KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Support has rung out from many Kansas City-area civic groups for a proposal to rename JC Nichols Parkway in honor of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and strip the former developer’s name from the iconic fountain in Mill Creek Park.
Despite leading the charge in recent years to rename Paseo Boulevard in King’s honor, the Greater Kansas City chapter of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, which was founded by King and other Southern ministers fighting for social equality in the late 1950s, doesn’t believe the current plan is a fitting tribute.
“While renaming J.C. Nichols Parkway could make a statement about this generation’s regret of the society’s past wrongs, naming it after Dr. King is not appropriate,” SCLC of Greater KC President Dr. Vernon Percy Howard, Jr. said in a statement. “The potential renaming of this miniscule Parkway does not arise to such principled standards of freedom and justice for Black life.”
Howard said JC Nichols Parkway, which runs adjacent to the iconic shopping district Nichols developed in the 1920s, has no connection to Kansas City’s black community.
"If black life matters, than let us proceed and ensure that the name change has a positive economic, cultural, and educational impact upon black lives," Howard said.
Nichols famously supported exclusionary zoning and real estate practices, a process called redlining, to keep black people and other minorities, including Jews, from living near or owning businesses in and around the Plaza.
“Most Black children would never see and be inspired by Dr. King’s name in that location as young Blacks are socially unwelcome on the Country Club Plaza, as attested to by historical curfews banning their presence,” Howard said.
Howard said the Southern Christian Leadership Conference of Greater Kansas City has been focused on renaming a major thoroughfare after King and doesn’t consider JC Nichols Parkway sufficient.
Furthermore, Howard’s organization wants a street named in King’s honor to enrich economic opportunities for primarily black-owned businesses and residential areas as well as empower and educate black youth about King’s impact and ongoing importance.
“J.C. Nichols Parkway has not been an enrichment to Black business and entrepreneurship in any significant way,” Howard said. “Simultaneously, mainly white businesses on the Plaza have profited from Black consumer spending while Black businesses in the urban core and elsewhere suffer from a lack of white consumer dollars contributing entrepreneurial inequity, stagnant Black business growth, and Black business failure.”
KC Parks and Recreation Commissioner Chris Goode proposed a plan last week to rename JC Nichols Parkway, which runs for a half-mile between the Country Club Plaza and Mill Creek Park from West 43rd Street south to West 47th Street and connects Broadway Boulevard to Baltimore Avenue.
Goode also wants the JC Nichols Fountain, which has been the site of several weeks of protests over police brutality in the U.S., renamed the Dream Fountain.
King, of course, famously delivered his “I Have A Dream” speech during the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom in August 1963.
However, Howard said “Dream Fountain” is too obscure and suggested using the term “justice” instead, since ultimately that was King’s hope and vision.
“May we all remember, it is the victims of racism who own the right to speak with authority and educate the world regarding how racism works, how racism injures and destroys us, how it works within white privilege and power, and what is needed to solve it,” Howard said.
Still, others believe King’s history of nonviolent protest and speaking out makes renaming JC Nichols Parkway for King ideal, because it’s become a popular gathering spot for demonstrations of all kinds during the last few decades beginning with SCLC of Greater KC protests as far back as 1972, according to Howard.
Howard said removing Nichols' name is fine, but it's just not the right way to honor King.
"I think that renaming the fountain and J.C. Nichols Parkway is an outstanding statement for Kansas City to make," he said. "That location we believe is an outstanding location to remove that kind of racist stigma, but for Dr. King, he requires much more."
Kansas City has struggled to find a way to honor King and his legacy of civil rights advocacy and advances.
But the Southern Christian Leadership Conference of Greater Kansas City has spearheaded the charge to honor King and will continue to do so, the organization said.
“The Southern Christian Leadership Conference of Greater Kansas City continues to support the renaming of a major boulevard or thoroughfare in Kansas City, MO, which would carry the name of The Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., our national founder and visionary,” Howard said. “J.C. Nichols Parkway would not be appropriate.”
The KCMO City Council voted to change the name of Paseo Boulevard, in King’s honor, even replacing signs along “The Paseo,” but a petition to put the issue up for vote led voters to overturn the change.
Nearly 70% of voters cast ballots to restore Paseo Boulevard’s name, which was viewed more as a rebuke of city leaders failing to seek and follow the public’s wishes than an unwillingness to honor King.
KC Parks has scheduled two community-input sessions about the renaming issue.
The first will take place at 6 p.m. on Thursday at the Bruce R. Watkins Cultural Heritage Center, 3700 Blue Parkway.
The second, a virtual session, is scheduled for 2 p.m. on Wednesday, June 24, but final details have not yet been released.
Kansas City has a 42-acre park between Emanuel Cleaver II Boulevard to the north, Swope Parkway to the south, Paseo Boulevard to the west and U.S. 71/Bruce R. Watkins Drive to the east named in King’s honor.