Above: photo by Jim Barcus
The Kansas City Filmmaker and Musical Artist Received a 2019 Rocket Grant for a Film about Slain KC Civil Rights Leader Leon M. Jordan
Emiel Cleaver has used his video production skills to educate and enlighten by casting a light on Kansas City’s rich, yet complex, Black history. In addition to a critically acclaimed documentary on the Black political organization, Freedom Incorporated, Cleaver has produced documentaries on Bruce R. Watkins and the historic First Baptist Church in Kansas City, Kansas. His resume also includes mini-documentaries and even his own music, including hip hop videos on Youtube.
Cleaver, who earned a Master of Arts from the University of Missouri-Kansas City with an emphasis on film production and Black studies, received a 2019 Rocket Grant of $6,000 to assist in the completion of “A Legacy of Leadership,” a documentary on legendary Kansas City civil rights figure Leon M. Jordan. Rocket Grants, a partnership of the Charlotte Street Foundation and the Spencer Museum of Art, are funded by The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts.
Born in Kansas City in 1905, Jordan rose through the ranks from police officer to detective and lieutenant (the first Black lieutenant in department history) to the position of 14th Ward Democratic committeeman. In 1964 he was elected to the Missouri House of Representatives, serving until he was assassinated July 15, 1970, outside the Green Duck Tavern, which he owned and operated.
Jordan’s assassination was unsolved for more than 40 years. At the time of his death he was the most powerful black politician in the entire state of Missouri. A 2010 investigation by “The Kansas City Star” concluded the killing was the result of a conflict between Freedom Incorporated, which Jordan co-founded with Bruce R. Watkins, and the organized crime group La Cosa Nostra. No one served time in jail for Jordan’s murder.
Cleaver believes Leon Jordan “paved the way for a lot of the elected officials we have in Kansas City today,” and wants the younger generation to know the struggle and sacrifices that were made by people like Jordan. “Before Leon Jordan and other members of Freedom Incorporated,” he said, “politics in our community were controlled by outside forces who were not concerned about the Black community.”
Cleaver learned a lot about Leon Jordan through his work on the documentary “Freedom is Now” in 2012. He found Jordan’s story so fascinating that he knew his next project would be a documentary on him.
This side of Kansas City’s history has not been widely known, but Cleaver hopes to bring awareness by getting “A Legacy of Leadership” on television. “When I tell some people that I’m working on a documentary about Leon Jordan, the first thing they ask is, ‘Who was that?’” he said. “So it’s important to get his story out there and other stories like his.”
Leon Jordan was not just a historic figure in Kansas City. He was recognized both statewide and nationwide. “Public accommodations were passed here in Kansas City before they were signed into law by President Lyndon Johnson,” Cleaver said. “So it’s very important that people know his legacy and how he helped change politics in Missouri.”
Cleaver notes that with racial issues front and center in the national dialogue, people can benefit by knowing about past leaders who created change by shining a spotlight on the issues. “I think the country has always been politically and racially charged,” he said. “It’s just now more people are paying attention. Leaders like Leon Jordan were the ones who started educating the community and getting people organized and more interested in politics.”
Cleaver said the Rocket Grant enabled him to get the project started by helping pay for equipment — he is shooting the film with digital single-lens reflex cameras — and for contractors on the production side.
This documentary strikes a personal note with Cleaver. “I’ve been wanting to do this documentary since 2012,” he said. “I think that everyone in Kansas City should know who Leon Jordan was.”
Cleaver plans to release the film in July in conjunction with the 50th anniversary of Leon Jordan’s death.