Impact of KC riots following Martin Luther King Jr.’s death still felt 50 years later

KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- A peaceful protest outside City Hall in Kansas City took a violent, chaotic turn that, 50 years later, still echoes in the city's memory.

Unlike some other U.S. cities, the streets of Kansas City remained peaceful in the days immediately after Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated on April 4, 1968.

“Our violence was a little bit delayed in that regard,” said Rebecca Davis, a civil rights professor at UMKC.

The trouble didn't start until April 9 -- the day of King’s funeral.

Classes were canceled at public schools in Kansas City, Kansas, but across the state line, schools remained open in Kansas City, Missouri. That would end up being a decision that had devastating consequences.

Alvin Brooks, who worked for the KCMO school district at the time, remembers the frantic phone call he received.

"All hell has broke loose," he said. "He said, 'Those kids, like we told them, are now marching. They're gathering at Lincoln, Emanuel and Central.'"

Eventually, adults would join the march on 71 Highway, leading up to City Hall where an estimated 1,000 people converged. After listening to speakers, Brooks said people were getting on buses to head to a nearby church when things got out of hand.

It only took a matter of moments for that peaceful protest to fall into chaos when tear gas filled City Hall plaza.

"A police officer threw a canister of gas in the bus, inside the bus, and kids just went everywhere," Brooks said. "Prior to that, someone threw a bottle and didn't hit anybody, and that's when the tear gas really began to flow."

The wild scene kicked off days of riots, fires and shootings. More than 1,000 people were arrested.

Kansas City's current mayor grew up very close to a portion of the city that would dissolve into fires and multiple shootings before the unrest ended.

“Yeah that`s the kind of thing when you live through, you don`t forget,” Kansas City Mayor Sly James said.

“It was literally a block from my house, and it was several days, and there was a lot of upheaval,” James said. “There were people afraid to leave their homes.”

"I remember two black police officers -- they were plain clothes officers -- came in upset because their own police officers were shooting at them," the Rev. Sam Mann said. "They were black. They were trying to deal with calming down the uprising. They came in totally upset. They said, 'We're not going back out there. Our own officers, white officers are shooting at us.'"

The National Guard was called in, but by the time order had been restored, police fatally shot six black men. The damage to mostly black-owned homes and businesses totaled $4 million.

In the months and years to follow, a demographic shift that was already underway accelerated.

"People began to flee the central city, not just in Kansas City, but in the rest of the country -- but for sure in Kansas City," said U.S. Rep. Emanuel Cleaver of Missouri. "It made Troost for a time afterward a much stronger line of racial demarcation. It became the Mason Dixon line in our community. That was not good."

On one side of the line, destroyed buildings and blight remained for decades to follow.

"All was broken up after the riot," Brooks said. "All along here on 31st Street was burned, from bakeries to grocery stores was burned. It never recovered, never recovered, no."

Some say King would be disappointed by the lack of progress since his death.

"He'd probably sit up in his grave if he new the killings that are going on," Edith Haney said. "Every other day in the black community, someone in the black community got shot by somebody else in the black community. I think he'd be very upset with that."

But the riot is also credited with raising the conscience of people of faith to correct inequities, which has created a much larger black middle class than existed half a century ago.