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Civic: An essay by Charles E. Coulter

The term “freedom,” the historian Eric Foner notes, has been used by Americans to convey and claim legitimacy for a variety of grievances and hopes.

It is, he notes, “the central term” of Americans’ political vocabulary and the contests to determine its meaning — what rights does freedom entail, who gets to enjoy freedom? — have driven much of the change in American society.

The battles have been played out in voting booths and boardrooms, picket lines and bedrooms. The term resonates with young and old, white and black, rich and poor. Americans’ battle for freedom started in the 18th century and continues today.

Looking back across 125 years of civic life in Kansas City, two pivotal moments stand out in the quest to define freedom:

■ The 1940 election that marked the beginning of the end of the Pendergast machine’s rule, and

■ The protest by 12 black and four white members of the Congress of Racial Equality at Fairyland Park in August 1963 that helped prod passage of a broader public accommodations ordinance the following spring. Although it might not have been voiced by the participants at the time, the idea of freedom was implicit in their actions.

So what was freedom like?

In the 1940 election, Kansas Citians celebrated freedom from the more than two decades’ rule of political boss Tom Pendergast. Pendergast took over operation of the Democratic machine in the 1910s after the death of his brother, Jim. By the mid-1920s this was truly Tom’s Town. Through a combination of election fraud, bribery, violence, political corruption and criminal connections, Pendergast held the reins of power in the city.

Under Pendergast, opposition members of the Democratic Party and voters in the Republican Party lost a fundamental American freedom: The right to vote and to have that vote counted honestly and fairly.

Pendergast’s machinations had made a mockery of most elections. But resistance to Pendergast seemed futile and dangerous. In the bloody 1934 election, four persons were shot to death near the polls in factional disputes.

Change started in 1939. Pendergast was sentenced to 15 months in Leavenworth for tax evasion. His many associates in city government were left unprotected, and one by one they were displaced.

For the machine, the 1940 election was a disaster. The Pendergast faction elected only one district councilman. A reform mayor, John B. Gage, was swept into office along with seven city councilmen and two municipal judges. For the first time since 1926, the machine had lost a city election.

Support for freedom was widespread. Gage carried all of the wards south of 31st Street and east of Indiana Avenue. Flavel Robertson, the machine’s candidate, won all of the older wards closer to downtown with one exception — the 4th Ward, which held the heart of Kansas City’s African-American community. Given a choice between patronage and principle, black voters chose a new kind of freedom.

That would go unnoticed outside of the black community at the time. But much was made of the contributions of Kansas City’s women to the cleanup campaign. Tapping into domestic imagery, the women took brooms as a symbol, as if to sweep out bad government.

In a front-page story, The Star noted: “The brooms did it — the brooms and the women behind them. The women’s division with the broom as its cleanup emblem put the biggest punch into the drive that carried the United Campaign to a victory. Even the machine said it could handle everything but the women.” Some 6,000 women made the personal and financial sacrifices necessary to reclaim freedom for the entire city, working the telephones and inconspicuously in the wards and precincts.

Twenty-three years later, the 16 members of CORE struck another blow for freedom.

They were not the first to challenge segregation in Kansas City. As early as 1928, black auto dealer Homer B. Roberts and three friends attempted unsuccessfully to play on the whites-only city golf course in Swope Park. Roberts’ challenge, which he threatened to take to the Supreme Court, was unsuccessful. In 1961, 35 persons organized by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People were arrested when they blocked the entrance to Fairyland Park to protest its segregated policies.

The popular amusement park at 75th Street and Prospect Avenue allowed black people to attend just one day a year — often at the end of the summer. Owners of the park had obtained an injunction against protests after the 1961 sit-in, and signs at the park declared: “We reserve the right to refuse admittance to anyone.”

The owners of Fairyland Park, however, were fighting a rearguard action against sweeping changes in the country.

In February 1960, students at all-black North Carolina A&T started a series of sit-ins that led to the desegregation of lunch counters in Greensboro. Other sit-ins followed; by the end of February, protests against segregated facilities were occurring in 30 communities in seven states across the South. By the end of 1961, sit-ins and similar protests had been held from Houston to Xenia, Ohio, to Philadelphia. Slowly the doors to public facilities were being opened to black men and women, doors that had been closed for more than 50 years.

That didn’t deter the management at Fairyland Park.

“This is a private park, and it is segregated,” the park’s manager claimed.

The 16 protesters — 11 women, five men — disagreed.

On Aug. 20, 1963, they first tried to pay their 10 cents admission at the ticket counter, but were rebuffed. Undeterred, they walked into the center of the park and bought tickets for the rides. Some of the protesters even rode one of the rides before police arrived.

At that point, they dropped to the ground and refused to move. It took 12 police officers to carry the protesters out of the park.

The goal of the protest, one of the CORE members said, was to persuade the city and the state to pass laws prohibiting discrimination in public accommodations. Soon the protesters got their wish, at least on the city level.

The month after the protest, the Kansas City Council approved a broader accommodations ordinance.

But some white property owners, fearful of the effect of desegregation, forced a referendum on the issue.

By a margin of just 1,743 votes, voters in Kansas City upheld the ordinance extending equal treatment to all individuals in places of public accommodation.

The voter turnout for the special election was the highest in city history, except for a 1950 school bond issue.

Even then, freedom did not come easily.

The ordinance was supported in just nine of the city’s 24 wards. Only overwhelming support in three predominantly black wards on the East Side and three predominantly white wards carried the measure.

Nevertheless, Kansas City’s African-Americans had gained a new measure of freedom, just as the reformers had in the 1940s. They had changed the public face of Kansas City forever.

Charles Coulter is a former opinion page editor and member of the Editorial Board of The Kansas City Star. A native of Tulsa, he holds a bachelor's degree in journalism from the University of Oklahoma and a master's degree in history from the University of Missouri-Kansas City. His book, Take Up the Black Man's Burden: Kansas City's African American Communities, 1865-1939," was published by the University of Missouri Press.