Has Kansas City improved for African Americans since Martin Luther King Jr.’s death?

The Kansas City riots of 1968, revisited

In 2008, Dave Helling retraced the events of April 9-10 1968 in Kansas City, as residents protested in the wake of the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. By the end, six people were killed.
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In 2008, Dave Helling retraced the events of April 9-10 1968 in Kansas City, as residents protested in the wake of the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. By the end, six people were killed.

African Americans in Kansas City and the region have made significant progress in the 50 years since the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated.

But there is still work to do if Kansas City wants to accomplish King’s goals of economic and social justice for all.

Achieving those aims won’t be easy. The work will go on for generations. Here are some places to start:

Public safety. Kansas City is unsafe. Officials must stem the rising tide of homicides in Kansas City, which has been in the top 10 for worst homicide rates among major cities.

From a historic low of 82 in 2014, the number rose to 111 in 2015, 131 in 2016 and at least 150 last year, the most recorded in the city in 24 years. As of Wednesday, the city had 30 homicides in 2018, two more than at this same point a year ago. Nearly 70 percent of homicide victims in 2017 and 53 percent of the homicide victims so far this year have been African American.

Waving a magic wand will not lower the crime rate, but the city must address the general discord that exists between minorities and police. Greater transparency and accountability could improve cooperation.

Education. The quality of public education in the city must improve as well. Kansas City Public Schools continue to face challenges resulting from past strife, with constant change, infighting and a dwindling population adding to the district’s woes.

The desegregation efforts of the 1980s and 1990s brought needed improvements to city schools, but fell short on their own terms: The student population in city schools remained overwhelmingly black.

We now know that wasn’t a failure. It showed Kansas Citians they needed to focus on the quality of education, defined by outcomes and progress, instead of just the district’s racial composition.

Charter schools have become popular among families living in the city, essentially competing with public schools for students. Counting district and charter schools, the Kansas City public school landscape is jam-packed with 82 public elementary, middle and high schools in an area populated with about 26,000 school-age children.

It would be a disservice to King’s legacy not to improve educational opportunities for that many children, even if it means higher taxes to fund schools and pay teachers a competitive wage.

Housing. The lengthy debate over taxpayer subsidies for downtown luxury apartments — and the need for more affordable housing downtown — has obscured the larger issue of substandard housing in the area.

That has to change. There is no bigger issue facing the region than the lack of quality, low- and moderate-cost housing.

Kansas City now understands the housing mistakes it made in the years after King’s assassination. Poor families are not always crowded into low-income public apartments, for example.

But pockets of homes in disrepair dot East Side neighborhoods, and parts of Kansas City, Kan. Former Unified Government Mayor Mark Holland told us declining housing stock is one of his community’s biggest challenges.

Housing must be a major metro-wide focus during the next year. Kansas City will spend more money on housing rehab this year, a welcome development. But it must also work on tougher rules for landlords, including an inspection fee.

Some council members believe in a carrot-and-stick approach: incentives for building better housing, punishments for developers who fail to maintain properties. They’re on the right track.

The eviction crisis is real and contributes to other central city problems. It must be addressed.

Leon Stapleton, 90, opened his grocery store following the 1968 Kansas City riots. With hard work, old-fashioned customer service and dedication to helping others, Leon’s Thriftway remains open today.

Employment. More than 30 percent of African Americans in Kansas City live below the poverty level, even in a time of relatively strong employment.

That suggests the problem isn’t the lack of jobs in the minority community; it’s the lack of good-paying jobs and careers.

There are some easy steps to address this. Raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour, over time, would be a start.

But the region must do more.

Three out of four jobs here do not require a four-year college degree, but they do require some type of certification. Education funds must be targeted to provide that “gap” training between high school and college, and re-training if needed.

The region must also focus on a seamless, integrated approach to transportation and child care. Employers can’t find needed workers, and workers can’t find jobs because it’s still far too complicated to get to work and watch the children.

“We need a 21st-century system,” said Clyde McQueen, head of the regional Full Employment Council. “All that stuff has got to be on the same railroad.”

Economic development. Each year, the Kansas City region spends millions of dollars providing subsidies and incentives for businesses to build or relocate.

Those subsidies are a problem under any circumstance. But they’re a particular concern when they’re handed out indiscriminately, instead of being targeted to specific neighborhoods and populations.

Subsidies should be returned to their original purpose: to provide incentives for growth in disadvantaged areas. Businesses that want to build on cheap farmland on the outskirts of Kansas City should do so on their own dime.

Kansas City must also use its spending muscle to grow minority-owned businesses. That’s why the airport project must include training and financial aid for minority business owners, not just an opportunity to join the project.

We’re confident King would have endorsed a push to build minority wealth in Kansas City, not just one-time cash grants and contracts.

Jail reform. According to analysis from Economic Policy Institute, the share of African Americans nationally in prison or jail almost tripled between 1968 and 2016.

In 1968, African Americans were about 5.4 times as likely as whites to be in prison or jail. Today, African Americans are 6.4 times as likely as whites to be incarcerated.

African Americans make up the majority of the population at the Jackson County Detention Center. The derelict building needs to be replaced, Jackson County Sheriff Mike Sharp said.

As Jackson County Executive Frank White has said, alternatives to incarceration could be considered as most of the detention center’s 1,000 inmates are awaiting trial.

Even under the scrutiny of the law, inmates and detainees deserve to be housed in humane conditions.

As clergy such as King have said, faith without works is dead. Kansas City has worked on its discrimination problem, and it has had an impact.

But as King also said, “We must never allow ourselves to become satisfied with unattained goals. We must always maintain a kind of divine discontent.” In that spirit, Kansas City must more forward to address discriminatory policies that have affected the ascension of African Americans for decades.