By Matt Hamblen
Fifty years ago, Martin Luther King Jr. was shot and killed on April 4, 1968, in Memphis, Tenn. Following his death, riots broke out in 37 U.S. cities, including Kansas City, Mo., where I grew up.
During four days of rioting in KC, from April 9 -12, six African-Americans were killed, including a 12-year-old boy, making it one of the three deadliest riots in the nation. Hundreds of businesses were looted and burned, and dozens of people were injured. Police and the National Guard were called in. The rioting finally spent itself out after four days, partly because the weather grew cold.
I was born in KC, and was 13 at the time of King’s assassination. I was baptized at First Baptist Church on Linwood Boulevard, near where the riots caused their worst damage along a four-block area of Prospect Avenue on the east side of the city. A half century later, I took a trip back to the neighborhood, partly to see what I have learned. Or, what I still have to learn.
My family knew the Prospect neighborhood well because we often drove to church from suburban, all-white Raytown to attend services. Those jaunts started from the time I was age four. We drove in for Sunday services and Wednesday night dinners almost every week. A couple of times, my older sisters attended Friday night dances held at the church. The dances were created to invite young people to church, as part of an outreach to the increasingly black neighborhood.
My mother, Lois Brown Hamblen, and her parents had been long-time members of First Baptist, an American Baptist Church with progressive leanings. It was natural to want to attend there, even though the church was miles from home. My father, Delbert Hamblen, was a church deacon and usually drove us to church together as a family. We would take the drive along Linwood, partly to enjoy the beauty of the tree-lined boulevard. We’d open the car windows on hot summer days and listen to pop music on the radio.
I loved First Baptist with its huge U-shaped sanctuary and long hallways where we could wander. There was a loving community there. I made friends with others my age, including Winston Frazier, who we all called the Negro kid in my Sunday School class. He lived around the block from church. I envied him for being able to walk to church. His mom, Naomi, was what my mom and dad called a quiet Christian. They truly admired her.
The riots in KC didn’t start right after Dr. King’s death, so we attended Palm Sunday services on April 7. Then, on April 9, hundreds of high school students in Kansas City walked out of classes to protest that schools hadn’t been canceled as a tribute to Dr. King. Students across the state line in Kansas City, Kansas, had been let out. The students marched and then protested at City Hall. They were confronted by police and then tear gas. When the confrontation turned to full riots, buildings burned.
My family knew of the rioting from WHB radio, but we still assumed it would be safe to drive into church for our regular Wednesday night dinner on April 10. When we got within several blocks of church, my dad brought our Impala to a sudden stop. Pointing to the sky red with flames, he said calmly, “I guess we’re not going to church tonight.”
Two days later, the rioting subsided. On the Saturday before Easter, my father drove me to church to view the neighborhood damage. We drove slowly up Olive Street between our church on the right and a Methodist Church on the left. Many of the windows on the Methodist church had been blown out, with glass strewn across the street and onto the sidewalk near First Baptist. My dad told me to walk carefully, but there was so much glass underfoot that we both returned to the car and drove off. The next day, Easter service was canceled. Even so, some families showed up to worship.
According to the stories that followed the riot, many of the beautiful churches along Linwood were damaged, their large stained-glass windows destroyed, while First Baptist was largely spared. Some church members claimed that First Baptist was not heavily damaged because a few of its members were black, including Naomi Frazier and her son, Winston, still a member today.
First Baptist also had a black sextant, James, who was said to have convinced rioters to leave the building undamaged, threatening to use a gun on them. I never knew James as the kind of man who would have a gun, much less threaten anybody with it. He was a favorite of my younger sister, Martha, and would welcome us by name with a smile every time we climbed the steep steps to attend services.
Our church might also have benefited during the riots from some impromptu political engagement with the black community. During one Sunday morning church service I attended before the riots, a small group of Black Panthers quietly walked into the sanctuary, then one man proceeded onto the dais. The man, wearing black clothes and a signature Black Panther beret, whispered with our minister. Our entire congregation sat stunned and watched them both standing on the dais as they frantically exchanged quiet words with each other. After a minute, the man in the beret left the dais, and his group left the sanctuary. Our minister simply explained he had agreed to meet with the group later. The intrigue was over. We sang a hymn.
In the years since the riots, I have visited the old First Baptist building several times. It is now the home of Metropolitan Missionary Baptist Church. The members of First Baptist moved to a new building on the south side of KC, in the Red Bridge area. The decision to move and buy the land was made before the riots. Still, for more than a decade after the riots, my parents would drive with me to the old Linwood Boulevard location of First Baptist to attend services, never wanting to give up on it or give up on the neighborhood. The church held onto the two locations for years, paying to maintain two buildings.
This spring, on my trip to KC from my home in Virginia, I attended a Sunday service at the Red Bridge location. Of the five clergy on staff, four are now black or Hispanic, including two women. Many of the members are African-American. Winston still attends services and helps out as an usher and with other jobs, I was glad to see. He gets there from miles away by using the public bus, but sometimes catches a ride with a church friend.
