How Alvin Brooks became Kansas City’s definitive civil servant: ‘I made them treat me with respect’
Alvin Brooks has served as a bridge in Kansas City for decades — as one of the city’s first Black police officers, an educator, a civil rights leader, a founder of Ad Hoc Group Against Crime, and almost a Kansas City mayor. Today he’s still on call 24/7 for whenever anyone needs help. As he asks everyone to mark their calendars for his 100th birthday in 2032, he looks back to his earliest days in Kansas City.
Alvin Brooks has worn so many different hats over his long life that he has a hard time summing up his role in Kansas City.
“That’s a difficult question,” Brooks admits. “You will never know what it feels like to help some folks until you’ve done it, and over and over again.”
A modest civil servant, a mentor, a community liaison. At 91, Brooks is still sharp and full of stories about his life, faith, the fight for Civil Rights in Kansas City and different approaches to combating crime.
“He’s someone that never know how to say no to a request for help,” he says of himself.
Like when he showed up at KCUR for an interview with producer Reginald David for the podcast A People’s History of Kansas City, and his hands were covered in gasoline. He had just come from helping a friend fix their car.
Brooks is the kind of guy you want to have in your corner when you’re in need.
“Regardless of who you are, who you were, what time of day or night, what day of the week, where you were. That's my life,” he says. “And I thank God for it every night.”
In his autobiography “Binding Us Together: A Civil Rights Activist Reflects On A Lifetime Of Community And Public Service,” Brooks writes about all the personal moments that shaped him to serve.
Here are highlights of Brooks’ conversation with David, which they recorded for the latest episode of A People’s History of Kansas City.
Alvin’s first encounter with the law
Alvin Brooks was born in 1932 as Alvin Lee Gilder and grew up in North Little Rock, Arkansas. His biological mother, Thomascine Gilder, sent him to go live with the Brooks family, who later adopted him. The Brooks family took good care of Alvin.
But things drastically changed for the family when his father got into an altercation with a white man over moonshine. This was the days of prohibition, and Alvin’s first moment with the law – when he was just a baby.
As he tells the story, Brooks’ father was the only Black moonshiner, and supplied alcohol to the sheriff who gave it to the judge. One day a white man came onto the Brooks’ property and threatened his father, who shot and killed the white man.
To avoid jail time his father – who was also an herbalist – turned to a powerful herb called John the Conquer Root.
The root was historically used as folk medicine by African-Americans for victory, empowerment, good luck, love and protection from evil spirits. And in this case Brooks says his father directed his mother to chew up some of the root and sneeze on the judge. She did, and the judge ultimately set him free. But they had to leave Arkansas.
According to Brooks, that’s how they ended up in Kansas City. But when they got here, things did not get easier. His dad built a house that burned down, which forced them to live in a barn for a while. Eventually they found a new home and integrated into a poor white neighborhood.
“My mother fed all the kids, you know, all white kids,” says Brooks.
Growing up in the Jim Crow era in Kansas City, Brooks couldn't eat at the same places his white friends could – such as when they would go get ice cream at Velvet Freeze, he had to wait outside and they’d have to get it for him. Alvin mostly remembers his childhood as fun. But one incident, when he was around 10, had a life altering effect on him.
'I knew that that man was going to shoot me'
Brooks recalls that some white kids were throwing rocks at a dog, so a neighbor called the police. The police picked up him and his white friends. But even after the neighbor said they weren’t the culprits, the police drove them around lecturing them, directing racial slurs at Brooks.
Eventually they stopped the car at a hill near 32nd St. and Brighton Avenue. The officers ordered them to get out, and told Brooks if he could run to the top of the hill they wouldn’t shoot him.
“And I’m just running back and screaming, ‘Oh, please don’t shoot me,’” he recalls. “And he cocked the gun.”
His friend jumped on the officer’s arm, and the gun went off and missed him.
“But that was one of the most trying experiences in my life,” says Brooks. “I knew that that man was going to shoot me. I just knew it.”
Brooks says he and his family had many traumatic experiences with racist law enforcement officers, which is why it might be surprising that Brooks wanted to join the police department in that era. He’s been asked this question a lot, and says he always responds the same way.
