KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Emotions that simmered for nearly a year over the renaming of an historic major thoroughfare in Kansas City, Missouri, for the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. led to a tense scene at a black church as get-out-the vote efforts wound down ahead of residents going to the polls.
About 100 supporters of keeping the King name for the 10-mile boulevard were at a rally to court voters Sunday when opponents walked into the Paseo Baptist Church and stood along its two aisles. Those against the King name stood silently and did not respond to calls for them to sit down. Several speakers and people in the crowd told them they were being disrespectful.
On Tuesday, the debate will end, as voters decide if Kansas City's reputation as one of the largest cities in the U.S. without a street named for the iconic civil rights leader will cease. The boulevard had been named The Paseo, and a group named Save the Paseo collected 2,857 signatures in April — far more than the 1,700 needed — to have the name change put to a public vote. Many of the opponents who stepped inside the small church along the boulevard Sunday were wearing Save the Paseo T-shirts at the voter rally.
Many supporters of the Martin Luther King name have suggested the opponents are racist, saying Save the Paseo is a mostly white group and that many of its members don't live on the street, which runs north to south through a largely black area of the city. They say removing the name would send a negative image of Kansas City to the rest of the world, and could hurt business and tourism.
Supporters of the Paseo name bristle at the allegations of racism, saying they have respect for King and want the city to find a way to honor him. They are opposed to the name change because they say the City Council did not follow city charter procedures when deciding on the name change and didn't notify most residents on the street about the proposal. They also say The Paseo was an historic name for the city's first boulevard, which was completed in 1899. The north end of the boulevard is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
The City Council voted in January to rename the boulevard for King, responding to a yearslong effort from the city's black leaders and pressure from the local chapter of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, a civil rights organization that King helped start.
U.S. Rep. Emanuel Cleaver, a minister and former Kansas City mayor who has pushed the city to rename a street for King for years, was at Sunday's rally. He said the protesters were welcome, but he asked them to consider the damage that would be done if Kansas City removed King's name.
"I am standing here simply begging you to sit down. This is not appropriate in a church of Jesus Christ," Cleaver told the group.
Tim Smith, who organized the protest, said it was designed to force the black Christian leaders who had mischaracterized the Save the Paseo group as racist to "say it to our faces."
"If tonight, someone wants to characterize what we did as hostile, violent, or uncivil, it's a mischaracterization of what happened," Smith said. "We didn't say anything, we didn't do anything, we just stood."
The Rev. Vernon Howard, president of the Kansas City chapter of the SCLU, told The Associated Press that the King street sign is a powerful symbol for everyone but particularly for black children.
"I think that only if you are a black child growing up in the inner city lacking the kind of resources, lacking the kinds of images and models for mentoring, modeling, vocation and career, can you actually understand what that name on that sign can mean to a child in this community," Howard said.
If the sign were taken down, "the reverse will be true," he said.
"What people will wonder in their minds and hearts is why and how something so good, uplifting and edifying, how can something like that be taken away?" he said.
But Diane Euston, a leader of the Save the Paseo group, said The Paseo "doesn't just mean something to one community in Kansas City."
"It means something to everyone in Kansas City," she said. "It holds kind of a special place in so many people's hearts and memories. It's not just historical on paper, it's historical in people's memory. It's very important to Kansas City."