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    Posted on Sat, Apr. 05, 2008 10:15 PM

    Riots of 1968 were a watershed moment for KC

    Lee Bohannon (left) and Clarence Gibson were on opposing sides when rioting erupted outside City Hall that contentious day in April 1968. Bohannon was thrust into the role of demonstrators’ spokesman; Gibson was a Kansas City police officer.
    JILL TOYOSHIBA | The Kansas City Star
    Lee Bohannon (left) and Clarence Gibson were on opposing sides when rioting erupted outside City Hall that contentious day in April 1968. Bohannon was thrust into the role of demonstrators’ spokesman; Gibson was a Kansas City police officer.

    Linked by history but separated by the years, two Kansas City residents met again last week.

    Lee Bohannon and Clarence Gibson reminisced about the early 1970s, when Bohannon ran a bakery on Prospect Avenue and Gibson walked a police beat in the Kansas City neighborhood.

    Placing his hand on Gibson’s shoulder, Bohannon said, “Those were wonderful days.”

    The two, however, share another moment in time, a distinctly different one: the Kansas City riots of April 1968.

    Much of the unrest began that April 9, the day of Martin Luther King Jr.’s funeral in Atlanta. That’s when — under circumstances still not clear — Kansas City police deployed tear gas on marchers outside City Hall.

    Bohannon was on the City Hall steps that day, one of several speakers. Gibson, wearing a gas mask, stood perhaps 100 yards away, part of a police line forming just to the south.

    Then the tear gas flew.

    Similar rioting broke out in dozens of U.S. cities after King’s murder on April 4, with nearly 50 deaths nationwide. Kansas City largely had been spared the kind of racial unrest that other big cities had experienced during previous summers, starting with the 1965 Watts riots in Los Angeles.

    Now Kansas City would burn too, with nearly $1 million in damage from arson and looting. Hundreds were arrested.

    Along Prospect Avenue, firefighters ducked from sniper fire. Display windows of downtown department stores were shattered by rocks.

    Today, seven Kansas City area residents share their perspectives on the events of April 9-13, 1968. Some believe the self-examination that followed the riots made Kansas City a better place.

    Perhaps. But that came, most would agree, at too high a cost.

    Lee Bohannon

    It was supposed to be a quick trip for Lee Bohannon that April 9.

    Bohannon, then 23, worked the late shift as a machine adjuster, then drove his younger brother to Manual High School. The last thing on his mind was becoming a focal point of the riots that broke out in Kansas City after the slaying of Martin Luther King Jr.

    Before the day was over, Bohannon would become an unofficial spokesman for the black community, and news anchor Walter Cronkite would call him an “outside agitator.”

    Early in the day, Bohannon encountered a group of students determined to march to memorialize the day King was buried.

    Bohannon parked his car and joined them as they walked toward City Hall.

    He said he was aware of King but was not politically active.

    “Civil rights were not in the picture to me,” said Bohannon, now 63 and a community liaison worker with the Local Investment Commission. “The (labor) union was in the picture; shooting dice was in the picture and drinking was in the picture.”

    Ultimately, tear gas dispersed the crowd at City Hall. The violence that ensued terrified Bohannon. Fearing that police would blame and arrest him for the sweeping violence that left six dead, he went into hiding.

    Forty years later, Bohannon said the events over those several days were life-changing.

    “I became a different person,” he said. “I was never satisfied with what I had done in the past. I felt the need to do things that would help people build a support base for themselves.”

    The unrest also galvanized political and civic leaders throughout the city to take notice and to take decisive action, Bohannon said.

    “It was ‘See what happens when you don’t address certain issues that affect black people,’ ” he said.


    Next page >

    To reach Brian Burnes, call 816-234-7804 or send e-mail to bburnes@kcstar.com. To reach Glenn E. Rice, call 816-234-5908 or send e-mail to grice@kcstar.com.