April is a month chock full of important dates in my life. Birthdays, deaths, anniversaries and milestones.
As the nation marks the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King’s death, Kansas City, Mo., is hosting a remembrance of the events that took place as a local reaction following Dr. King’s death.
I remember that day.
My junior high class was rushed out of a downtown concert. As our school bus headed thru Kansas City we saw burning busses and overturned cars, people in the streets, and a militaristic line of Black Panthers dressed in black, with tilted black berets and holding rifles. They were standing at attention in front of a local church. There were also police, and eventually the National Guard.
That day has had a major influence on my life.
I attended a predominantly African American elementary school – Mark Twain – and Southeast Junior High School, both located near 63rd and Swope Parkway. It was a time when words such as red-lining, and block-busters were common.
I remember discussions as our Brownie troop and the local PTA were integrated. I remember my parents standing firm not to move at a time now called “white flight,” which was about the same time bussing was introduced to the KCMO school district.
I remember Mark Twain elementary going from a majority white elementary to predominantly black. My 6th grade year I was one of two Caucasians in my class. The school was burnt down and never replaced.
I remember kids tumbling out the bus doors that day in 1968 when we were dropped off in front of Southeast. As students, we had no idea what was happening; but we could feel the buzz in the air. We were glad to get out of school early, and as teens loved the “excitement.” I nearly fell out the bus doors into a disorganized crowd of frightened parents.
I saw my Mom in our black Corvair; she was surrounded by a group of chanting, mostly angry people. Mom rushed me in the car door. The car was swaying, and I could tell my Mother was frightened, but then something happened – a group of neighbors and church friends “escorted” us back to the relative safety of 59th Street. Literally, we had young men in front of us – at least one with a black beret and one I recognized from Mark Twain– who elbowed the crowd away so our little car could pass thru. The escort wasn’t just for us, though, we were followed by other neighbors, some walking, some driving.
That night we stood with neighbors and watched as Molotov cocktails were thrown. Luckily none of them ignited in our block, but the families stood guard. We listened to AM transistor radios that kept talking about “black panthers have been spotted at … “ It was only years later I connected the dots that the radio talk show wasn’t referring to actual panthers, but rather to Black Panthers, who did community work in our area.
It’s interesting 50 years later when I hear that day called a riot. I suppose it was.
But for me, it was a time of insight. People are people. Good and bad. And things are not always as they seem. A lot of those “rioters” were from outside areas, and they were both white and black. Make no mistake they had their own agenda. After the “riot” most of the homes were sold for pennies on the dollar to a developer – who ended up in court. The industrial development and midtown freeway never came to be, and the homes in the two block area where I lived were bulldozed. Now, 50 years later, the area is covered with trash and weeds.
As I recall that day when racial tensions ran high, our neighborhood and church– predominantly African American – watched over us. Why? Because we were friends. Put a name and a smile to a face, shake a hand, break bread with someone, and it’s harder to hate.
Memories of Dr. King, Panthers 50 years later