April 1968 – The Kansas City “Holy Week” Riots

(originally published 4/11/19)

Across the country, it was labeled the “Holy Week Uprising.” Everything happened in those ten days leading up to Easter,. The Kansas City Star’s headline read “Holy Week Riots.” Whether you saw the events as an uprising – an act of resistance – or a riot – an act of violent disturbance, the confrontations across the country in the aftermath of the assassination of Martin Luther King were a watershed moment for this city and the country.

I lived in Lawrence then, just young enough that I only remember that it happened, but not details. I do know several people who were here then. In the stories they share there is a common claim Kansas City was among the worst, but beyond that, details get fuzzy. That’s understandable. The historical record of large-scale, chaotic events, simultaneously involving thousands of people – riots, wars, disasters, even celebrations – often rely on first-hand accounts to capture all the elements of the story. But first-hand accounts, even those documented at the time, can never be entirely objective.

So for this piece, I relied on the dead-tree media, primarily the archives of The Kansas City Star. Admittedly, newspaper accounts aren’t entirely objective either. But in this era of journalism, the goals of thoroughness, objectivity, and fairness were still a real objective. Reading the accounts in the Star, apparent biases are normative with the period, like the repeated references to “negroes.” It is jarring to the modern ear, but consistent with the times. A newspaper does provide chronology to events, and as the reporting continues through the days, the Star was the public organizer of the event narrative I share here.

Dr. King was assassinated on April 4, 1968, at 6:01 pm in Memphis. The news spread quickly, and by nightfall, there were crowds forming in many of the country’s major cities. Not all of them were violent. There were prayer services in churches, there were silent marches down city streets, there were impromptu memorials created. But as the week progressed, it was the violence that took center stage, of course.

In Washington, D.C. the violence began the night of King’s murder, a Thursday. In Chicago, the troubles began the next day, and the day after that for Baltimore. These cities were among the hardest hit, but for four nights and three days new cities were added to the reports. TV showed frequent clashes between crowds and law enforcement. Newspapers maintained lists of incidents of crimes and arrests, of injuries and deaths. But by the close of that first weekend, there was a sense that the violence was lessening, due in no small part to the use of National Guard troops in many cities.

Trouble didn’t come to Kansas City until five days after the assassination, and though the city had been relatively quiet, the events in other cities fomented tensions locally, turning Kansas City into a tinder box, ready to ignite at the slightest spark. That spark, it turned out, would be the result of a decision ostensibly intended to protect the community.

Dr. King’s funeral was to be held on Tuesday, April 9th, and it would be broadcast around the world. The Kansas City, Kansas School District made the decision to close school for the day, allowing students a chance to view the ceremonies on TV, or otherwise remember King. The Kansas City, Missouri district made the opposite choice. Around 9:00 that morning, principals announced to their schools that they would remain open, saying they believed students would be safer in school than roaming the streets. They didn’t count on the depth of the students’ disappointment, nor did they realize how many students wouldn’t be deterred from leaving anyway.

The exodus from the schools began at Central High School, but as the story grew over time, the walk-out included almost every high school in the district. The KCMO district made a quick reversal, announcing the high schools would indeed close, by 10:00, just an hour after issuing the contrary policy that sent hundreds of its students into Kansas City’s streets.

The students were soon joined by other members of the black community, with much of the leadership coming from local clergy. The City’s initial response seemed reasonable. That Mayor Ilus “Ike” Davis came to meet the group where they had congregated at 16th and The Paseo is unquestionably true. That he came to talk, and perhaps even march to City Hall with them is likely, and certainly consistent in the accounts. There are varying versions about how that turned out. In some, the Mayor spent time with the group, then returned to City Hall to prepare for to join black community leaders at the podium being readied in front of City Hall, around which the crowd would gather. Other accounts have the Mayor’s security detail overriding his decision to march, and instead whisking him away out of concern for his safety.

