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The People Have Spoken on Honoring MLK in KC…

Flatland Tallies More Than 600 Citizen Suggestions

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Above image credit: Upgrading Martin Luther King Jr. Park was a top idea from the public on the way to best honor the civil rights leader in Kansas City, Missouri. (Mike Sherry | Flatland)

It can be easy to miss as you motor along Swope Parkway near Bruce R. Watkins Drive on the east side of Kansas City, Missouri.

Yet this broad swath of open space, wedged between the parkway and Emanuel Cleaver II Boulevard, is a public park named for the slain civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. The official Kansas City Parks and Recreation sign sits near the tennis courts, the main amenity in the 42-acre park.

Once known as Brush Creek Park, the parks board renamed it in 1978, with a big push from Cleaver, the former city councilman and mayor who now serves in the U.S. House of Representatives. 

The park is not neglected. The parks department recently installed new lights for the tennis courts and resurfaced them as well, and it is now soliciting public input on how to spend $250,000 in deferred maintenance funds earmarked for the park.

Still, to a certain segment of the community, this vast, windswept parcel is an underwhelming tribute to MLK.

That sentiment stands out as one of the most noteworthy outcomes of Flatland’s analysis of the about 660 public comments submitted to the city as it tries to build a consensus around the best way to honor King. The question has bedeviled the city for months.

The Envelope Please

Flatland reviewed hundreds of written submissions — most sent by email, but others penned in perfect cursive and sent by snail mail — and analyzed a parks department spreadsheet that logged all the responses.

The Top 3

Here are the most frequent specific suggestions for honoring Martin Luther King Jr. in Kansas City, Missouri:

  1. Rename Kansas International Airport
  2. Rename 63rd Street
  3. Rename J.C. Nichols Parkway

The public comment period ended last week, but the listening tour is far from over.

The comments, of course, included a nod to our culinary obsession (“Name a sandwich after him at Bryants legendary BBQ. An excellent and tasty idea!”), and a sentiment that the whole process is a distraction (“Why don’t we concentrate on more important matters going on in the city.”).

Renaming Kansas City International Airport was the most popular single suggestion, followed closely by renaming 63rd Street (to bridge the city’s historic east-west divide) or J.C. Nichols Parkway (to protest some of the segregationist tactics employed by one of Kansas City’s most famous developers).

Many commenters also noted a seemingly obvious option. We are the City of Fountains, so why not honor King in that way? In fact, the various responses that make at least passing reference to a fountain, by either building a new one or renaming an existing one, eclipsed renaming the airport.

The suggestions for improving MLK Park embodied many of the recurrent themes, such as trails for peaceful introspection, involvement of the arts community, and nods to King’s words themselves, such as:

  • A sidewalk through the park with excerpts of the “I Have a Dream Speech” along the way. “At the end of the sidewalk would be a few benches for people to sit and reflect on what they just read … .”
  • “We have great artists and sculptors in Kansas City and I believe we could use homegrown talent to create a memorial garden … .”
  • “Along with nicer signage and plants some historical markers along a walking path could pay tribute. Eventually a nice fountain or statue of Dr. King could be a gathering place for public events.”

Some commenters suggested renaming major civic buildings, such as Martin Luther King Stadium as the home to our newly crowned Super Bowl winners.

old mlk school in kansas city missouri
Transforming this former school building, at 43rd and Indiana streets, into a community center or vocational education facility are among ideas to honor MLK in Kansas City, Missouri. (Mike Sherry | Flatland)

Other themes included a celebration honoring King’s work, such as a Community Read-A-Loud involving students and the community. More permanent would be a think-tank dedicated to consider King-themed ideas and proposals for public discussion.

More than one submission suggested renaming a certain section of the city for King, such as transforming the 18th and Vine district into the “Doctor Martin Luther King Jr. – Plaza” or establishing the “MLK Justice District” downtown in the area of City Hall, the police department, and other government buildings.

Back on the theme of infrastructure, several commenters talked of renaming a current bridge or renaming the entire Interstate 435 loop in honor of King to signify something of a peace ring around disparate parts of the metropolitan area.

Honoring the spirit of King’s work was also prevalent. “How about we open a mental hospital and get the homeless off the streets,” wrote one commenter. “This would be something Dr. King would be proud of.”

Back and Forth

The MLK debate has dogged the city since early 2018, when the Southern Christian Leadership Conference of Greater Kansas City pushed the parks board to rename The Paseo in honor of MLK. They claimed we were the only major metropolitan city to not have a street named in honor of King.

After the parks board rejected the suggestion — citing, among other things, the historical significance of The Paseo name and the fact that the city already had an MLK Park — the issue became a political football between the elected officials and rival factions of the city.

j.c. nichols fountain
Some Kansas Citians think J.C. Nichols Fountain on The Country Club Plaza should be renamed to honor Martin Luther King Jr. (Mike Sherry | Flatland)

A citizen’s commission appointed by then-Mayor Sly James came out with its recommendations in May 2018. Top suggestions were renaming The Paseo or the airport, which is currently being rebuilt. Another contender was renaming an east-west street, such as 63rd Street.

Finally, in January 2019, a split City Council renamed The Paseo as Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard. The backlash came in November, when voters made national headlines by changing the name back to The Paseo. Residents along the street had argued they had not been adequately consulted about the name change.

Newly elected mayor Quinton Lucas, who pushed for renaming The Paseo as a councilman, then renewed the community conversation by announcing the 90-day comment period and another series of public meetings.

More Talk

Following the comment period, the parks board is scheduled to hold more public hearings. The first one is scheduled for 10:30 a.m. March 28 at the  Brush Creek Community Center, 3801 Brush Creek Blvd. You can register here.

The board will hold as many meetings as needed, said Roosevelt Lyons, deputy director of operations for parks and rec. The commissioners will continue listening until the community is tired of talking, he said.

What ultimately happens, Lyons said, depends upon the hoped-for consensus that emerges from the community. Certain suggestions might not be under the purview of the parks department, he said.

The issue is obviously emotional and divisive, and Lyons said coalescing around something that everyone agrees upon might be too much to ask.

“I don’t know if you ever put a thing like this to rest,” he said.

Mike Sherry is senior reporter for Kansas City PBS. He can be reached at msherry@kcpt.org or 816.398.4205

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