Of all the harrowing events that took place in that spring of 1968, the most shocking to me personally happened at my all-white junior high school. One day after the riot, I bragged during a class discussion on race relations about how I attended an integrated church in Kansas City. I was proud to go there.
That afternoon, as I left the school to walk home, I was surrounded in the parking lot by a group of about 10 white boys and girls, including one boy from my class. They pointed at me and chanted over and over, “Nigger-lover, nigger-lover.” I panicked and ran off. They are idiots, I repeated in my head.
. . .
Dr. King’s death and the riots of 1968 were wrenching and complex. The events come back to me often, certainly every spring. They were brought into perspective by a remarkable public event attended by hundreds of people on March 26, 2018, at the KC Public Library Plaza Branch. My sister DeAnna convinced me to join her.
There, a screening of a documentary short on the riots was shown, followed with comments by people who had actually experienced the riots first hand– Mayor Sly James, Congressman Emanuel Cleaver, community activist Alvin Brooks and Linda Spence, a Central High School student in 1968. Also on the panel was Clarence Gibson, a white KC police officer, recently retired. He questioned why police needed to throw tear gas as they had at an early point in the ’68 student protests.
A photo was shown of a line of riot police in KC from 1968 wearing helmets and holding batons. It was strikingly similar to another photo shown of Ferguson, Mo., riot police wearing helmets and batons to quell unrest after the fatal shooting of Michael Brown in 2014. “What has changed?” several people said aloud. One man shouted, “Why isn’t there a memorial to the six who died?”
The next day, Mayor James delivered his seventh State of the City address, calling attention to the renaissance happening throughout the city of 450,000. The packed event was held in a beautiful auditorium inside the restored Westport Junior High that had sat empty for two decades. Elsewhere, the city expects to expand a successful modern streetcar line southward to the UMKC campus and rebuild KC International far to the north of the downtown. A new airport will be essential if KC hopes to host soccer’s 2026 World Cup, James warned.
In a remarkable speech, the mayor also decried the 149 murders in KC in 2017. He condemned continuing low reading scores of the city’s public school third graders. He called for common-sense guns laws. He praised a group of teenagers in the audience for organizing a March for Our Lives protest in KC. As he read the names of each of the organizers, they stood and received a rousing ovation. Some in the crowd cheered. Many had tears in their eyes.
After his address, I attended a short news conference with the mayor. He smiled as he sported his signature bowtie, shaking hands with each of us. One reporter asked whether the mayor agreed with retired Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens on the need to repeal the Second Amendment. “I’m not anti- Second Amendment, I’m anti-stupid,” James said, repeating his call for commonsense reforms and local gun control.
Another reporter asked bluntly, “What’s the biggest problem Kansas City faces?” With a troubled look on his face, the mayor halted and said he doesn’t usually look at the world that way, but then offered: “Crime…And race.” As a reporter, I have covered many mayors, but none so frank.
Mayor James had said the night before that the city’s schools have suffered since the 1968 KC riot and jobs are hard for many to come by. “I can’t say [a riot] won’t happen again, although people are more collaborative now,” he told the crowd.
James left me wondering what I’ve learned from 50 years ago. The first thing that comes to my mind is Winston.
I got to see him at his job on the morning before the library event, hoping I could invite him to attend it with me that evening. He works at a McDonald’s a couple of blocks from where he lives. He rides the bus most places, including to church. He doesn’t own a cell phone, and says he doesn’t want to. He remembers me clearly every time we chat, which isn’t often enough. I moved away at age 18 to college, family and jobs, but Winston stayed put. He speaks gently and smiles. As we talk, he laughs that he’s older than the other workers at McDonald’s—even the managers.
I’d interrupted him as he busily wiped down counters and tables. Still, he wanted to stand and chat, the way friends sometimes do. He apologized that he wouldn’t be able to join me later that day. We shook hands and I left.
More than 50 years ago, Winston and I were sitting together in Sunday school class when we were 11 or 12 years old. One of the other boys was horsing around and ran from the class. As the boy pushed hard on the door to leave, his hand broke through a glass pane in the door, nicking an artery in his wrist. Blood spurted from the cut. Our teacher grabbed paper towels to wrap around his wrist. “Let’s get to the hospital!” she told us both.
The teacher, the boy, Winston and I hurried from the basement classroom and through the cavernous church, then quickly walked the sidewalk to the emergency room at St. Joseph’s Hospital, just a couple blocks away. When the four of us arrived, the teacher sent the two of us back to find the boy’s parents and explain where he was. Winston knew who they were. I had no idea.
Five decades on, I’m sure Winston understands the spring of 1968 better than I do—and what it still means. Better than most, probably. The student protests started after officials refused to cancel classes to honor Dr. King one day 50 years ago, but the riots came out of things darker and deeper. It has taken me a long time to put it in perspective. There’s something to that idea that every person and every thing are connected: me to Winston, to KC, to First Baptist, to my own wife and children. I’d like to see a memorial to the six who died, but I’d prefer a memorial to friendship.