“I don't know why I decided to become a police officer.”
But at 21, with the support of his wife, he decided to join. He was one of just a few Black officers in the graduating class of 1953.
“We decided we were going to be the vanguard of that community,” Brooks says. “We were going to make some changes.”
The fight for justice
In the 1950s, Brooks says, he and the other Black officers turned the Black community upside down with their presence on the force.
“They were gratified to see me,” says Brooks. “Well received, well respected because the community was so small.”
But it was tough. The mob ruled Kansas City in those days and Black officers didn’t have the same rights as white officers. “We were only relegated to ride two districts,” he says. “And just a few years prior to that, if you were a Black officer you couldn’t arrest a white person. You had to detain them, but the white officer had to come and take them. And you could appear in court and all that, but you couldn’t ride in the police car with them.”
Despite these hurdles, he says, he and the other Black officers didn’t use excessive force or beatings. And within a racist and at times corrupt system, they did their best to uphold law and order.
“I made them treat me with respect,” says Brooks. “Because of how I carried myself.”
Still, after 10 years on the force, the department hadn’t raised him in the ranks. Brooks had a family to raise, so he decided to head in a new direction and took on a job with the Kansas City Public Schools. His role was to develop relationships with students and parents. It was in this position that he found himself at the center of a pivotal moment in Kansas City history.
Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in April 1968, setting off uprisings across the country. After Kansas City, Missouri, public schools decided to stay open instead of closing for King’s funeral, Brooks says, “all hell broke loose.”
Riots in Kansas City lasted four days and left six Black men dead, around 20 people hospitalized, hundreds arrested and multiple blocks of the city in flames. Questions of accountability still bother Brooks.
“No grand jury. Nothing. Nothing was ever done,” says Brooks.
Soon after the violence, the mayor Ilus Winfield Davis commissioned a report to pinpoint what caused the riot and to develop a strategy that could be used in the future to address the city’s racial tensions, mend and build the community trust, and get at the root cause of the frustrations that led social unrest so that changes could be made. And Brooks believes the findings of that 50-year-old report are still frustratingly relevant.
“Look at it – 2023, we're talking about the same thing,” he says. “Education, police community relations, more Black police officers. You're talking about economic development east of Troost … healthcare, all those things.”
'You take care of the community'
In 1977, responding to an uptick in kidnappings and missing people, specifically Black women, Brooks and a group of concerned citizens came together to found an organization called Ad Hoc Group Against Crime.
To this day, Ad Hoc continues to take a grass roots approach to combating crime, reducing substance abuse and supporting families who have been traumatized by violent crime in Kansas City for decades.
“We were the ones that said that violence was a public health issue,” says Brooks. The group created a community hotline, organized marches that closed down more than 300 crack houses and helped solve the murders of nine African American women.
Brooks was on call 24/7 in those days. All of this community work was made possible, he notes, with the support and love from his wife, Carol Brooks.
“My late wife just resigned herself to the fact that (she) ended up marrying someone who was pulled at by so many different forces,” he says.
They had six children and were married for 63 years until Carol’s death in 2021.
“My wife was a great wife, a great mother, a great woman,” Brooks says. “But one time she said to me, she said, ‘You take care of the community, I'll take care of the family.’ And she literally kind of meant that.”
Now Brooks looks back at a full life of helping others, including a time as assistant city manager, and a mayoral race he lost by only 950 votes.
“God had something in store for me that was bigger than being the mayor of Kansas City,” he says.
Now 91, Brooks still keeps busy showing up to community engagements, answering calls to help, spending time with family, supporting grassroots anti-crime efforts and continuing to advocate for justice.
But his family urges him to hold the call once in a while, or maybe just leave the phone at home sometimes.
Meanwhile, he wants everybody to mark their calendars for May 3, 2032.
“I'll be a hundred years old,” Brooks says with a bright smile. “ So I want y'all to be there. I don't want you to come there with no walkers, no mobiles. I want you to be standing tall -- like I'll be.”
This episode ofA People's History of Kansas City was reported by Reginald David and produced and mixed by Suzanne Hogan, with editing by Mackenzie Martin and C.J. Janovy.