KANSAS CITY — Two Adopt-A-Highway signs on a Missouri road acknowledge a neo-Nazi group's participation in the state's litter prevention program.
But if Gov. Jay Nixon signs a large transportation bill, that half-mile section of road will be renamed "Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel Memorial Highway" in honor of a rabbi who narrowly escaped the Nazis in World War II and later marched with Martin Luther King Jr.
The Springfield unit of the National Socialist Movement committed last year to clean up trash along the section of Highway 160 near the city limits in west Springfield. Two signs noting the group's membership in the Adopt-A-Highway program went up last October.
"For the National Socialist Movement to be in the Adopt-A-Highway program is well within their rights," said Rabbi Alan L. Cohen of the Jewish Community Relations Board of Kansas City, which worked on selecting Heschel's name for the highway.
"But obviously there were people raising the concern that this is the wrong message for people to see driving down a Missouri highway, that there are National Socialists out here," Cohen said Sunday. "Wouldn't it be nice to have someone who stands for justice."
The state says it had no way to reject the group's application. A 2005 U.S. Supreme Court ruling arising from a similar effort by the Ku Klux Klan says membership in the Adopt-A-Highway program can't be denied because of a group's political beliefs.
In general, the state can deny an organization's application only if it has members who have been convicted of violent criminal activity within the past 10 years.
After the state dropped the Klan from cleaning up a section of Interstate 55 near St. Louis in 2001 for failing to pick up trash, that stretch of highway was renamed the "Rosa Parks Highway" in honor of the black woman arrested in 1955 when she refused to give up her seat to a white man on a bus in Montgomery, Ala.
Representatives of the National Socialist Movement in Missouri did not immediately return calls seeking comment about the legislation Sunday. But a statement on the movement's Web site calls the renaming "a lame attempt to insult National Socialist pro-environment/green policies."
The Web site has images of the Confederate flag, swastikas and members in military garb, and says the group fights for the rights of "all White American citizens of European descent."
"We welcome this spineless legislation, as it will no doubt spur a backlash from the local people whom will wonder why anyone, especially outside Jewish agitators, would attempt to disrespect local citizens that volunteer their time to clean local roads," the statement said.
The governor has until mid-July to sign or veto the transportation bill. Nixon spokesman Scott Holste said Sunday that while the governor is reviewing the entire bill, he is in favor of the amendment to rename the stretch of highway.
Heschel, who died in 1972, seemed the right choice for the person to be honored in naming the highway, Cohen said.
"Rabbi Heschel said the struggle against injustice is a Jewish imperative, and on that he dedicated his life," Cohen said.
Heschel was deported from Germany and then escaped from Poland weeks before the Germans invaded in World War II, said Michael Abrams, chairman of the Jewish Community Relations Board . He taught at the Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati during World War II and later at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America in New York.
He was revered for his piety and for his activism on civil rights and other issues
"He's a great example of the Nazi failure to annihilate the Jews and of Jewish participation in the civil rights movement," Abrams said. He said a famous photograph shows Heschel and King walking side by side in 1965 in Selma, Ala.