Kansas City Mayor Sly James plans to do his part to provide the leadership needed to advance the civil rights work of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.
James recalls that the world was changing as he grew up at 44th Street and Montgall Avenue. King was pushing for equality and opportunity in the civil rights movement and peace in ending the Vietnam War.
James found that he was different and was pulled into King’s larger tapestry. As one of few blacks in Catholic schools, he remembered that the music he liked reflected America’s diversity, and the broad mix of cultures shaped his career and leadership style.
“I found myself explaining to whites what blacks were like and to blacks what whites were like,” James said.
“I found that contact with people who were different from me solved a heck of a lot of problems,” James said.
Visiting his father’s relatives in the South, James came face-to-face with colored-only bathrooms and water fountains, being turned away from hotels and other mistreatment. His friends at school couldn’t understand it. “It wasn’t part of their life,” he said.
But it became a reason for dialogue. James remembered working late with school friends at a factory in 1968 and then going home. King had been assassinated, and Kansas City was occupied by National Guard troops. He and his friends were pulled over and ordered out of the car at gunpoint. James saw it as part of the times.
James graduated from Bishop Hogan High School in 1969 and served in the Marine Corps from 1971 to 1975. There he learned the value of individuals functioning as a unit regardless of color, building skills and relationships.
“It was absolutely essential we all learned to get along, and we did,” said James, who joins others for this column series looking at 50 years of civil rights advances while sharing a vision for the next half-century. “We were all in the same boat.”
Education, which his parents greatly valued, followed the Marine Corps with an undergraduate degree at Rockhurst College in 1980 and then law school where he graduated in 1983 from the University of Minnesota. He started that year at Blackwell Sanders Matheny Weary & Lombardi.
James credits King and others in the civil rights movement for opening doors for him and many African-Americans. “This country, without the work of people like King, wouldn’t be half the country that it is,” said James, who in 2011 became the second African-American to be elected Kansas City mayor.
“I don’t think people understand how big a change he brought about,” James said. “It’s there as a movement to promote equality. He didn’t care what color you were.
“I absolutely loved that. The fact that he was able to mobilize people with words, I found fascinating. He was willing to welcome into his group anybody who believed all people had rights and should be treated fairly. He understood we could not fight for the rights for one group and neglect others.”
It’s on that foundation that leaders of this nation like James must build. We are nowhere close to a post-racial society, where race doesn’t matter.
People of color enjoy more freedoms. Interracial marriages and children are causing racial barriers to fall. James sees that as an opportunity to bring people together in the next 50 years to discuss our history, expectations, dreams and shared concerns.
“It’s time to have reasonable conversations to make sure we don’t jump to conclusions,” James said. “The conversations need to be continuous.”
It’s from the dialogues that better education, economic parity and wealth creation can occur for all. Crime and conflict can be minimized, and collaboration and productivity can grow.
“It’s all about relationships,” James said. “What we’re looking for is we need to continue to build on the coalition that King put together.”
Valuing diversity was King’s goal. It’s James’, too.