And Then It Happened

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Swope Park Swimming Pool
Swope Park Swimming Pool
Mayor Ilus Davis
Mayor Ilus Davis

Frustrated with the slow pace of civil rights reforms and outraged at the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., protestors turned to violence in Kansas City on April 9, 1968. The riots shocked many residents of the city, which had long been known for its lack of racial violence despite its deep, underlying racial tensions. The assassination of King, perhaps the nation's leading exemplar of non-violent methods to bring about social change, ironically became the catalyst that brought simmering racial tensions to the point of civil disorder, not just in Kansas City, but in locales around the country.

As with most major American cities, Kansas City's population had been deeply segregated since the early 20th century. Some of the earliest organized civil rights protests in Kansas City occurred during World War II when the members of the black community protested their exclusion from employment in war industries. By 1942, these protests, combined with a genuine need for labor and fairer federal policies, won the desegregation of factories supporting the war effort in the metropolitan area.

In the 1950s other civil rights victories ensued. Taking a cue from national organizations such as the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), the locally-based Community Committee for Social Action successfully led non-violent boycotts and protests against downtown Kansas City businesses in order to desegregate lunch counters.

Between 1960 and 1964, desegregation occurred in Kansas City's public parks, bars, swimming pools, golf courses, hotels, restaurants, and institutions of higher education. Mayor Ilus Davis boasted of the city's "unusually peaceful breakdown of racial segregation." Despite the contentious debates then swirling around Kansas City race politics, no race riots had broken out here as they had in most other major U.S. cities by the mid-1960s.

Unfortunately, one perpetual trouble underlay what on the surface appeared to be a peaceful integration process. Local civil rights organizations, including Kansas City's Freedom Inc., demanded the desegregation of residential neighborhoods and an end to discriminatory practices in mortgage lending and rental policies. Even as these activists succeeded in putting this housing issue to a referendum vote planned for April 1968, the local civil rights movement shortly splintered due to disagreement over the militancy necessary to press for these reforms.

Younger blacks were less willing than their elders to wait for white politicians and largely-white electorates to deliver reforms that had already been delayed for decades. On April 9, 1968, between 200 and 300 of these black youths gathered near City Hall to demand the closure of the city's schools to commemorate the day of King's funeral. Mayor Davis actually joined the protestors in their march. Despite Davis' involvement with this peaceful demonstration, the Kansas City police shot tear gas and dispersed the crowd. By most accounts, the protestors at city hall never really became violent.

After the police attack on the city hall protesters, angry blacks proceeded to vandalize and burn white-owned businesses. Within two days, a three-block wide section of town running down Prospect Avenue lay in ruins. Over 1,700 National Guard troops joined 700 policemen in putting down the riot. For two nights bullets flew from both parties as police and firemen battled to maintain order and put out fires. Nearly 300 arrests were made, mostly of young black males. Tragically, seven black citizens died in the violence.

Eager to avoid more unrest, the city council expediently reformed its housing ordinances to desegregate housing sales and rentals. This eliminated the need to hold the previously scheduled referendum vote that might have ignited even more public debates and protests. Since the peak of tensions in April 1968, Kansas City race relations have fortunately improved, even though many of the underlying issues are still not fully resolved.

 

Read biographical sketches of local civil rights leaders, prepared for the Missouri Valley Special Collections, The Kansas City Public Library:

 

Check out the following books and articles about Kansas City race relations and the unrest following the death of Martin Luther King, Jr.:

 

Check out oral histories held by the Missouri Valley Special Collections that reference Kansas City's racial unrest at the time of Martin Luther King, Jr.'s death:

 

Continue researching civil rights history of Kansas City using archival material held by the Missouri Valley Special Collections:

 

Also Visit the Black Archives of Mid-America in Kansas City for more archival resources.

 

References:

Sherry Lamb Schirmer, At the River's Bend: An Illustrated History of Kansas City: Independence and Jackson County (Woodland Hills, CA: Windsor Publications, 1982), 217-219.

Rick Montgomery, Shirl Kasper, Kansas City: An American Story (Kansas City, MO: Kansas City Star Books, 1999), 282-301.

Kevin Fox Gotham, Race, Real Estate, and Uneven Development: The Kansas City Experience, 1900-2000 (Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 2002), 121-124.

About the Author

Dr. Jason Roe is a digital history specialist and editor for the Library’s digitization and encyclopedia website project, Civil War on the Western Border: The Missouri-Kansas Conflict, 1854-1865. He earned a doctorate in American history from the University of Kansas in May 2012 and is the author of the Library’s popular “This Week in Kansas City History” column. For assistance with general local history questions, please contact the Missouri Valley Special Collections.
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