By the time the marchers arrived at City Hall, the Star estimated they numbered around 1,000. They arrived without incident, but the mood changed quickly when the marchers saw the line of police officers standing across Twelfth Street at Oak. Still, the loosely planned agenda began, with the Mayor speaking as well as the clergy and others. One report characterized the crowd as taking control of the microphone and the agenda, but in any event a few of the marchers came forward to speak. Some called out for strong action, others evoked Dr. King’s principle of non-violent resistance. Then from somewhere came a popping sound, what may or may not have been a firecracker, a bottle thrown from the crowd, or something wholly unrelated. The police reacted by throwing tear gas at the crowd. Even as people scattered to avoid the gas cloud, the police moved slowly forward, hoping to forece everyone to the east, the direction from which they had come. The time was about 1:00 pm, just four hours since the day’s drama had begun.

The Star’s coverage that day included at least one part of the story that seemed contradictory. In one place, it talks of Governor Warren Hearnes as having put the Missouri National Guard on notice, but not deploying them, saying that he would rather have them on alert and not need them, than to wait for the emergency. But elsewhere in that same edition, the Star runs a picture of troops entering the Guard Armory on Broadway, with a caption that says more than 1,000 Missouri National Guard troops had arrived in the city and were preparing to get involved where needed. It goes on to say that nearly 200 Missouri State Highway Patrol officers were being deployed to the Kansas City area, too, just in case.

Dispersing the crowd from downtown had only served to spread the unrest to other points in the city. Everything from looting to vandalism to simple loitering were reported from Waldo to the Blue Ridge Mall, from the Landing to the Country Club Plaza. After three shops on the Country Club Plaza were looted, 175 national guardsmen were deployed to patrol the property from the streets and from the tops of the parking garages. The Star adds, “They were under orders not to fire unless they were in danger.”

Mayor Davis imposed a curfew (the first in Kansas City’s history), and most other cities in the metro followed suit, which helped in the short run. The sporadic incidents continued into the night, and into the next day. The fire department reported about 75 fires that night. Eventually, the activity became concentrated in the center of what the Kansas City Star repeatedly referred to in all its reporting as “the Negro District.” The night of April 10th saw the worst of Kansas City’s violence. An entire block just east of 31st and Benton Boulevard had burned down, taking with it both businesses and homes. The National Guard troops, which had also been deployed in other places, were deployed at this scene to help the KCMO Police protect the fire department from gunfire as they fought to extinguish the blaze.

This was the peak of Kansas City’s violence during the Holy Week Uprisings. There was no resolution. The incident is now just one more piece of the story of race relations in Kansas City, albeit a significant piece. The riots in Kansas City riots came later in the week than they had in most of the other cities, and as such were less a visceral response to grief than an visceral response to being denied a voice yet one more time. The end result was the same, and however our losses stacked up against those of cities like Washington, D.C., Baltimore, or Chicago, it was too much – property damage of at least $4 million, almost 1,000 people arrested and arraigned, more than 100 injured, and worst of all, six dead. One of them was a 12-year-old boy.

It is always too much.

(Photos: (top) Just a few of the 175 national guardsmen deployed to the Country Club Plaza in response to reports of looting. Bob Barrett, photographer; (bottom) A lone policeman inspects damage done to a business near 18th & Vine. Photo courtesy UMKC – LaBudde Special Collection)

********************

For additional information, I recommend three sites.The archives of the Kansas City Star are available through the Mid-Continent Public Library’s website. As you must have an MCPL library card to get to the Star archive on the website, I cannot provide a hyperlink here that will get you around that gate. But it’s easy and free to get an MCPL card (which I highly recommend), and if you have a Kansas City Public Library card, the two library systems have a reciprocal arrangement. It is worth the effort, for this is a complete archive of the Star/Times from its beginnings. The link to the MCPL website is:

https://www.mymcpl.org/

On YouTube, you can access a summary of WHB radio’s coverage of the events, overlaid with still photos that do a fair job of bringing the story to life. Depending on your browser or maybe media player, connecting via this link may present problems. In that case, just go to YouTube and type “Kansas City Holy Week.” But here’s the link:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_jR293AltS4

The UMKC-LaBudde Special Collections has assembled a collection of photos from the event. The collection is labeled “1968 Riot Collection.” The direct link is:

https://dl.mospace.umsystem.edu/umkc/islandora/object/umkc%3Ariot

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