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What Kansas City's Past Civil Rights Riots And Ferguson Have In Common

The social unrest in Ferguson, Mo., following the police shooting of Michael Brown has sparked national conversations about issues stemming from racial and socioeconomic tension. But this isn't the first time these issues have reached a fever pitch.

On April 9, 1968, protesters in Kansas City marched outside City Hall to object to schools being open during Martin Luther King Jr.'s funeral. For reasons still unknown, police threw tear gas into the crowd, sparking four days of further protest, rioting and arson.

Former Kansas City councilman Alvin Brooks was part of the group that marched on City Hall. He views the protests in Ferguson as a recurrence of the same issues that the black community faced during the Civil Rights Movement.

"This didn't just start with Michael Brown, it has festered," Brooks said in a conversation with Central Standard's Gina Kaufmann. "The police [in 1968 and today] geared up for violence, but what they've never done is meet with the black community to discuss issues."

When all was said and done, the 1968 Kansas City riots caused more than $1 million in damages and more than 100 residents were arrested. Longtime Kansas City civil rights activist Rev. Nelson "Fuzzy" Thompson recounted how Kansas City's culture changed in light of the unrest.

"It's unfortunate that it had to come to riots for changes, but people realized that everybody has to be given an opportunity," Thompson said. "People started to appreciate the conditions that [African-Americans] were living under."

Though the unrest in Ferguson isn't identical to the 1968 riots in cause or intensity, looting and violent confrontations between residents and police have erupted nearly every night. Gov. Jay Nixon recently sent National Guard troops into the area to help lower tensions.

Clarence Lang, a professor of African and African-American Studies at the University of Kansas, believes Ferguson residents need to formulate political groups now so that the spirit of the protest doesn't die out.

"There has to be something in place after the press has left, after things have subsided, to continue to work on these longstanding issues," Lang said. "There may be new organizations to create or existing organizations that will have to be changed."

Alvin Brooks agrees that conversations about racial tension, profiling and social issues must continue. But he worries that if the protests are silenced too soon, the issues won't be exposed on a larger scale.

"The whole issue of race in America is an ongoing process," Brooks said. "Unless you have this kind of upheaval you don't have people saying, 'What are we not doing that we could to make things better?'"

Cody Newill is part of KCUR's audience development team. Follow him on Twitter @CodyNewill or email him at cody@kcur.org.
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