Fifty-three years ago, just days before Holy Week, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated in Memphis, Tennessee, and that traditional week of Christian worship was radically changed. As I prepared for another Holy Week in 2021, I recognized that this is another time when we are going through radical changes and we will never be the same again. What those changes are, we do not yet know but we do know they will affect us and our world for years to come. This reflection on the events and my experience of Holy Week in 1968, is the result of an interview I did on the 50th anniversary of Dr. King’s death in 2018 for a Kansas City Public Radio station.
In 1968, I was in my second year as Canon Pastor of Grace and Holy Trinity Cathedral in downtown Kansas City. The Cathedral was a major parish in The Diocese of West Missouri and an ecumenical meeting place for many of the city’s clergy.
Thursday April 4, 1968
April 4, 1968, was a normal workday for me, starting at 8 a.m. and ending around 5:30 p.m. when I would rush in the door and plop down in front of the television for the evening news. At 6:01 p.m. that evening, the world changed for many in America and was on the verge of changing for me. The regular news was interrupted by a bulletin that Martin Luther King had been shot and killed in Memphis, Tennessee, where he had gone the day before to address a group of workers who were on strike. I have been asked my reaction on that evening and I cannot remember. I think many of us spent the evening in shocked silence.
However, in other American cities, there were riots and protests. As many as 37 riots occurred over the next few days; the largest number on the first couple of days after the assassination. This was not true of Kansas City, Missouri.
Friday, April 5, 1968
When I arrived at the Cathedral on Friday morning, I learned that the Dean had already spoken with members of the Metropolitan Inter Church Agency, the ecumenical organization for the city, and that a memorial service for Dr. King was planned for the following Tuesday morning at the same time as the funeral for Dr. King. I attended the meeting of the group about mid-morning and, since the service would be held at the Cathedral, I spent the rest of that day and most of the next making plans for it. This was in addition to preparations for Holy Week which began with Palm Sunday the next day.
On Friday morning, in Kansas City, Kansas, students declared that they intended to march downtown in honor of Dr. King. The superintendent of schools and the senior black officer of the Kansas City, Kansas, Police Department, met with the students and agreed to shut down the schools and then led the march downtown. After a peaceful march, the group returned to the school and held a memorial service. There was no violence in Kansas City, Kansas, and it was announced that there would be no school on the day of the funeral.
It was quite a different story on the Missouri side. The Superintendent of Schools for Kansas City, Missouri, was out of town and conferred with school officials by phone. There were eight white and three black officials on the call. The African-American members immediately lobbied for closing school, especially on the day of the funeral. Dr. Hazlett, the Superintendent, and the other members of the board were against it. A vote was taken. It was eight to three in favor of keeping the schools open.
On Friday evening, Clarence Kelley, the Kansas City, Missouri, Chief of Police put his units on full alert for violence and the tension in the city began to build. And because Kansas City, like St. Louis, was controlled by a state board rather than a locally elected or appointed one, the city had no say in the decision.
The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, Congress Of Racial Equality, and organizations like the Metropolitan Inter-Church Agency and others announced there would be a march in downtown Kansas City on Palm Sunday beginning at 1 p.m. It was to be announced in the media and at services throughout the city.
Palm Sunday, April 7, 1968
Palm Sunday turned out to be a beautiful, sunny day and an estimated 15,000 people, African-Americans and whites, joined in a peaceful march through the city. In light of the violence that was taking place in other parts of the country, the marchers prided themselves on the peaceful, non-violent nature of the march and on more than one occasion I heard people say, “Violence just doesn’t happen in our city. Just look at this crowd.”
Tuesday of Holy Week, April 9, 1968
On Tuesday morning, the Cathedral was filled to overflowing with people who had come to remember Dr. King. The sanctuary was populated with leaders from all the Kansas City churches. About half-way through the service, I noticed that a woman who was a member of the Altar Guild was standing at the side motioning to me. I joined her and she told me that a member of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People was on the phone and needed to talk with Bishop Spears of the Diocese. I said the service should be over soon. She let me know that they needed him now, that students were beginning to walk out of the schools and they needed the clergy to rush to the scene and try to be of help. I immediately got the Bishop and he came back in and spoke with a few of the people doing the service.
They brought the service to an end and the clergy met briefly. We were told that students were protesting not being able to attend the funeral of Dr. King and were organizing a march to go downtown to protest to the Mayor. The police had already thrown tear gas into groups of students and the anger and tension level was high. The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People believed that the clergy would help bring order into what was becoming a chaotic situation. So the members of the clergy began to head to the scene.
The Rev. Edward Warner, priest of St. Augustine’s Episcopal Church, and I caught a ride with one of the other clergy and ended up meeting the students at 19th and Paseo. There had already been a few instances of tear gas and the anger level was high. Police cars were now stationed at all the cross streets and the officers wore gas masks and some had dogs.
By the time the crowd reached Parade Park, which is about a mile and a half from City Hall, it was stopped by a cordon of police which blocked any further progress and the group was told to turn around and head back. They could go no further. And now the tension really mounted. Leaders had begun to emerge out of the crowd and there was much shouting between them and the police. There were chants of “We March to City Hall.” Finally, Mayor Ilus Davis arrived in a police car. He stepped up on the car and spoke to the crowd. He was sympathetic. One person yelled, “Mayor, are you trying to keep us in the black section of town so the whites won’t see us?” Another said, “What are you going to do, surround us and gas us?”
