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Saturday, January 15, 2011

A Kansas City Perspective on the April 1968 Murder of Dr. Martin Luther King

Growing up in integrated Kansas City neighborhoods- I respected and admired Dr. King for peacefully seeking to right the wrongs that confronted black people- more than 100 years after a war that supposedly "liberated" them.

I thought I'd share my recollections today on what would have been Dr. King's 82nd birthday- of hearing about Dr. King's death on April 4, 1968 and the days afterwards...

It was a Friday evening- when the TV networks broke into regular programming to tell America and the world of what had happened in Memphis Tennessee around 6 p.m.- when James Earl Ray shot Dr. King while he was standing outside his room at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis.

Even after having endured the killing of President John F. Kennedy as a 6th grader nearly 5 years earlier- the killing of Dr. King- an advocate of peaceful protest- was quite a shock.

Later that Friday night- an NBC News film showed President Kennedy's brother and 1968 presidential candidate Robert addressing a crowd in a predominately black part of Indianapolis in regard to Dr. King's killing.

Although virtually nothing was known at that point regarding details on the shooter and certainly not the assassin's race- Robert told the crowd that HIS brother had been shot "by a white man-" and urged calm (Indianapolis was one of the few large American cities that wouldn't suffer riots in the coming days).

Robert would suffer the same fate as Dr. King almost 2 months to-the-day later that year.

In April of 1968- I was a sophomore at Southeast High school in Kansas City MO- and on the next day Saturday- April 5- our school's Concert choir was to take a bus ride to a state music competition in Warrensburg at Central Missouri State University.

The bus ride was somber and the air was tense- with the black choir members riding in the rear of the motor coach talking quietly.

I sat in the toward the front of that group- basically between the white and black choir members.

I had grown up with a number of the black kids- and they knew that I was a friend first who truly understood what was going on with that "racial thing" with me being a white guy somewhere way down their list.

I was as lost as they were- and felt a guilt I shouldn't have felt JUST because of my skin color and hoped they understood.

The air at the CMSU campus was also tense that Saturday morning- and- although I tried to stay with the Southeast choir members- it was clear that the color of MY skin was causing tension with those from other schools around the state who certainly did not know of my fair-play or "politics."

Many attending the competition were anticipating trouble- a "riot" actually- and (most of) the white kids kept a respectful if not fearful distance from the black kids- but here I was in-between- feeling every bit of the black kids' pain and trying to express it.

Our choir won the top honors that day- but it was of little consolation to many members of our choir in the somber bus ride home.

Unlike nearly a dozen American cities where devastating riots took place- Kansas City remained calm over the next several days and I recall no particularly striking memories of anything until the next week and the day of Dr. King's funeral on Wednesday- April 9th.

The Kansas City MO schools had not been dismissed that day- and many black students were angry over that seemingly racial omission.

During a 2nd-hour class that morning a film was being shown and as the 'certified projector operator' that I was- I had to return the machine to the school's office after the film.

It was in the office where I overheard the school officials and office staff talking in hushed but urgent tones- reportedly- black students from the Paseo and Central High schools were marching to Southeast to "liberate" their brothers and sisters from school and march to Downtown to ask why school hadn't been cancelled for Dr. King's funeral.

It was then that it was decided school would be dismissed at the end of that second hour class- and I rushed back up to the 3rd floor with the news as the school's principal was beginning the announcement over the school's public address system.

Although the principal didn't say so- word of what I had heard about that "liberation" spread quickly just in the following minutes as students rushed to their lockers and toward the exits.

Several of us- including a black friend- piled into a white friend's Mercury that several of us neighborhood students of Southeast rode to and from school in- and we headed to the Mark Twain elementary school where our younger brothers and  sisters were to take them home to safety.

Already a teenage weatherman and certainly a follower of the news- I went home and come noon- turned on a TV newscast.

A crowd of several hundred protesters had gathered in Parade Park at Truman Road and The Paseo and were addressed by several black activists.

Soon- the activists had urged the crowd to march on City Hall Downtown- and they took Interstate 70 on foot to get there- closing the westbound lanes.

That afternoon- I rode my bike to Raytown to visit my girlfriend and another friend after the Raytown schools let out- so I was unaware until later what went on Downtown.

What went on Downtown was that crowd of several hundred mostly peaceful young black people (but also a few more-radical- trouble-making people) had gathered on 12th Street in front of City Hall to meet with and be addressed by Mayor Ilus Davis- other city officials and police chief Clarence Kelly.

At some point during that meeting- no one to this day knows exactly what happened- someone threw either a glass bottle or fireworks into the crowd and the sound was mistaken for gunfire (those were the days that the worse weapon you might be thug-confronted with would be a knife).

The several-dozen riot-gear-wearing cops that had arrived for crowd control then fired tear-gas canisters into the large crowd- scattering them throughout downtown.

