Monday, January 19, 2015

"A Reporter’s Chronicle of ‘Black Tuesday’"

In April of 1968, riots erupted in thirty seven cities across the United States following the assassination of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.  Most everywhere the riots began April 4th, the day of Dr. King's murder.  But for Kansas City, MO it was a different story.  Riots in Kansas City fell on April 9th, the day of Dr. King's funeral. Highschool students walked out of class and marched to Kansas City Hall in protest of the city's unwillingness to give the day off school.  These students, gathered peacefully on the steps of city hall, were dispersed with tear gas grenades by police.  News of the incident sparked city-wide riots.  The national guard was called in and a curfew was instituted.

This helps me appreciate the importance of having a day to celebrate the memory of Dr. King and the non-violent social justice movement he championed.

Below I have scanned and transcribed a first hand account of the student protest of April 9th 1968 and the events leading up to the Kansas City riot.  It was written by Ora E. Myers for The Call, a Kansas City weekly newspaper.  It is one of the most passionate pieces of journalisim I have read.

A Reporter’s Chronicle of ‘Black Tuesday’
by Ora E. Myers
The Call K.C. MO. Week of April 19 to 25, 1968, p 14

For most Kansas Citians arising on the morning of Tuesday, April 9, the day had one major significance; it was the day of the funeral and burial of Dr. Martin Luther King in Atlanta, Ga.

For others, a virtual community of high school age persons, there was this, of course, but also resentment that schools had not been closed for the day.

All Kansas Citians, before the day was to end, were to be robbed of their feelings of comfort and security in the matter of racial violence, a fate which this city had largely escaped until then.

Students at five junior and senior high schools in the Negro community began walking out of their classes shortly after the beginning of the school day.  Many of them rode in cars, the others walked to join students at other schools, until their numbers swelled to from 1,000 to 1,5000, a noisy, shouting group.  The schools were Lincoln junior and senior; Central junior and senior, and Manual high and vocations.

Policemen began swarming into the area near Central junior and senior high schools at Linwood and Indiana where all the students had gathered, before 9 o’clock.

Students attempting to move away from the school, west on 33rd St., stopped, filling the width of a half-block, and more when they saw police cars blocking the intersection at 33rd St. and Benton Blvd.

Appeal to Students

The mass returned to the Central campus, where numerous clergymen, civil rights leaders, two professional athletes, and other adults tried to channel the feelings of the group into an organized memorial tribute to Dr. King, whose funeral services had just begun.  Herman Johnson, president of Metropolitan NAACP Council and Rev. A. L. Johnson, Council for United Action were among those seen moving and talking frantically, attempting to direct the students.

Lee Vertis Swinton, former NAACP president, sat in a car speaking from loudspeaking equipment.

Curtis McClinton, and Otis Taylor, professional athletes, who were originally to speak at a memorial assembly planned for that morning, also moved here and there, attempting to be heard.

Negro policemen moved about here and there, talking steadily, “Let’s cool it,” they said, and other statements.  White officers sat in police cars nearby.

Use Tear Gas

The remnants of control over the crowd began deteriorating rapidly as one student, a boy, stumbled away from the window of a police car, blinded by the chemical squirted in his eyes.  It had not been possible to see what had happened before this, but the stumbling boy and the angry reaction of the crowd came quickly into focus.
Students then began hurling angry challenges and profanity at police officers and many of the other adults present.

Efforts to contain the crowd on the Central campus became futile as what had started out as a memorial march became one of protest against “the man” and all the ills of “the system.”

In another hour, the crowd, on its way to tell “the man,” had reached the area of 18th and Paseo, gathering momentum in feeling and additional marchers as it progressed.

Mayor Joins March

Mayor Ilus W. Davis stood on a police car a block away, in front of De La Salle high school surrounded on the car roof by others who had assumed leadership.  On the grass and street nearby, for perhaps 150 feet in any direction, the students waited impatiently.

The mayor, unsuccessful in attempts to hold the attention of the crowd, soon stopped trying to speak, and others tried to appeal for calm, among them the Rev. E. Woody Hall of Bethel A.M.E. church.

None was so successful in getting attention as a young man named Lee Bohanon, better known as “Leebo,” who taunted, “Is the mayor ashamed of City Hall?  Let him speak to us down there.”

Go To City Hall

The students began moving off in the downtown direction, and a quick leadership conference ended with the mayor, arm in arm with Negro leaders, leading the march which proceded across Truman Rd, and out the southeast freeway into the downtown area, finally ending on the steps and in the street in front of City Hall.

Once again Mayor Davis began speaking, asking students of first Lincoln, then Manual, and Central to identify themselves by raising their hands.  The students obliged with enthusiasm and cheering.  The mayor then shared with them the information that he too had attended Central, and graduated from there.

