It started with high school students.
On Tuesday, April 9, 1968, five days after Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination in Memphis, Tennessee, and the day of his funeral, the Kansas City, Kansas school district canceled classes.
But in Kansas City, Missouri, the school board and police department felt it would be safer to have students in class and off the streets.
Michael Ali was a student at the mostly-black Central High School.
“After they announced it on the PA system, everybody left," he said. "Kids were crying, they were disrupting everything. There was no more school after that. I think it happened around 9 o’clock.”
Cities across the country had erupted in violence and flames after King’s assassination on Thursday evening, April 4, 1968. There was a feeling that Kansas City might respond more peacefully. Indeed, immediately following the murder, there were at least two peaceful marches attended by thousands of white and black people.
But the decision by the Kansas City, Missouri, district to keep schools open set off three days of rioting that week. By the time the disturbances in Kansas City were over, six black people were dead, hundreds were injured or jailed and property damage reached into the millions. The Kansas City riots were among the worst in the nation.
It became clear by the end of the day on April 9 that any hope of peace was a dire miscalculation.
Mayor Ilus W. Davis took to the airwaves to declare a state of emergency due to “mob action and civil disobedience in the city of Kansas City, Missouri.”
Police had already arrived at Central High School by the time the students learned they were expected to stay in school. The police used tear gas to try and contain them in the building.
It didn’t work.
Students from Lincoln and Manual high schools joined those from Central as they began to march downtown.
Ali was in the middle of it.
“From Linwood and Indiana, all way to 31st and Woodland, we were tearing up everything in the path,” he says. “Throwing rocks at cars and buildings, every time we saw some white people, it was on, because we felt they’d done that to Martin Luther King.”
Within about an hour, school superintendent James Hazlett reversed himself and dismissed school. But it was too late.
Kansas City Police Chief Clarence Kelly had been meeting with black community leaders, clergy and elected officials. He noted escalating tensions, increasing fires and incidents of looting. In response, he upped the presence of law enforcement to more 1,000.
Protestors meet police on the streets
Reverend David Fly was a canon at Grace and Holy Trinity Cathedral. A white man, he was one of the clergy to join in support of the students that day. He and Father Ed Warner, a black priest at St. Augustine’s Episcopal Church, later were beaten and gassed by police.
Fly says when they met up with the students at 19th and The Paseo, police were on every cross street.
“Police already were wearing tear gas masks,” he says. “There were a couple of dogs available to them, so the tension was growing.”
At Truman Road and The Paseo, they confronted a barricade of law enforcement officers.
Clarence Gibson, a young white officer with less than a year on the force, says the protestors were formidable opponents.
“As far as you could see between Truman and Paseo were inner city students coming toward us, from one curb to the other," he says. "And they wanted to come downtown. We were told not to let them come downtown, but then Mayor Ilus Davis showed up and said ‘Fellas, open up and let them go downtown.’”
Fly says by that time, the young people had acted on their own.
"People broke through the cordon of police officers and it just went wild,” he says. “They were running down I-70 and there was still traffic zooming along I-70. It was one of the most frightening scenes I’ve ever seen.”
Confrontation at City Hall
There was already a big crowd listening to speeches on the steps of City Hall. Hundreds of others milled around on 12th Street and in the grassy areas between City Hall and the Jackson County Courthouse. Police had a tight line across the entrance to the building, which extended along 12th Street.
Maurice Copeland, a 20-year-old black Vietnam war veteran, remembers the tension when some of the protestors wanted to leave.
“We were right at the police perimeter that had us surrounded," he says. “And the police wouldn’t say a word. They stood arm in arm with their batons and their riot shields.”
Clarence Gibson was part of that line and remembers being taunted by a woman.
“‘You white boys out here, all the brothers in Vietnam getting killed and you guys out here messing with our community,’” he recalls her saying. “Many of us were Vietnam vets as well,”
What happens next is a matter of some dispute. Some say police threw a canister of tear gas into the crowd.
Gibson remembers it differently.
“All of a sudden, a single soft drink bottle was thrown from somewhere and landed in front of us,” he says. "The next thing I heard was a little ping, (like) when you pull the pin on a gas grenade. And whoooom, that whole (block) just covered with gas.”
More tear gas at Holy Name Church
Clergy had invited the young people to Holy Name Church at 23rd Street and Benton Boulevard for a dance in an effort to de-escalate tension.
There had been some disturbances in the neighborhood and the police reportedly didn’t know the plan for a dance. They met the young people with tear gas. Some kids pelted police with rocks.
What’s undisputed, says Maurice Copeland, is that at one point, police lobbed cannisters of gas in the basement of the church where the kids were pretty much trapped.
“I wasn’t eight feet from the door, and they slammed that door shut.” he says. "They opened the window and they threw tear gas in there. And that really made people mad.”
Over the next couple days there was indiscriminate burning, looting and violence, most of it in the black community. Police responded frequently with generous amounts of tear gas.
Missouri Gov. Warren E. Hearnes called in the National Guard and military vehicles rolled down city streets.
King’s assassination was the last straw
The disturbances that followed King’s assassination in Kansas City were a response to long-term racial hostilities and institutionalized discrimination.
Endemic steering by real-estate agents perpetuated Jim Crow housing segregation.
Fourteen years after Brown V. Board of Education, Kansas City, Missouri schools were stubbornly segregated.
There was a lack of economic opportunity.
Fifty years out, Ali has some misgivings about destroying his community but says it made sense at the time.
“It is stupid to destroy your own community,” he says, “but what you have to understand we didn’t own anything in that community. Those buildings were owned by people other than us. We didn’t own none of it.”
And then there was the issue of police relations with black communities. Some wondered if Kansas City might have avoided the violence, killing and destruction all together if police hadn’t reacted so aggressively with tear gas and force.
Gibson says he saw some bad things from the police he worked with. 95 percent of them were white, like him.
“This young kid’s laying on the ground,” Gibson says. “I say (to the officer I was with,) ‘What the heck happened to him?’ ‘He cut his head on that broken glass when he came out the window, split his head open,’ my partner says. I say ‘ Wait a minute, he was already standing up when I went around back.’ And (the officer) pulled his revolver out and said ‘he cut his head on this glass right here.’”
More than a dozen law enforcement officers also suffered injuries and were hospitalized after facing rocks and sniper fire.
But historian and author Sonny Gibson says the riots in Kansas City represented the voice of the black community saying they’d had enough.
"No one was standing up and saying we recognize all this," Gibson says. "As a result of Dr. King being assassinated, it reached a point where it came out."
Fifty years later, some say not much has changed.
They see injustice at the hands of police.
The black community still faces vast economic and educational disparities.
U.S. Rep. Emanuel Cleaver arrived in Kansas City just months after the last embers of the riots had gone out. Now he represents much of Kansas City’s African-American community in Congress and sees more allies in the struggle for civil rights.
“That’s the America a lot of people are trying to hold back but it’s coming, it’s inevitable and nobody’s going to be able to hold it back.”
But will this America be able to address the deep-rooted, systemic problems of racism 50 years after King’s assassination? Many in Kansas City’s black communities remain unsure.
KCUR 89.3 and UMKC's Miller Nichols Library are holding an event tonight at 6:30 p.m. at Pierson Hall on UMKC campus looking back at what happened in Kansas City, Missouri following the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr.