About That National Headline Regarding Kansas City’s Vote to Remove MLK From a City Street

CESSqc / YouTube I HAVE A DREAM MARTIN LUTHER 1548101112.jpg...
CESSqc / YouTube

If a whole city can have egg on its face, Kansas City is it. Filed under the category of “unintended consequences” was the fact that an overwhelming vote to change a street back to its original name from a newly minted “Martin Luther King Blvd” garnered national negative attention about our city.

As with many sensational headlines, however, this story is nuanced for several reasons. To summarize: a. the original name of the street – The Paseo – carried a rich history of its own that many wanted to preserve; b. the name change was done in a special city council meeting that was fast-tracked and didn’t follow procedure for citizen input (an action that our new mayor has had a brave mea culpa over); and finally, c. the group that spearheaded the effort to rename it back to The Paseo was a multi-racial and varied socio-economic group. I am acquainted with some of them — I believe their hearts were very much in the right place.

Also know that there is currently an effort underway in earnest now to find a different street; or perhaps initiate establishing a monument to MLK’s name and legacy.

Still the fallout has opened a wound; and probably one that deserved to be reopened. Seeing the national headlines of accusation that our city is horribly racist is painful. But my own personal mortification is one of a proud local that also knows of our city’s racist roots, even if I don’t feel this nationally spotlit referendum was in itself racially motivated. We do have local community leaders that have also decried this vote as racist. And you can’t blame them for thinking so — our city’s record on racial relations is not great. And it’s still adding to the record! 

We need to rally to come up with a new resolution for a new street and/or public works project. Absolutely that needs to happen. For Kansas City though, like the rest of our country, it will take a lot more effort than renaming a street.

Like most cities in our country, we are heavily segregated. (But we don’t crack the Top 25 of most segregated cities I’m relieved to report.) Our city carries an additional problem caused by our white flight in that we also straddle a state line. The main city – the one that voted – is Kansas City, Missouri. The segregation that happened over decades, however, crossed the state line into Kansas. (So, know, when someone says that are from “Kansas City”, they are probably from Missouri – a bone that so many concert goers in this town can tell you about. For example, a multitude of traveling bands “Hello Kansas!” when they are probably in Missouri. If only they would do the research and add that “City.” Argh!)

So, we have a huge amount of wealth in Kansas suburbs that is never taxed to help pay into the the city’s coffers which has been problematic for a city that has its cultural core in one state, and much of the wealth locked up in another.

The city’s historical racial dividing line has been a street called Troost. The Paseo lies on the east side of this Missouri street, in the traditionally “black part” of town. For decades, all the systematic forces that have served white supremacy, as in other parts of our country, have worked to keep this dividing line in place. The nationally misunderstood KCMO-MLK Street vote can be reversed, but all those systematic laws that keep us divided will persist until we unite. It will be this window dressing without the actual house. Why can’t we come together? Greed and fear – humanities’ Achilles heals.

Greed from powerful sociopaths that take advantage of rigged system. Fear based on decades of propaganda which intensified with broadcast news. This is not a new story; but unfortunately, it’s one Caucasians have ignored as it still persists today. There are so many lily-white suburban’s that refuse to travel into any part of our urban center because they think that random crime is going to get them. In fact, I’d say the white-political divide in Kansas City can be illustrated between those that actively seek out integrated spaces versus those that stay in their WASPey drinking establishments.

Which is a shame because our city center is beautiful. For those that “fly over” and have never been, we are a shaded boulevard and fountain rich city with rolling hills. The Paseo – the street who’s renaming caused all the controversy – is one of them. I personally use it as a north-south viaduct; and as I travel along it’s grassy tree-lined, wide median I long for the Paseo to be as universally loved and cared for as it’s “west side” counterpart – a street called Ward Parkway where some of KCMO’s wealthiest “old money” residents live.

KCMO has so much beautiful architecture that with just a little imagination, in which our country could be more equal and fairer, one can see the potential of entire neighborhoods that have been impoverished turned into pedestrian utopias. Where food and service deserts exist now, it’s easy to imagine corner grocers; and dining al fresco under our tall oaks and brilliant maples. And please understand, this is not a personal push for gentrification. This is a wish for a more equal distribution of our wealth. (And for this we need help. Federal laws need to be implemented to make finance and taxation law favor existing residents. But this is a another blog.)

Which brings me back to that beauty that has been baked into our city. One person can be credited in a big way: J.C. Nichols. A ground-breaking architect, he designed the curving streets; the country’s first shopping center based on the city of Barcelona, Spain; and initiated our City of Fountains reputation. He deserves the credit for so much of our city’s character. He has a street named after him.

And he also deserves so much of the blame of our segregation. He initiated the redlining. His real-estate firm denied African American entry into certain neighborhoods. His family launched charters for neighborhood associations that explicitly blocked people of color from their towns. The man was a deplorable racist.

So perhaps we should rename the street JC Nichols for Martin Luther King Jr as a way to acknowledge this sordid shaping of our town. I feel that it is as good an idea as any that I have heard in the last few days since Tuesday.

Or, as another suggested (these are private conversations so not sourced), one of our main east-west — numbered street — arteries that stretches from the majority-white-some-multi-ethnic west Kansas suburbs through the white KCMO center and into the eastern majority African American and multi-racial neighborhoods. I think I personally like that idea the most. Our city’s racial division not only comes from this segregation, but stretches all the way back to pre-Civil War days when the Jayhawkers (free state Kansans) warred across the state line with the Missouri Bushwhackers – the state’s Confederates.

And this East-West Street would then need the unification of so many municipalities — we have roughly 16 major — passing it and changing one of our major numbered streets to MLK  — all. the. way.

As someone with solidly western European ancestry, I am writing from the west side of Troost. It brings me no joy that this phrase has to be so damn loaded in my home town.

I like to think that as inequality has widened between the tippy top and the rest of of us, we are starting to see each other from across the playing field, no? We are all just human beings stuck in a harsh system of manufactured divisions that mostly benefit the rich and powerful. If we came together, we could do a lot of damage to the institutionalized systems that entrap most of us – disproportionately African-Americans – in an unfair world.

And there are many in the suburbs that are recoiling finally from the train-wreck in our US Capitol, we are perhaps experiencing a monumental potential for change on multiple levels.

After all, no one can control the skin they are born into. We can only control our actions while we walk around in said skin. I long for a world where we can live, trust and love one another and realize our collective humanity. It is a travesty that decades after MLK’s I Have a Dream Speech, we still have not realized his core message.

Kansas City will reorganize and correct this blotch on our reputation, of that I’m sure, some way, some how. That will be the easy part. Then, perhaps, we can move on to the hard work of correcting all the wrongs committed by our white ancestors.

There is no way to do this without a revolution by those of us that believe that it’s possible that the better parts of our human nature will prevail. The health of our cities, nation, planet depend on it.

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2 Comments on "About That National Headline Regarding Kansas City’s Vote to Remove MLK From a City Street"

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This world is falling apart because of ignorance. Color doesn’t define your true character. Can’t win them all but justice will prevail.

chris whitley
chris whitley

I seem to remember that the Paseo was a very old Mexican American thing like a plaza and festive period. I don’t know maybe should educate people on the whole story.