Martin Luther King Jr.

Enforcing equality: Kansas City continues to fight for civil rights

Updated: 2014-01-19T05:37:38Z


The Kansas City Star

At first, Robert and Carrie Cleveland loved their Northland mobile home.

But that was before the rude remarks, the slashed tires and the trampled flowers, before someone planted a “for sale” sign in their yard, before their two sons’ bicycles disappeared, before a resident knocked on their door and — using the worst expletive — said their sons no longer should use the community pool.

Desperate, the Clevelands — he an African-American Army veteran and she a stay-at-home mom of Native American, Irish and German descent — sought help through a toll-free federal housing complaint telephone number they found online.

The intake specialist routed the Clevelands closer to home: City Hall.

Representatives of Kansas City’s Civil Rights Enforcement Division responded using a four-page civil rights ordinance, a document that turns 50 years old this April.

In 1964, Kansas City voters narrowly approved the implementation of the measure — then known as the public accommodations ordinance — at a time when some bars and restaurants still didn’t want to serve African-Americans.

In the half century since, protections not likely imagined back then have been added to the ordinance. Today it not only prohibits discrimination based on race, color, sex, national origin and ancestry, but on disability, age, sexual orientation and gender identity.

In recent years, Kansas City civil rights investigators have intervened to help disabled drivers get parking spaces closer to the entrance of their condominiums, protect tenants from the unwanted sexual advances of a landlord, strike down dress code regulations thought to discourage African-American and Hispanic residents from patronizing a downtown entertainment district, and remove a section from city employment applications demanding that job seekers list past criminal convictions.

The division’s six staff members have little downtime. From January 2013 through last week, they had looked into 158 employment complaints, 58 housing cases and 11 public accommodations issues.

Intake specialists determine whether a caller fits a “protected category.” Cases, once opened, must be documented. If a caller complains of discrimination based on a disability, that disability must be verified.

A recent advertising campaign, “Discrimination: Report It! Don’t Ignore It,” prompted an increase in calls. Now the office receives up to 40 inquiries per month, with some calls coming from Lee’s Summit, Leavenworth and elsewhere. Those individuals are referred to the closest appropriate agency.

“Based on human nature, there will always be a need for civil rights investigators,” said Phillip Yelder, director of the city’s Human Relations Department, including the civil rights division.

These days, discrimination can be far more covert than in 1964.

“Some people just find a way around the rules,” said Mickey Dean, a lawyer who led the division for 20 years before retiring in December. “You just don’t see the overt stuff they fought against in 1964.”

Then again, there’s the discrimination the Clevelands described.

It began in June 2010.

The Clevelands signed a rent-to-own agreement at a mobile home complex, thinking they ultimately could buy the home and move it to other property. They also liked the school district for their two sons.

The harassment, they said, began right away. It accelerated, they said, to include a YouTube video, posted by a teenager at the complex who threatened physical violence against the older son.

“That was pretty much all I could take,” said Carrie Cleveland.

But there were financial issues to consider. The Clevelands grew upset that the complex wouldn’t address serious, even dangerous, maintenance issues, such as water that kept dripping through a ceiling light fixture. They told their sons not to touch the light switch, and they plugged in lamps for light. The Clevelands began withholding rent payments over the issue, but soon the complex took them to court for not paying.

As much as the Clevelands wanted to leave, they didn’t want to forfeit their investment in the unit.

Carrie Cleveland grew sufficiently stressed that she sought a therapist.

“I told Robert, ‘Can we please get out of here?’ ” she said.

Thomas Randolph, a Kansas City civil rights investigator, mediated the dispute.

“We stopped investigating when the parties agreed to resolve the matter,” said Randolph, today interim manager of the civil rights division.

According to the Clevelands, the settlement forgave their back rent payments, returned their security deposit and also included a small amount for pain and suffering. The approximately $2,000 received, they said, helped with moving expenses and the deposit needed in finding a new home.

“I didn’t know how much power we would have,” said Robert Cleveland. “Being so far up north, I thought we lived in one of the lost areas of Kansas City.

