The Great Civil Rights Activists of Kansas City

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NAACP, civil rights, George Washington Carver Neighborhood Center, Paseo Baptist Church, Urban League, Freedom, Inc., Black Archives of Mid America




Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was truly the face, the backbone and spirit of the Civil Rights Movement in the United States. He spoke in Kansas City, Mo. in April of 1957. The city itself was home to many activists and organizations for the betterment of black life; these freedom fighters battled oppression before King’s birth, with him in the trenches, and after his assassination in 1968.


An introduction to some of Kansas City’s influential civil rights activists:


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Nelson “Fuzzy” Thompson

Nelson Thompson worked directly with Martin Luther King Jr. in his ventures, heavily impacting his later efforts to develop Kansas City’s annual MLK celebration, one of the grandest in the nation. Fondly nicknamed “Fuzzy,” Thompson was a renowned minister and the president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference of Greater Kansas City.  Thompson died Jan. 11, 2015, and will be appropriately honored during the 2015 MLK celebrations across Kansas City. In attendance at his funeral were Mayor Sly James and Congressman Emmanuel Cleaver.


“Wherever freedom could be found jeopardized,” says long-time friend Rev. Sam Mann of United Inner City Services, “Thompson could be found standing.”



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Bernard Powell

This natural-born leader from Kansas City jumpstarted his activist efforts at just 13 when he joined the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). He marched with King and the NAACP in Alabama, later became the director for the Congress of Racial Equality, and played a major role in the establishment of Social Action Committee 20, an organization which set out to educate impressionable African-Americans in skills like leadership. Sadly, like many leaders in the Civil Rights Movement, Powell’s life was claimed by gunshot.


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Roy Wilkins

This mover-and-shaker was born to a pair of former slaves; coupled with the treatment he and black folk faced in the States, Wilkins possessed complex and enthusiastic devotion to the race issue. He moved from St. Louis, Mo., to Kansas City, Mo., to work for the Kansas City Call, a publication for African-Americans. When W.E.B. Dubois left his position as editor for the NAACP publication, Crisis, Wilkins filled his shoes quite successfully. An effective personality with undying dedication, Mr. Wilkins ascended to lead the NAACP in the midst of its most tumultuous time.


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Ester Swirk Brown

Mrs. Ester Brown was an oddity, if you will, in her good works towards racial equality. This white, Jewish housewife and her heart of gold empathized with the African-American mistreatment and segregation and thusly, she made it her mission to make a difference. She knew the ol’ Plessy v Ferguson ruling –“separate but equal” – and understood this was by no means actually in place. Especially in a new South Park school in Johnson County, Kans, where regulations and boundaries had been manipulated to exclude black students. Brown enlisted a team of lawyers to take the issue to court; the filing of Webb v KS attracted the one and only Thurgood Marshall to Brown and her team’s aid. And they succeeded – the South Park school was at the vanguard of integration, allowing the students five full years before national desegregation was set in motion after the Brown v Board of Education case.




Photo courtesy of the Missouri Valley Special Collections
Photo courtesy of the Missouri Valley Special Collections


Ilus Davis

We have to give some love to Ilus Davis. He was the kind of man who joined Kansas City’s black students in a skip-school march the day of Martin Luther King Jr.’s funeral. He was the city’s mayor at the time. He was adamant in adopting the Great Society policies (social programs of President Lyndon B. Johnson – or at least, enacted by him. Predecessor John F. Kennedy started the civil rights reform, but was assassinated in 1963, before it could be introduced) as quickly as possible. To do so, Ilus, a.k.a. “Ike,” developed an entire human relations department in Kansas City. Davis, quite proud of his city’s “unusually peaceful breakdown of racial segregation,” served from 1963 to 1971.




Photo courtesy of the Missouri valley Special Collections
Photo courtesy of the Missouri valley Special Collections


Daniel Arthur Holmes

The Reverend D.A. Holmes also grew up in the home of former slave parents, no doubt a major stimulus in his civil rights activism. Holmes despised the Pendergast politics and brutality of the machine-controlled police and wasn’t afraid to say so – even though speaking out again Boss Tom Pendergast was a dangerous deed. Not only was Holmes a proponent for better jobs and living conditions for black Kansas Citians, he also influenced the integration of the University of Missouri at Columbia, founded the still-running George Washington Carver Neighborhood Center and the Paseo Baptist Church.




Photo courtesy of the Missouri Valley Special Collections
Photo courtesy of the Missouri Valley Special Collections


Horace M Peterson III

After graduating from Central High School in Kansas City, Kan., Peterson joined up with organizations like Freedom Inc., the George Washington Carver Neighborhood Center and the Urban League before founding the celebrated Black Archives of Mid-America.




Photo courtesy of the Missouri Valley Special Collections
Photo courtesy of the Missouri Valley Special Collections


John F Ramos, Jr.

Dr. John Ramos not only aided the cause, but he led by example. An inspirational figure, Ramos was the first board-certified African-American physician to practice in Kansas City. In addition, with the help of the Freedom Inc. organization, Ramos was elected to the Kansas City School Board where he served for many years. Ramos left quite a legacy behind.


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Lucile H. Bluford

As a young woman with journalistic aspirations, Lucile applied to the University of Missouri at Columbia. Upon her acceptance, Bluford went to enroll and was turned away immediately for her skin color – the school denied attendance for black people. Instead, Lucile graduated from the University of Kansas in Lawrence, Kan., and went on to become the editor and publisher of Kansas City’s African-American publication, the Kansas City Call. Years after federal integration in the United States (and quite the successful career), the University of Missouri awarded Bluford an honorary degree, which she accepted gracefully.


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Leon Jordan

Lieutenant Leon Jordan rose as the most influential – and powerful – black man in Kansas City in his time. A member of the city’s police force (and the city’s first black lieutenant), Jordan helped found Freedom Inc., and was elected a congressman for the state of Missouri in 1964 along with Harold Holliday Sr. Both ventured into uncharted waters, this was the debut of African-American elected officials in Missouri. Jordan served three terms. In the running for his fourth, Mr. Jordan was assassinated – his murder is unsolved to this day.


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Chester A. Franklin

Chester Franklin knew Kansas City needed a black voice among the white-run, white-focused publications. In 1919, he founded the Kansas City Call, which would become a celebrated journal in Kansas City. With a lot of help from his “Momma Franklin,” Chester not only closed the communication gap for African-Americans in the city, but he also provided jobs, extensive training, and a new kind of hope.


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Gladys Twine & Ruth Kerford

Mrs. Ruth Kerford: president of the all-female, black social club, the Twin Citians. Gladys Twine: long-time member and spitfire. The Twin Citians were a group of successful working women who enjoyed their shopping at, for example, Kansas City’s Emery, Bird & Thayer department store. The problem? After spending hard-earned money in the store, these women were continually refused service at the Tea Room in the store – and any other in-shop eatery in town. So they could shop, but not eat in the presence of white people? The Twin Citians formed the Community Committee for Social Action (CCSA) and Kerford appointed Twine as its leader. The CCSA confronted department stores (including Macy’s and others) on this issue.