KC History: MLK assassination prompted local riots

“Violence erupted for the second straight night on Kansas City’s East Side last night, turning a large part of the area into a battleground where snipers dueled with police and national guardsmen in the glow of high-reaching flames from fire-bombed buildings.”

That was the lead story in The Kansas City Star on April 11, 1968, two days after Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s funeral in Atlanta and seven after his assassination in Memphis.

In the days following King’s death, nationwide riots broke out in more than 100 cities, caused by elevated tensions and frustrations with lagging civil rights struggles.

Kansas City was one of those cities.

UMKC professor Dr. Rebecca Miller Davis, whose expertise is in Civil Rights and African American History, said students, perhaps some from UMKC, planned to march in memory of Martin Luther King and in protest to the Kansas City School District’s decision not to cancel classes for the funeral.

“There are conflicting accounts of what caused the riot, but several Kansas City police officers claimed that they shot tear gas into the crowd after marchers threw bottles, rocks and makeshift bombs—probably Molotov cocktails—at them near Lincoln High School and City Hall,” said Davis .

She also said  National Guardsmen were positioned—along with Kansas City Police—on the rooftops in the Plaza, charged with halting the rioters if they attempted to move west from The Paseo area.

In the span of four to five days, there was nearly $1 million in damage from fires and looting, affecting more than 100 buildings.

According to the Kansas City Public Library’s archives, “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. Nearly 300 arrests were made, mostly of young black males. Tragically, seven black citizens died in the violence.”

One of those victims was an African American boy named Michael McKinney, who was only 12 years old when  he suffered two fatal gunshot wounds to the chest and wrist at 30th and Prospect Avenue.

Until then, Kansas City was  known for its non-violence when working toward social change and many residents found the riots both shocking and ironic, given King’s peaceful approach to racial conflict.

“Kansas City had escaped much of the racial violence that plagued other parts of the country,” Davis said. “But it was not immune to the sickness of Jim Crow. Starlight Theater and Municipal Auditorium integrated in 1951 when an emerging group of black voters pressured the mayor’s office for measured racial progress. The Swope Park pool integrated in 1954 after a three-year court battle initiated by the NAACP.

By the time the riots occurred in 1968, she added “The city had shown some progress in terms of race, as it had two city council members, one school board member, and one police commissioner who were black.

“The civil rights movement is not over. It is enduring and not something that happened way back in the sixties as some of my students have said. It did not start with the Brown decision in 1954 or end with Dr. King’s death in 1968. We are still fighting for equal rights in this country.

“When we see images of blacks sitting on their roofs and drowning in the rising flood waters of New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, a black teenage boy murdered in Florida for no other reason than wearing a hoodie and walking through the wrong neighborhood, and students at the University of Mississippi protesting the president’s reelection only a few months ago, it is obvious we still have a problem, and one that all of us should make sure we are fighting to resolve. We are closer to Dr. King’s dream, but we need to see it through.”

jturner@unews.com

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