proposal from the coalition of local black leaders for one of the oldest boulevards of the city to be named after Dr. King. This proposal, however, was turned down by the Parks and Recreation Board.
This incident is just one piece of many in the heated debate happening within the city, regarding whether it is more suitable for a street named after King to be situated in a predominantly black neighborhood or white one.
While many argue that streets that had already been named after Dr. Martin Luther King are often in black neighborhoods, and associated with negative imageries and stereotypes. On the other hand, white neighborhoods almost never have streets named after him, and therefore have not had the exposure to consider his legacy and activism. Installing such a street in a white neighborhood, however, seems counter-intuitive since the majority of Dr. King’s work and efforts were devoted towards the rights and lives of black people and communities.
A city councilman for Kansas City commented that “There’s something to be said for the fact that you don’t need to honor black folks by pleasing white people.” He is a proponent of naming a street after Dr. King in a white neighborhood to maximize the impact and consideration of his legacy. He believes that Dr. King’s name should be more than just limited to the black community and neighborhoods.
Kansas City itself seems to be a microcosm of this debate as it is divided between the east and the west side, the latter with a significantly higher concentration of black residents. The street that the black leaders want to be named after Dr. King is currently called Paseo Boulevard, named after Paseo de la Reforma, which was thoroughfare in Mexico City.
The main reason for objection from the board regarding this proposed change was the city’s tradition to name its streets after local residents and contributors. The president of the board also promised to set up a commission to further discuss this issue. This did not satisfy local leaders as they are now pushing for a local referendum that will allow the voices of local residents to take part in making this decision.
President of the city’s Southern Christian Conference and a leader of the coalition, Vernon P. Howard Jr. said: “Let’s have white folks cross east of Troost. 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.”
However, there are concerns from within the black community. For example, Sly James, who is another black leader, expressed the worry that renaming Paseo Boulevard would just be moving the line of segregation, instead of actually inviting white people into the conversation and consideration of Dr. King’s legacy.
The politics of naming a street goes beyond black and white, and the issue of the racial divide cannot be solved by simply renaming a street. Kansas City, in order to truly end its racial segregation, will need to do more work than finding a way to honor Dr. King by naming a street after him.
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