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Kansas City Votes To Remove Martin Luther King's Name From Street


In many U.S. cities, you can find a street named after Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. So it was in Kansas City, Mo., where a major street was named after him earlier this year. But then last week, residents of that city voted to change the street name back. Michelle Tyrene Johnson of KCUR explains.

MICHELLE TYRENE JOHNSON, BYLINE: It's a high-emotion subject. It always has been.

KING: Yeah.

JOHNSON: And so the people who wanted to keep MLK were led by a group of local black ministers.


JOHNSON: You know, in addition to them, they're the people, of course, who were like, it's shameful that Kansas City does not have a major street or a street at all named after Dr. King.

KING: Well, you mention that this is within the city. It's controversial.


KING: There's an organization, called, Save the Paseo, and...


KING: ...They've made the argument, like, this is not about race, this is not about racism. This is about the history of the street. Do you think they represent most people in Kansas City, or are they outliers?

JOHNSON: I don't think they're outliers. I mean, there's a reason why the vote was 69% to change the street back and only 31% to keep it MLK, which it hasn't even been an entire year. But that group, even though from an optics standpoint it looks as if it's white people, it really isn't just white people. It's white people, it's black people, it's Latinos. Because here's the context of Paseo. Paseo is this really gorgeous, beautiful, historic boulevard that has been the street that upper-middle-class black people have aspired to be on. Right?

And so, you know, you have the argument of why, isn't it on some of these other streets that it could be, like Prospect or Truce? Well, those are considered sort of rundown streets, the kind of streets that people don't like MLK being named after. And then so that's the interesting argument about not wanting it to be Paseo. It's - you know, the underlying argument, even though people don't put it that way, really is that Paseo's too good to be named after MLK in a black neighborhood. So...

KING: And if I've made it to the Paseo in Kansas City, that's really saying something. I've made it.

JOHNSON: Exactly.

KING: OK. OK. So Kansas City is a majority-white city. And I've been reading that it's one of the only major cities in this country without a street that is named after Dr. King. Why is that?

JOHNSON: Well, it's a complicated area. I mean, it's, you know, people have a tendency to sort of dismiss, you know, Midwestern states. What do they call us? Flyover states.

KING: Flyover. Yeah.

JOHNSON: You know, I do think that the people who supported having Paseo named after MLK have been working for years to have an MLK street. It's just always been a matter of, what is the best street? And one of the things about this topic right now, whether someone lives in KCMO proper or they live in one of the surrounding suburbs, is everyone has an opinion on where MLK should go. Right?

So it's not like this is a city that does not want to honor Martin Luther King Jr. with a street. That is the disappointing narrative on a national, even international, level about this story that I think is making so many people upset, hurt and angry, is the implication is that we don't want to honor King. No. The issue is how it was decided and where the street went.

KING: Michelle Tyrene Johnson is a reporter with KCUR. Michelle, thanks so much for being with us.

JOHNSON: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Michelle Tyrene Johnson