55th anniversary of the “Kansas City Race Riots”: An interview with Dr. Anthony LaBat on decolonizing language

April memorializes the 55th Anniversary of what is (commonly referred to as) the Kansas City Race Riots that followed the death of Martin Luther King Jr in 1968. The University of Missouri Kansas City’s LaBudde Special Collections has reworked its 1968 Race Riot Collection information to decolonize its language, but is now looking to possibly rename its collection with the community’s help.
April 9th, 1968. Closer aerial shot of the crowd at City Hall; taken from a high floor in the Police Headquarters.
(Photo from “1968 Riot Collection” at LaBudde Special Collections)

This week in April memorializes the 55th Anniversary of (what is commonly referred to as) the Kansas City Race Riots. Following Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination on April 4th, 1968, a series of nationwide protests and memorial services took place. High school students across Kansas City’s state lines followed suit––organizing protests and walk-outs in MLK’s honor from April 5th-8th. Local law enforcement, meanwhile, armed themselves with “tear gas, billy clubs, rifles, pepper spray, and dogs” in preparation to terminate what they defined as ‘civil disturbance’. After a protester threw a bottle across a police line during a City Hall rally (April 9th), police began utilizing brute force against demonstrators–enacting a total mobilization of their police force from the 9th-11th.

As a result of the onslaught, damages reached an estimated $4 million ($29 million today)in costs, six civilians were murdered (all by police), and several people were arrested and/or injured.

Dr. Anthony LaBat is an Operations and Processing Associate at
LaBudde Special Collections hosted at University of Missouri-Kansas City. Learn more >

Thanks to extensive on-scene documentation by community members at the time, audiences can learn about the uprising through a variety of methods–including through The University of Missouri Kansas City’s LaBudde Special Collections. Via their digital collection, Eight Days in April, audiences can view an assortment of primary source materials such as first-hand account interviews, radio broadcasts, news clippings, photographs, and more. These originally were compiled in a 2013 collection known as the “1968 Riot Collection,” but Dr. Anthony J. LaBat has since challenged and updated biased language throughout the original archivists’ retelling of the history.

To this day, the Prospect Corridor still suffers a negative reputation as a result of the Riots and the language surrounding it––a tactic that is reminiscent of right-wing pushes today to ban critical race theory and, in effect, true Black history in schools. Labat is extremely adamant about decolonizing language, and removing evaluative, unethical descriptions from historical retellings.

Now, at the 55th Anniversary of the protests and uprising, UMKC’s Special Collections is reaching out to the Black community of Kansas City to see if the collection should be renamed. Special Collections is encouraging people to fill out this survey to find the best name. (No personal information will be collected from this survey beyond age, racial demographic, and relationship to the events themselves.)

We interviewed Dr. LaBat to learn more in-depth about the Race Riots, why the language we use in recording history is important, and why UMKC’s Special Collections wants further community input on retelling the infamous Eight Days in April.

Can you give a history of what the Riots were to someone who is new to Kansas City and unfamiliar with the history?

April 9th, 1968. Police standing in line in gas masks, visibly armed with tear gas, batons, and riot guns. (Photo from “1968 Riot Collection” at LaBudde Special Collections)

Dr. LaBat: Absolutely. After Dr. King was shot on April 4th, the following weekend there were riots in a lot of cities, there were protests in a lot of cities, there were uprisings in a lot of cities, and Kansas City was one of those cities. 

But the way that it happened for us was there was a series of memorial marches over the weekend. And his memorial service was scheduled for Tuesday, April the 9th. 

Kansas City, Kansas public schools say, “We’re going to close down for the day out of respect.” Kansas City Missouri public schools say, “We’re going to keep schools open because that will keep people from becoming rowdy,” or something. Which if you think about it, in the 1960s, putting people all in the same group was definitely the way to get them to organize. 

This ultimately led to a bunch of walkouts at several schools. What would happen is they would start at––what I believe––was Central High School, and the students would just go around to other schools in the Metro and pick up more students to walk out. They eventually made their way down to 12th and Oak Downtown. By this time, they had been joined by the Chapter President of the NAACP, the Chapter President of the Black Panther Party, and a lot of other civil leaders and social workers, etc. 

At some point when they were listening to people speak, somebody threw a pop bottle over the police line and then the police decided to enact what they call “Tactical Alert Phase II,” which is a complete mobilization of the police force. That was in under five minutes, and they already had it ready to go. That meant they descended upon protesters with tear gas, dogs, billy clubs. 

It was a mess.

And from then on several events happened that makeup what we would call the Riots or Uprisings. But it did start as a protest.

On the night of April 10th, there was a shooting at the Byron Hotel up on 30th and Prospect. It’s in the Prospect Corridor––which is where a lot of this stuff happened. And a lot of people died that night. That’s probably one of the most talked about things. The Byron Hotel hasn’t been up since it’s been torn down. And the Prospect Corridor hasn’t been the same since. Recently we’ve been seeing a revitalization, but because of what happened in 1968, that neighborhood was essentially abandoned.