It was then the trouble really started- youths started running through downtown streets that- in those days- were still filled with shoppers of the many downtown stores still in business.

Windows were broken in a number of those stores and the downtown pedestrians were assaulted or otherwise "terrorized-" as news accounts of the day reported- by the angry black youths.

The crowds scattered- the youths made it back to the "inner-city" with only a few arrests that day- but the stage was set and "the Kansas City Riot of 1968" was on.

I shall never- ever- forget the sight that evening along Raytown Road before Dad came to pick me up and take me back home.

Military vehicles of all shapes and sizes- including half-tracks with combat-ready troops- were rolling north in a 4-block long procession from the National Guard camp on 87th Street toward the city.

We stood in awe watching this- for I knew what was going on since there had already been rioting in a number of mostly eastern American cities in the days after Dr. King's killing.

Even that wouldn't prepare me for later that night- when we sat on the roof of our East 61st Street home with BB guns and one .22-caliber rifle preparing to defend our home against an unknown horde- watching huge billows of smoke and orange flames rise in the spring night sky miles to the north from buildings set on fire by rioters.

Dramatic radio and TV reports from those areas fed the fear- the city was under curfew and people were locked behind their doors with window shades drawn.

I had feelings- on that warm- spring April night at age 15- of confusion with an uneasy undertone of uncertainty and desperation for my city and my country.

Five people would die (other media sources report "seven" dead) in the Kansas City riots over the next 2 days.

Dr. King had advocated "peaceful" change and here he was murdered- with the black population deprived of a thoughtful leader with a very small minority and mostly criminal portion of that population going wild.

It was as if the world as I knew it was coming to some frightening and unknown end and even if that didn't happen- things would surely never be the same.

And to this day- 43 years later in another century and with our first black president- many of the feelings and conditions that led to the anger and frustration of April 1968 STILL persists- not only among black people- but among ALL races in America suffering from economic degradation- segregation and the continuing loss of freedoms.

If Dr. King were still alive today- he would be addressing all of us suffering from those conditions- and Dr. King would continue to strive for a peaceful solution to save America from a violent conclusion.



the observer said...

I just finished participating in a number of King related events at Church of the Resurrection.

First we shared Black ethnic food and gospel music. A mostly white crowd--still as big as COR is, it has few Black participants. Then we had a forum on education, with Airick West, Gloria Willis and Golden Davis--Adam Hamilton moderating. Then we saw a movie on the Montgomery bus boycott.

In light of that, I appreciate your reflections on those days after Dr. King's assassination. I was 71/2 (one of those ages you still counted halves!) Two memories I have: His funeral, which was on TV, and the cover of a news magazine with a picture of a Black boy, lying on his side, bleeding from the head, a victim of the rioting.

What has been done with Dr. King's legacy? Have both Blacks and Whites done enough to continue the work he started?

I think we have both let him down.

The Observer

Groucho K. Marx said...


Thank you and I too appreciate your comments here- as well as your participation in today's events.

I too wonder if we have done enough- and these days I'm FAR more worried about America's future than I was in those politically and racially-charged times of the 1960's.

United we stand- divided we fall...


Anonymous said...

I was young when Dr. King was killed. I really do not recall that day with clarity. I was student at Pinkerton elementary at the time. Which was very close to Southeast High school. My memory is pretty vivid the day of the funeral though. I was a safety patrol member and all of us were told to report to a room next to the office. We had no idea why. We sat for a couple of hours, in seclusion, not knowing what was going on.

Before lunch, the Principal, Mrs. Bolen, a police officer with the KCPD and a national guards man came in the room. The principal told us of the trouble going on in the area and that school would be dismissed early. She said they were depending on us to stand our posts and keep the exit orderly. However, if anyone did not feel comfortable, speak up and the PD would post officers, or guardsmen at that particular persons station.

None of us shirked our duty. My post was Agnes and Meyer Blvd. Meyer is two lanes each way with an island in between. The kid that stood the post across the island from me was name George Bean. He was black, I am white. He told me on our walk to our post, he would protect me from the blacks. At the time, you don't think the obvious. We are 12 years old, what are we going to do? So we stood our posts like brave little soldiers.

Other from a chase of white kids from Southeast chasing black kids from Manuel, nothing of note took place. We sat on our porch at 2707 East 63rd and heard the gunshots, smelled the smoke of the arson fires, watched the police and the National Guard patrol 63rd street.

When we finally did go back to school, the black kids that were friends were openly hostile. The black safety patrol members quit in unison, except for George, who by the way, was the biggest and strongest kid in the school. He remained friendly and we shared our post to the end of the school year as if nothing had happened.

That was my final year at Pinkerton and we moved from the neighborhood, to North Kansas City in 1969.