“But Thomas was there for us.”

Randolph, meanwhile, said he was just glad his office learned of the dispute.

“We don’t know about such cases unless people call us,” he said.

The Kansas City Council approved an ordinance prohibiting racial discrimination in 1963.

But tavern owners challenged it and gathered enough signatures to force the measure to a vote.

In March 1964, city election officials announced that 5,000 new voters had been registered or reinstated after a campaign supporting the ordinance. Of those, 80 percent were African-American.

On April 7, 1964, residents approved the ordinance by just 1,743 votes — a slim 50.9 percent majority.

Alvin Brooks, then the head of the Kansas City chapter of the Congress of Racial Equality, declined to take anyone’s word regarding its enforcement.

Working with volunteers both black and white, Brooks helped document how some bar and restaurant operators tried to skirt ordinance requirements. In some instances, managers standing at the front door would tell black patrons they were right at the fire marshal’s limit, Brooks said.

“But then some of our white friends would go around back, and they would be let in through the back door,” Brooks said. “Or if there was a $5 cover charge, they would charge black men $10,” he said.

In 1968, Brooks became head of the city’s Human Relations Department, which the city had established one month after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr.

In the decades since, the discrimination investigated often has proved more diverse.

• In 2002, the civil rights division investigated a Kansas City landlord who, federal lawyers later argued, violated the Fair Housing Act over 10 years by groping and demanding sex from low-income tenants in exchange for free rent or faster home repairs.

Two years later, a federal jury ordered the landlord and his wife to pay $1.1 million to 11 former tenants.

• In 2007, the division settled a fair housing complaint involving residents of the San Francisco Tower condominium complex at Crown Center.

Two residents said they had been denied a handicapped parking space within what they considered a reasonable walking distance to the entrance. Once, when the man parked closer to the entrance, his car was towed.

Division personnel investigated and determined that the couple’s request had been reasonable. After negotiations, the couple received a $10,000 settlement as well as a closer parking space. Condominium management also agreed to add 11 disability parking spaces and develop a new policy for assigning such spaces. A representative of the condominium complex could not be reached for comment.

• In 2009, the city filed a discrimination complaint concerning dress codes being enforced by Cordish Co., the operator of the Power & Light District.

Division investigators believed the code — which enforced restrictions against excessively baggy clothing, undershirts, sweatshirts and athletic attire — was not uniformly applied and served to limit access by African-Americans and Hispanics.

The Kansas City Council prohibited businesses in taxpayer-subsidized developments from using dress codes to arbitrarily deny access to patrons. It also allowed some clothing, such as large necklaces on men, that previously had been prohibited.

“In the last two years, we have not had any complaints regarding the dress codes,” said Yelder.

During the controversy, Cordish representatives denied racial discrimination in enforcement of the district’s dress code.

• In 2013, the Kansas City Council voted to “ban the box” on the city’s job applications. Dean drafted the ordinance, supported by several Kansas City area organizations. The measure removed the box that applicants had been asked to check if they had a criminal conviction.

“It seemed clear that when that box was checked, applicants didn’t get much further on their job searches,” Yelder said.

By approving the measure, Kansas City joined the more than 50 cities that have endorsed similar ordinances.

Despite the years of fighting civil rights battles, allegations of discrimination have remained steady. A 2011 study tabulated 577 housing discrimination complaints logged across the larger Kansas City metropolitan area over a five-year period and found that 60 percent originated in Kansas City.

The study also cited confusion as to what offices were available to respond to such situations.

To that end, the city’s civil rights division also devotes staff time to training, instructing members of housing associations and neighborhood groups in the intricacies of discrimination law.

That training is free.

“We’re not here just to be big brother,” said Randolph. “We are here to provide information.”

Finding help

To reach the Kansas City Human Relations Department, call 816-513-1836 or go to

Podcasts of a weekly radio show featuring civil rights division staff investigators can be found there.

To reach Brian Burnes, call 816-234-4120 or send email to To reach Glenn E. Rice, call 816-234-4341 or send email to

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