UMKC Libraries Presents ‘The Story of the 1968 Uprising in Kansas City’

An iconic photograph of Bruce R. Watkins, after whom the Cultural Heritage Center is named. Watkins was the first Black man elected to the Kansas City City Council (1963), and founded the intermediary organization Freedom, Inc. with Leon M. Jordan. (UMKC LaBudde Special Collections)

April 4, 1968, ripped through the hearts of Americans. Shortly after 6 p.m., civil rights icon Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated as he stood on his second-floor balcony right outside his room at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee.

An online exhibit presented by UMKC Libraries highlights the eight days following the assassination of Dr. King and its effect on Kansas City. “Eight Days in April: The Story of the 1968 Uprising in Kansas City” was created in partnership with the Bruce R. Watkins Cultural Heritage Center and Museum and Prospect Business Association, with funding from a $2,020 grant from the Missouri Humanities Council. Featuring historical photos, audio recordings and news clippings drawn from the UMKC LaBudde Special Collections and Marr Sound Archives, the exhibit is free and can be found at library.umkc.edu/exhibits/uprising through May 14.

The exhibit opens with a black and white photograph, “Crowds run from tear gas at City Hall, April 1968” with the accompanying text: “This did not begin on April the 9th, or April the 8th, or even April the 4th as the title of this exhibit suggests. What we hope to communicate on these panels is the story of the Uprising, and the culture and environment of oppression that led to it.”

There is an uncanny parallel between the events in 1968 and today. The materials in the exhibit cover topics such as police brutality, divisiveness, economic disparities and more.

One of the most critical factors leading up to the social unrest prior to the 1968 events was redlining, described as “a discriminatory practice by which banks, real estate and insurance companies limit or refuse loans within specific geographic areas, especially those that are predominantly Black.”

Kansas City is still facing a redlining problem with an additional gentrification element. For years, Troost has been known as a prominent dividing line straight down the middle of Kansas City. Troost has been deemed a “ghetto area,” but in fact, it is not given the same funding and resources as other areas in Kansas City such as Brookside or the Plaza area.

The exhibit takes us through the many events in Kansas City that occurred following the assassination. Students organized a teacher approved walkout and march from Wyandotte High to Sumner High School to City Hall April 9. It was only a short time before the true unrest began. After a student threw a pop bottle across the police line, police responded immediately with tear gas and Phase II of the Tactical Alert, which led to property damage, hundreds of arrests, injuries and ultimately six people dead.

Fast forward to summer of 2020 in Kansas City, when some police officers responded to Black Lives Matter protests with the same tactics used in 1968, including rubber bullets. Hundreds of people were unnecessarily arrested and tear gassed in protests that were largely peaceful.

In addition to chronicling the events of 1968, the exhibit drops back to examine earlier protests addressing racist practices by Kansas City’s department stores and Swope Park Pool segregation. Texts, images and audio recordings bring the history of racism in Kansas City vividly to life.

“Eight Days in April” is not only a source of valuable untaught history but provokes reflection on the persistence of systemic racism in Kansas City and the pressing need for change.

The exhibition will be presented at the Bruce Watkins Center when it is safe to open to the public.


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