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Kansas City leaders, participants draw parallels between 1968 race riots, 2020 demonstrations

may 31 protests on the plaza.jpg
Posted at 11:00 AM, Jun 25, 2020
and last updated 2020-06-25 12:02:34-04


How did we end up here again?

One month ago, George Floyd was killed in Minneapolis.

In 1968, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated in Memphis.

Both senseless deaths prompted protests in Kansas City that turned violent, forcing us to confront the impact of race in our society.

It looks a little different, but we're back in the same place.



Protest, and not enough progress.

To understand the significance of this moment, we have to paint the picture of what happened in this community decades ago.

- Dia -


Protests over the death of George Floyd started in Kansas City just days after his killing.

Floyd died in Minneapolis on May 25 after an officer knelt on his neck for nearly nine minutes.

The incident leading to his death was captured on video and posted widely online, something Congressman Emanuel Cleaver II said showed the world the dangers Black men face.

“I think for most people, it was the first time they had ever, ever seen in real-time the death of a human being,” Cleaver said. “I think for the first time people said, ‘Oh, my goodness. They’re not making it up. These things do happen.’”

On Thursday, May 28, demonstrations against police brutality began on the Country Club Plaza in Kansas City and continued for days.

Protests spread to Wyandotte County and Johnson County as people throughout the metro called for police reform and an end to systemic racism.

The first weekend was the most active. On May 30 alone, more than 50 people were arrested in connection with the protests.

PHOTOS: May 31 protests on the Country Club Plaza

Protesters gathered on the Country Club Plaza on May 31, 2020, to demonstrate against police brutality following the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis. Protests continued for days, weeks in some areas, as citizens demanded change.

Store windows were broken and several stores on the Plaza were looted as well.

Two Kansas City, Missouri, police officers were hospitalized due to injuries working the protests.

Some in the crowds threw rocks and bottles at KCPD. Several protesters were tear-gassed, sprayed with pepper spray, shot with non-lethal rounds fired by officers and one, Sean Searns, may lose sight in his right eye.

41 Action News talked to people like Missy, passionate and emotional, begging for policing reform across the country and in this community.

By June 1, more than 150 people were arrested during the days of protests.

June 2, KCPD Chief Rick Smith announced the department would use de-escalation as its guide and decrease the use of tear gas and non-lethal rounds to control the crowds.

On June 3, a unity march organized by KCPD clashed with counter-protesters calling for change before unity.

Days later, on June 7, nearly a thousand people took part in a Black Lives Matter protest downtown.

Participants in the 1968 race riots said they see the parallels between now and then.

Read about the 1968 race riots in Kansas City here.

“We're still arguing the same thing. It's different because those with the imbued privilege are now out front with us. When we were doing this in '68 it was just us and it was us against them,” Linda Spence said. Spence was a student at Central High School in 1968.

Kansas City was one of more than 100 cities nationwide where civil unrest erupted over Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s assassination and deeply-rooted race issues.

Mahasin Abdullah, who was also a student protester in 1968, said “we have a time in history right now to get it right.”

PHOTOS: 1968 Kansas City race riots

PHOTOS: 1968 Kansas City Race Riots
Congressman Emanuel Cleaver II said 1968 was an “earth-shattering” year for Kansas City. Former Mayor Sly James said “the world lit up.”

Some changes have already been made.

A private donor came forward to pay for body cameras for KCPD officers.

The Board of Police Commissioners quickly established protocol for use of force complaints and reviewed the policy on officer-involved shootings to require an external party to look into them.

But the protesters at the center of the local outcry are demanding more.

Kansas City, Missouri, Mayor Quinton Lucas says more changes will come over time.

“Every week, every day, there's going to be more work. There's going to be work in meetings. We could be working policies,” Lucas said. “There's going to be work to make sure that we don't make the mistakes of 1968, or 1992 in Los Angeles or 2014 in Ferguson. We want to make sure that we have real steps after this point.”

Southeast Missouri State University Professor Joel Rhodes, who studied the riots for his dissertation, said today’s Black Lives Matter movement could be the “issue that gets us back on the course of completing the civil rights struggle, something we didn’t do 52 years ago.”

However, that won’t happen without support from policymakers, Rhodes said.

“Protest is meant to start the conversation, but that can’t be the end of the conversation. There has to be substantive public policy changes,” Rhodes said.

Cleaver said he believes communities of color will not lose sight of their goal.

“With each passing day, people of color are going to become less tolerant,” Cleaver said.

Spence urged today’s protesters not to lose momentum.

“There’s nothing more powerful than a movement whose time has come, and we’re at that time,” she said. “I say to the young people: Don’t drop the ball, y’all.”

Lucas asked Kansas Citians to find a path to peace.

“You can be pro-Black Lives Matter and support our police. That’s me,” the mayor said. “We should be able to be safe from police aggression. At the same time, police should be able to do their jobs to make sure communities are safe.”

Please join 41 Action News for a half-hour special report on the 1968 Kansas City Race Riots, as we look at what happened back then and the new movement for change now. Tune into KSHB-TV at 6:30 p.m. to watch.