Finally, the Mayor said, “You will march to City Hall and I’ll march with you.” He got off the car to link arms with the protesters and suddenly two police officers grabbed him by the elbows and put him in the police car and it sped away. It was at this point that chaos took over as protesters broke through police lines and ran up on I70 and towards downtown.
A number of us clergy who were in the crowd ran with them because we realized that traffic was still racing down the Interstate and we were afraid someone was going to get hurt. I remember Bishop Spears, Father Warner and I trying to wave down traffic.
Finally, the students got past I70 and headed for the plaza area between City Hall and the County Court House. Fr. Warner and I joined them there. An impromptu demonstration was held on the steps of City Hall with speakers emerging from the crowd. A couple of hundred demonstrators were there and as the speeches continued, Fr. Warner and I noticed that the law enforcement presence grew. The Kansas City police were joined by Sheriff’s deputies as well as some Missouri State Patrol officers. Almost all wore gas masks and there were the ever-present clubs. Dogs were also in evidence and a few guns could be seen. Ed and I were very worried about the possibility of violence and spoke to a few officers asking them to put the clubs away.
Finally, the speeches were coming to an end. At this point, a local, very popular, DJ came to the steps and said that there was going to be a dance at Holy Name Catholic Church in a bit and he was going to lead it. He said someone had organized a few city buses for those who’d like a ride to the church. Things began to break up, and then it happened.
No one knows exactly what “it” was. Either some student threw a soda bottle into the crowd of police or an anxious policeman threw a tear gas canister. But the police suddenly began to throw tear gas canisters and rushed the crowd using their clubs and the dogs. It was a frightful scene as tear gas began to billow in the plaza area.
Father Warner and I turned to run. Suddenly I realized I was alone and I turned around to see two officers holding Father Warner and frisking him. We were clearly dressed as clergy and had been standing in front of this same group of police just moments earlier. So I ran back and just as I arrived, one of the officers hit Fr. Warner and he went down to the pavement. I yelled, “What was that for? Can’t you see he’s a priest?” And then two officers approached me and hit me across the chest with clubs. I fell onto the grass in front of the county court house and began to crawl across the lawn. As I struggled to breathe, there was no air — only tear gas. And then I heard a young black man say, “A brother’s down!” And I turned to see 4 or 5 young men coming through the clouds of gas. They took my arms and dragged me across the lawn and put me in the back seat of a WDAF news car.
I was in a great deal of pain and could scarcely breathe. The newsman said, “I’ll take you to St. Luke’s Hospital but first we need to drive by Holy Name Church to see what’s happening there.” We arrived at Holy Name and here’s what I saw: Dozens of students had arrived and were moving into the basement of the church where the dance was to be held. Soon the basement was filled to overflowing. Once they were in, one could hear the music. Suddenly, the church was surrounded by police vehicles and police spilled out of them and surrounded the building. They then quickly moved to lock the outside doors to the basement so that no one could get out. And then they began throwing tear gas through the basement windows of the church. The students were trapped inside with the gas.
The newsman took me to the hospital, they x-rayed me, determined I had two fractured ribs, taped them up and then I was taken back to the Cathedral. When I arrived, the Dean’s office had become a sort of command center for the clergy to try to work together to figure out how they could be a helpful presence in all that was happening. By that time, news had got out about my involvement earlier in day.
The Dean pulled me aside and said, “I don’t want to worry you, but you and your family have received several death threats since this news got out. So, I’ve taken the precaution of having your family stay the night with a Cathedral family, and tomorrow we want them to drive down to Monett, Missouri, to stay with your parents.” I was undone. Here I was a twenty-six-year-old with a wife and three little girls and they had been threatened. It seemed so unreal. But it wasn’t and I did not see my family again until a week later.
The Dean explained that he needed me in Kansas City. The mayor had just set a curfew of 7 p.m. in the city and, with the number of expected arrests, there would not be enough room in the city’s jail to house those arrested. Therefore, the Dean had volunteered the Cathedral as a place those who had been arrested could spend the night and not risk getting rearrested later that evening. For the next four nights, we hosted upwards to 50 men a night who had been arrested for curfew violation. We had cots provided by the Salvation Army as well as sandwiches to give people. The police delivered these men in paddy wagons and left them with us. We, of course, would explain that we were not a jail and if they wanted to leave they were welcome to do so. But if they did they risked getting rearrested. Most chose to stay the night. We also contacted a few counselors who spent the nights with us and who interviewed these people who had been arrested about their experiences so we could document any abuses that took place. When I slept it was in a motel room across from the Cathedral.
The curfew was lifted on Good Friday, 1968
The riots in Kansas City during Holy Week of 1968 were some of the worst in the country. Six blacks, including a 12-year-old boy and his father were killed during that time. It was as if Kansas City for many years had been a pressure cooker with the lid tightly secured and it was the death of Dr. King that caused the top to blow off and the steam escape.
“Fifty years later”, the interviewer asked me, “How have things changed?” And my answer is that Dr. King would weep. When I heard people say, after the election of Barack Obama, that we are now living in a “post-racial” age, I could only shake my head with sadness. After living through the events of Ferguson in St. Louis in 2014 and, and watching as young black men continue to be gunned down in the streets of this country, I am not encouraged. We, as a people, are still climbing that mountain of which Dr. King so eloquently spoke and our faith tells us to keep climbing until we see the Promised Land.