Can you explain what UMKC’s Collection is?

April 10th, 1968. Six African American men standing on Lincoln High School wall with two white police officers. (Photo from “1968 Riot Collection” at LaBudde Special Collections)

Dr. LaBat: The Collection came to us from Dr. Joseph Hughey. The Kansas City Mental Health Foundation had originally commissioned the project: the writing of a book called, “The Social History of a Riot.” The 1968 Riot Collection that we have is that project––or is at least part of it. The collection is made up of a few sections. There’s the actual manuscript of the book and that makes up the first part. 

Then, we have about 50 oral histories that one of the writers, Robert Bechtel, and some of his other co-collaborators took from witnesses and other folks who were there and knowledgeable of it. So you have a smattering of police officers, and social workers. 

There was a group of people called the Metropolitan Inter-Church Agency who would send out teams of social workers, clergy, and lawyers to people at police outposts to make sure that over 300 arrested people had representation there. So there are people from that in the oral histories as well. Then, on top of that, we have a really extensive collection of photographs that is available digitally. And audio––so police dispatches, interviews, radio broadcasts, and a couple of 8mm films.

What is your relation to the Collection?

Dr. LaBat: I started working with the collection in 2017 because a couple of non-archivists, who were doing programming for [Miller Nichols] Library, did an exhibit on it. We, in special collections, had gotten some feedback about  pro-police bias in the exhibit. I was a graduate student at the time, but I was super curious, so I just went down to the exhibit and I started taking notes.

I started taking notes on things that didn’t seem right, on words that upset me, characterizations I didn’t feel were right… and then also questions, a lot of questions. Eventually through unpacking that feedback, another one of my colleagues, Sandy Rodriguez, and I developed a case study around this in order to develop practices on ethical descriptions. Essentially unpacking implicit biases, word choice, and language, and how that is used to oppress people. We presented that case study and that kind of formed the basis for my familiarity with that. 

We eventually got an opportunity to start a new exhibit from scratch, and so we decided to put our money where our mouth was and do it right from the ground up, so we added infrastructure. One of the problems with the former exhibit was that there was not a lot of infrastructure or support for these people who were not archivists. It is not as if I think all the time people intend to do the harm that they do. Which is fine, it’s not about intention, it’s about impact… so we made the new exhibit. 

Then Covid hit, and we were like, “Now what do we do?” 

So we developed a digital exhibit, which allowed us to put in a lot more resources. 

April 9th, 1968. Bruce R. Watkins leads crowd marching on I-70.
(Photo from “1968 Riot Collection” at LaBudde Special Collections)

I spent even more time with the collection at that point: listening to hours of police dispatch and reading almost every single oral history to compile and choose what to put into this exhibit.

We did also develop guidelines for archival practices moving forward, so that it is not just this isolated thing here. We are using this as a jumping-off point to actually develop policies and practices, and embed them into our system so that things like this don’t happen [again]. And so that we can go back retroactively to other collections and more easily identify problematic things to repair them. “Reparative work” is what it is usually referred to as.

Is there anything you would like to add about how you conducted the reworking of the collection?

Dr. LaBat: There two main goals for our project page, which were to mitigate unintended harms caused by the language and [create] access points––like how accessible this is to people who aren’t academics working in a predominantly white institution. 

And also develop guidelines for that ongoing reflective practice so that we can better serve the community without harming the community. And build trust with the community as well. 

As you said, language is important because it is the impact that matters rather than the intention. Is there anything you would like to add as to why it is important to rewrite descriptions?

Dr. LaBat: You got it pretty much. It’s just the impact of these things. We know what the impact of this language can be. Like one of the things that I changed in the original language of the [Collection’s] finding aid is that the oral histories each had a little description of who each person involved was and their proximity. They described one of these people as a Black militant—a Black Panther as a Black militant. 

We have seen that––in the last couple of years––use of ‘Black militant’, has risen back up again. There’s this thing called the Google Ngram Viewer and if you type in any term you can see when it was most popularly used. “Black militant” spiked right after the Freedom Riders summer in 1964––and hit its highest point during Nixon’s Law and Order Campaign, and then a sharp drop off. [To me, the correlation is that] all of a sudden, protests begin for civil rights, and then the term Black militant suddenly appears––and it’s being overused by Nixon, right? All the while, it’s used in talking about protests or characterizing people––Black people, in particular––as aggressive, as militant, for simply protesting. 

April 9, 1968. Crowd of people standing next to cars and busses at Parade Park. (Photo from “1968 Riot Collection” at LaBudde Special Collections)

That factored into why so many Black people, and Black community in Kansas City during 1968, were hurt in the first place. It is because police already assumed that they were “militant,” and people died because of that. 

People are still dying because of this language. And at the archival level that is the first time anything is described at the source material level. So it’s like dropping a rock in a still pond. You see the ripples reverberate outwards. It’s the same way with primary sources, to secondary sources, to tertiary sources. The language that we chose at the archival level does have an impact on how people view these materials and the people that the materials represent. 