“I can remember,” he said, “when City Hall, the police department, the fire department, all were white.  But over the years I’ve also seen many changes take place.”

The mayor went on to list some of the progress in the hiring of Negros, giving the percentage of Negroes now employed in City Hall as of 30 per cent, and saying that the city government and all of Kansas City now wants to be proud of the city.  His remarks had little positive effect on the crowd.

Others, Bruce Watkins, clerk of Jackson County circuit court; Alvin Brooks, former chairman of CORE; Everett Oneal, vice-president, Chamber of Commerce; Curtis McClinton and Otis Taylor, Kansas City Chiefs players, and others all tried reasoning and appealing with the group.

In addition, numerous students were given or took the opportunity to address the crowd, some exhorting them to demand their rights “now.” The speaker used makeshift devices until a public address system was hastily assembled and set up by a city employee.

Guard Entrance

Approximately 30 uniformed policemen guarded the entrance of the City Hall, on the 12th St. side, one of them Negro.  Other policemen were at surrounding locations, heavily concentrated.  Activities at City Hall virtually ceased as employees looked out of windows.  Passerby stopped to look and listen, swelling the crowd to 2,000 or more persons.

First one then another person, using the microphone, continued trying to speak to the students, but, often than not, were shouted down by rebuttals from the crowd.

Lee Bohanon, addressing the group several times, said at one point, “If I thought that I could go down here to Heizbertg’s and break a window and get rich, I’d do it, I’d riot,” but, he continued, he knew it wouldn’t end there, because he would end up being killed, and perhaps other innocent persons, too.

More than an hour had passed and the student’ increasing restlessness was evidenced by the explosion of three cherry bombs on the first landing of the City Hall steps.

A definite let-up in the tension occurred when the voice of John L Frazier, disc jockey for KPRE radio station suddenly camoe over the microphone.  He, like the mayor, began by asking each school to show their hands.  Again they responded enthusiastically. His remarks, urging peaceful action, ended with the statement, “I want you to come on out to Holy Name, and we are going to play records, and you can get in free, and dance ‘till the sun goes down.”

A cheer went up as most of the crowd seemed to relax for the first time in hours, and many of the youth began to move immediately.  Others moved away more slowly and still others remained at the microphone, yelling at the students to stay where they were, but unsuccessfully.

The dense congregation on the City Hall steps had slowly begun thinning, and small groups moved east on 12th St.

More Tear Gas

Suddenly four muted explosions sounded from 12th street in front of City Hall, followed by smoke and fumes arching up and over the heads of the people who began frantically rushing to get away.

Running pell mell up the grassy slopes and over and through the ornate water fountains that decorate the front of City Hall, the students scattered, many coving east of the building.  Seemingly, none of them attempted to enter City Hall.  Those who did, mainly adults standing near the doors at the time, rushed through the line of officers, coughing, and holding their eyes.

Once inside, several city employees helped the distressed persons, offering tissues or moisturized paper towels, and advising them not to rub their eyes.

Herman Johnson, was half carried in, in a state of near collapse.  When he began to recover he stated bitterly that that was the third time during the morning that he had been near and directly affected by tear gas explosions.

“I’ve been with those kids all morning,” he said, “talking to them. They were just about to get calmed down.  That tear gas was the greatest mistake they ever made.”

The same opinion was voiced by most of the 15 or more persons who filled the information office on the first floor, several of whom paced the floor, wringing their hands, in seeming frustration.

Councilman Weeps

City Councilman G. Lawrence Blankinship wept openly, repeating again and again, “They didn’t have to do that.”

The first floor lobby gradually began to grow quiet, with many expressing, in hushed tones, their fears for what the remainder of the day would bring.

Mounting Disorder

The events for the remainder of Tuesday, April 9, have become history, much to grief of most Kansas Citians.

Fear spread like a pall over the city as groups of Negro youth piled in cars, or assembled on cars began yelling “Black Power.” Cars sped up and down ghetto streets, horns blaring, lights on, even during the daylight, with their passengers leaning out of windows or over convertible doors, with arms raised and fists clenched in a menacing gesture.

By twilight, and the late afternoon news, an 8 o’clock curfew and liquor store and gas station closing had been announced.

By 7 o’clock, when it was dark, the burglary and looting had begun.  Policemen, rushed about frantically within the ghetto, answering dispatches and burglar alarms, many times apparently unable to cope with the situation for lack of manpower.

Before daylight returned, one man, Maynard Gough, had been killed in a reported burglary of a liquor store, and 200 or more break-ins of businesses had occurred, much of it accompanied by looting.

And so began Kansas City’s nightmare.
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