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Kansas City's 'Fierce Fighter For Justice,' Rosa James, Dies At 86

Rosa James cropped.jpg
Public education advocate and community activist Rosa James died on Tuesday.

Over six decades of community work, Rosa James tackled lots of issues, such as public education, voter registration, racial justice.

If you take a look at Rosa James’ profile on social media, she’s smiling, wearing a white cowboy hat with what looks like a bedazzled silver peace symbol.

Tributes are pouring in today for the “social justice warrior and public education advocate.” James died on Tuesday at the age of 86.

Kansas City Mayor Quinton Lucas described James as a “matriarch of the community” and told KCUR he’ll always remember her power of engagement.

“She was always right in the arena,” Lucas said, “Somebody who goes to that school board meeting goes to the neighborhood meeting and is always there to listen, to engage, to learn."

"It's definitely a big loss to this city," said Kansas City Public Schools Superintendent Mark Bedell. "It saddens me because I just feel like we're losing so many of our great leaders that have had a significant impact in this country and also here in Kansas City."

James grew up in Charlotte, North Carolina, and moved to Missouri in the early 1960s to embark on a 36-year career as a reading specialist with the Kansas City Public Schools. She retired in 1998.

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courtesy Kansas City Public Schools
Retired educator Rosa James and Kansas City Public Schools (KCPS) superintendent Mark Bedell

KCPS Superintendent Mark Bedell said he first met James in 2016 when he was interviewing for the job.

"I almost felt like she served as a mentor to me, being a former educator," Bedell said. "And (she) just told me that if I ever needed anything, just to reach out to her. So there were times when I did reach out to her or sought advice."

He added, "Just a great, great lady, a lady who genuinely cared about this school district and the children in this community."

James earned appointments to the Kansas City Board of Election Commissioners and the Municipal Judicial Nominating Commission.

She also worked as a board member of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) and member of the NAACP executive committee, earning the Kansas City Spirit and NAACP Presidents Award. And she had ties to the political group, Freedom, Inc.

Mayor Quinton Lucas was introduced to James in 2014 when she served on a Freedom, Inc. nominating committee with other “titans of politics.”

“They were peppering me with some tough questions,” Lucas recalled, “but Rosa was just always very quick to be down to earth, but relatable in a world where other people were, you know, kind of trying to poke holes.”

He added, “She just added so many interesting ingredients really to every conversation, every interaction, and every big public issue that has affected, I think, the east side of Kansas City, Missouri, for decades now.”

James also served as the 7th ward Committeewoman for the Jackson County Democratic Committee, distributing ballot information on Election Day.

“In my years as Executive Director," wrote Geoff Gerling of the Jackson County Democratic Committee in an email, "she was one of the most reliable members, routinely contributed on behalf of her ward, and was happy to lend her years of experience and knowledge to today's challenges.”

According to Kansas City School Board member Manny Abarca, who was elected in April 2019, James continued to inspire a younger generation. Abarca described James as a “tireless and unrelenting advocate of so many causes.”

“Her voice, presence, and motivation will be sorely lost in a time when we need leaders like her most,” he wrote in an email. “Her smile and 'grab you by the arm to lead you towards a solution' style is indicative of a generation that many young people like me still have much to learn from.”

Abarca added, “Like the passing of Civil Rights advocate and legend John Lewis, James pioneered causes when the times may not have been as favorable and led movements that no one else dared to charge. Her passing will leave a void, but I hope young people will continue to carry her flame as an undying legacy of her everlasting work.”