That’s why it is important to go back in and critically examine the language that we are using. Not just at the archival level but at literally every level.

People are still dying because of this language. And at the archival level that is the first time anything is described at the source material. So it’s like dropping a rock in a still pond. You see the ripples reverberate outwards. It’s the same way with primary sources, to secondary sources, to tertiary sources. The language that we chose at the archival level does have an impact to how people view these materials and the people that the materials represent. 

– Dr. Anthony Labat

Do you believe that the Riots had any effect on the redlining situation in Kansas City?

Dr. LaBat: Absolutely. I think it only reinforced what was already there. Redlining has always been really really bad in Kansas City. From 1939 when our Home Owners’ Loan Corporation (HOLC) map was originally drawn up. You can see a very clear line in Troost. And everything East of Troost was in the red or yellow “bad neighborhoods.” If you go to the digital exhibit during our redlining slide, I put the HOLC map directly next to a 2010 population census map with racial demographics; and you can see––it’s so weird and really sad–– it is exactly the same. All of those red and yellow districts in 1939 translated in 2010 to racially segregated lines. 

I used to live East of Troost and I remember a family member coming up and being like, “Oh my god, this city is segregated.” And it’s bad. It’s not reflective of that community. It’s not reflective of our community.

April 9th, 1968. Close-up of the crowd at City Hall from directly behind the line of police. The officers are wearing gas masks. (Photo from “1968 Riot Collection” at LaBudde Special Collections)

Is there any change you want to see in the way historical events are recorded from now on?

Dr LaBat: Yeah, I think it boils down to trust and agency. One of the biggest barriers between archives like ours is that we are situated in a predominantly white institution. Like if a group ignored me for decades, would I trust them to take care of my culture and my materials? How do we demonstrate that we can trust? By putting agency back into things, by stepping back, by giving space. A big part of our panel event was that we put agency and community input into the fabric of that new exhibit. We didn’t do it in a vacuum. All of that is to establish trust and agency. 

April 9, 1968. Lena Rivers Smith standing in front of police line. (Photo from “1968 Riot Collection” at LaBudde Special Collections)

So that’s how the survey to rename the Collection comes into this too––in particular something that Lena Rivers Smith, who was the first woman and first Black person to be an on-air reporter in Kansas City, mentioned during one of the radio broadcasts sampled in the digital exhibit. She asks, “What are we going to call this? ‘Cause it was a ‘protest’ there, it’s a ‘riot’ over here[…],” and essentially what she says is that we can talk about this to death, but it’s got to be what the people decide. It has got to be a consensus. 

We can’t, from our own institution––our little room on the third floor of [Miller Nichols] Library that’s literally on top of a hill, perched––accurately say that we are representing a community perspective unless we ask the community. So we are just trying to do that the best way we know how. We involved Black scholars, and researchers, and witnesses, and people who were there in the process of fabricating the actual exhibit. We made sure that that exhibit was made WITH the community in mind, and INVOLVING people from the community too.

Now this survey is just expanding that request for helping us. Because when we decide something together I think it brings us closer and gives us ownership over the event. 

Our first thought was trying to change it [from Riot to] “Uprising” for a while. But the more I talked to people, the more it started to get confusing for me. I don’t feel comfortable making that decision for an entire group of people. Especially when some people say “Riot” like a badge of honor. “Riot,” yes, has been used to demonize people of color all the time. It is, and can be, racialized language. But in this case––the way I’ve seen it talked about––it can also be something to take pride in. Like, ‘We didn’t sit down. We didn’t take it.” sort of mindset.

So we do want folks to participate in the survey so we can have that together and know for sure. Because it has got to be, like Lena says, “it’s got to be what the people call it.”

Do you think involving the community in this way will affect the Kansas City community in relation to academics and/or socially?

May 1st, 1969. Black Panther members with crowd in front of the Jackson County Courthouse. (Photo from “1968 Riot Collection” at LaBudde Special Collections)

Dr. LaBat: I don’t know. It’s hard to say. It just seems like the right thing to do and I hope that at the very least it can set a precedent. Here we have an example of the sorts of processes we have enacted, the way that we did this. If we can serve as an example: awesome. I am a firm believer in that there are a ton of other effects that I am not even aware of as well. I just hope that they are more positive than negative.

The LaBudde Special Collections at the University of Missouri Kansas-City greatly encourages participation in this survey to find the best name for the 1968 Collection that is reflective of Black community consciousness. (No personal information will be collected from this survey beyond age, racial demographic, and relationship to the events themselves.)

View the “Eight Days in April” digital exhibit via LaBudde’s site.

The 1968 Collection is free to view online through the Eight Days in April digital exhibit or through the 1968 “Riot” Collections finding aid. A virtual community event––where a panel of community members and first-hand witnesses discussed the events of 1968––is available to watch here. 

The collection is also available to view in person, by appointment, located on the third floor of the Miller Nichols Library at the University of Missouri-Kansas City. 

If you would like to get in contact with the Special Collections at UMKC you can email them at [email protected] or call (816)-235-1532. 

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