KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Voters decided on Tuesday to strip the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s name from a street in Kansas City, Mo., nine months after city leaders dedicated a major thoroughfare to the civil rights leader.
The decision caps more than a year and a half of contentious debate over how to honor Dr. King. It once again makes Kansas City the rare major American city without a street named for him.
“Shameful day for Kansas City,” said the Rev. Dr. Vernon P. Howard Jr., president of the city’s chapter of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, an organization that Dr. King founded.
The vote, he added, “set us decades back in the march toward racial justice and racial inclusion.”
But those who wanted the street returned to its former name, Paseo Boulevard, heralded the result as a win for a black community that they say was ignored when the decision to change the name to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard was first made.
“Dr. King’s dream is real,” said Alissia Canady, a black former councilwoman who opposed naming the street for Dr. King. “And black voters won’t allow anybody, black or otherwise, to disenfranchise them in Kansas City.”
About 65 percent of voters decided they preferred the name Paseo Boulevard, according to unofficial election results released by the city.
The monthslong battle had incited an unlikely political battle in which black people for and against keeping Dr. King’s name on the street claimed they were on the side of racial justice.
Dr. Howard’s organization had led a petition drive last year to get a ballot measure allowing voters to choose whether to rename Paseo Boulevard after Dr. King. That drive failed, but the city’s elected officials stepped in and voted, 8-4, to change the name anyway. In the process, the Council did not adhere to an ordinance requiring most of a street’s residents to approve a renaming.
That amounted to “prominent African-American leaders disenfranchising black property owners and voters,” Ms. Canady said.
“I will find it hard to believe if these were white property owners, the Council would have voted against their will,” she added.
Ms. Canady and others say they are not against naming a street after Dr. King. They just do not think it should be Paseo Boulevard, which locals call the Paseo. Ms. Canady’s former district included portions of the boulevard. Most of the residents she spoke with in the majority-black area did not want the street name changed, she said.
The Paseo was named after Paseo de la Reforma, a grand thoroughfare in Mexico City. The name might be unfamiliar to most Americans, but in Kansas City it has become synonymous with black success, Ms. Canady said.
Dotted with mansions, pergolas and columns, the Paseo provided a stable place for striving black families to live when their options were limited by legalized segregation through the mid-1900s.
“There is pride of having a home along the Paseo,” she said.
Supporters for keeping Dr. King’s name on the boulevard say the Paseo’s prominence makes it a good place to honor him.
When the question of naming a street for Dr. King was debated last year, many wondered whether it was best to choose a street in a mostly black or mostly white neighborhood. Kansas City, like many other urban centers in America, remains deeply segregated. African-Americans mostly live to the east of Troost Avenue.
Streets bearing Dr. King’s name tend to be in lower-income areas with predominantly black populations. Derek H. Alderman, a professor of geography at the University of Tennessee, has documented at least 955 streets in America named for the civil rights icon. King streets often end up in struggling communities because white, affluent areas put up stiff resistance, Dr. Alderman said.
The effort to overturn the city’s decision and restore the name to Paseo Boulevard started this year. A group called Save the Paseo began gathering signatures to put the issue on the November ballot. The group got more than 2,800 signatures, leading to Tuesday’s vote.
Dr. Howard and other black clergy and civic leaders, including Representative Emanuel Cleaver II, led the effort to keep King Boulevard. Dr. Howard accused white residents of leading the opposition.
“This is white-led, trying to dictate to the African-American community who it honors, where they’re honored, how they’re honored,” he said. “We believe that is systemic and structural racism.”
Two white women led Save the Paseo’s early efforts. But many black residents joined the coalition. While Dr. Howard acknowledged that African-Americans were also part of the Save the Paseo group, he said it was far from a black grass-roots movement.
“Certainly there are segments of the African-American community who are less concerned about issues of racial justice,” he said.
Some black residents disputed that characterization.
Kellie Jones, who has lived on what was the Paseo for 10 years, said that after the Council voted to change the name, her neighbors overwhelmingly said they opposed the renaming. Ms. Jones has since become one of the leading activists for Save the Paseo.
“I know who I work with,” she said. “It’s black and brown people, it’s disenfranchised people and it’s people who feel like they do not have a voice.”
Ms. Jones emphasized that she and other members of the group were not opposed to naming a street after Dr. King and that their opposition was concerned with how the renaming was done — without enough public input. But they also said they felt that there were better ways to honor Dr. King, and that the Paseo had too much history associated with it to be changed.
“I don’t like to rewrite history,” said Diane Euston, who is white and a leader of Save the Paseo.
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