The Black Radical Tradition: Kansas City’s Rich History of Revolutionary Organizing

If you asked a person on the street what Kansas City is known for, they would most likely say something along the lines of barbecue, the Kansas City Chiefs, or maybe even jazz. An aspect of Kansas City that is less discussed is its activism scene.

Organizers in Kansas City have worked tirelessly to bring the topics of police abolition, affordable housing, climate justice, and more to the mainstream in our city. From groups like KC Tenants, Black Rainbow, Sunrise Movement KC, Operation Liberation, KC Homeless Union and more, organizers in Kansas City have made impactful change to better the material conditions for the people of our city.

Picture by Chase Castor

In 2019, KC Tenants was able to bring the Tenant Bill of Rights to life as the community put pressure on city council to pass the bill, despite pressure from landlords. As the pandemic came, KC Tenants continued their work by offering tenants a hotline to call, as many tenants were facing eviction due to their loss in work.

In regards to police abolition, Black Rainbow has been leading political education meetings on abolition and transformative justice to educate people more on the topics, as well as leading protests against police brutality and demanding the firing of Kansas City Police Chief Rick Smith for his negligence and violence against the Black community.

Operation Liberation has also been doing amazing work in Kansas City in freeing young Black and brown people from jails by paying their bail fees when folks are unable. And as the impacts of the climate disaster can be felt in KC, Sunrise Movement Kansas City has been working on holding the utility company, Evergy, accountable for its violent practice of shutting off people’s heat and AC during record-breaking cold winters and summer heat waves. These harmful practices impact BIPOC, low income Kansas Citians the most.

These are just a few examples of organizing work done here in Kansas City. As most can see, the culture of community organizing and care is apparent here in the Midwest.  Some may think that this surge of activism in Kansas City is new or unique to the younger generation, but that is far from the truth.

In reality, there is a deep history of community organizing in Kansas City that made it possible for these organizations to do the work they do today.

During the 70s and 80s, AIDS was at an all time high while the United States government did nothing to protect people from this disease, nor prevent it. Since the LGTBQ community was most prominently impacted by the AIDS epidemic, the disease that was killing thousands was being essentially ignored by the federal government, with President Reagan waiting years to even mention the word “AIDS” publicly.

In Kansas City, KCPD would often refuse to offer emergency services to  neighborhoods where it was thought to have a high risk of AIDS (often these were queer communities). Because of this blatant mistreatment and lack of care for the queer community in KC fueled by systemic homophobia, KC organizers decided to fight back. 

LaBudde Special Collections, Miller Nichols Library – This scene from ‘The Ordinance Project’ shows a volunteer with the Kansas City chapter of ACT UP at a GALA picnic in 1989.

In 1987 the local chapter of ACT UP, an organization dedicated to fighting against the mistreatment of those with AIDS and calling on the government to end its silence, was created. ACT UP/KC fought diligently to ensure that those with AIDS were not mistreated. They protested outside of businesses that took away the health insurance of their employees with AIDS, and demanded they be covered. They also protested outside of government buildings, demanding that the Kansas City government do more to protect its community, specifically its queer community.

On May 17, 1990,  ACT UP/KC protested at city hall in response to ordinance 65430 being sent back to committee. Ordinance 65430 stated that businesses could not discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation. It was passed days before, but after pressure from right wing groups it was sent back to committee. ACT UP/KC saw this cowardice move as a betrayal to the KC queer community.

At the protest in front of city hall, Mark Chaney, an ACT UP/KC activist, smashed a viola of blood on the city hall doors and steps.

Chaney proclaimed that “the city has blood on its hands.” It caused a mild panic among those who thought the blood was HIV-positive. Chaney was arrested, but despite this ACT UP/KC said they would be back to demand better of the Kansas City local government. 

As the government continued to ignore the AIDS crisis and the suffering of KC’s queer community, it was necessary for the community to provide care for themselves. This is how the Good Samaritan Project came to be. In September of 1985 the Good Samaritan Project was founded by the KC chapter of the Metropolitan Community Church. They provided medical care for those with AIDS, one on one services by trained professionals, and helped get financial assistance to those who could no longer work.

Eventually the Good Samaritan Project became a nonprofit/501(c)3, and continued to offer services to those impacted by AIDS in Kansas City. The Good Samaritan project is an example of self reliance and community care that is so essential to organizing in Kansas City, and shows how deep the history of community self reliance is when facing government negligence in Kansas City. 

Another example of community care and community organizing can be seen with the Black Panther Party’s Kansas City chapter. The chapter was created in January of 1969 under the leadership of Pete O’Neal. As did all Black Panther chapters across the country, the Kansas City chapter was adamant against fighting the systems of white supremacy in their community through following their ten point program.

The KC chapter worked diligently to provide for their community. In partnership with the local United Methodist church, the chapter created a community breakfast program for school children to eat food before school.

Pete O’Neal in conversation with children one morning at the Panthers’ famous free breakfast program, 1969

They also created a community health clinic, named after Black Panther member and treasurer Bobby Hutton. The clinic was focused on meeting the needs of the Black community in Kansas City, especially in treating sickle cell disease as it was often left under-treated and under-medicated by white doctors.

As the chapter was providing the community with its essential needs, they were also fighting against fascism in KC, specifically the fascist, alt right group named the Minutemen, and of course the pigs themselves, KCPD.

The Minutemen had attacked and harassed party members consistently, but on October 10th, 1969, one had actually shot leader Pete O’Neal in the arm. O’Neal and the chapter were in the middle of gathering evidence proving that KCPD and police chief Kelly had authorized the transfer of weapons to this white supremacist, fascist organization.

As O’Neal and another member were gathering evidence to present to the House in Washington, D.C during their hearing, they were viciously assaulted by white supremacists and almost assassinated. Chief Kelly did nothing to prevent, nor stop this assassination attempt from happening. In reality, his approval of a weapons transfer and his lack of care for the Black community is what fueled the attack in the first place. O’Neal was able to heal from this attack, and still make his way to D.C to present his evidence.

Pete O’Neal in Kansas City Police Department Mug shot, circa 1969

Some may think that it is not necessary to know the history of organizing in a city in order to effectively organize there, but I would disagree. We must know the organizing roots in where we live. We must understand the struggle those before us have been through, and how their struggle is the same as our struggle today.

We must learn from them, and see how their fight is what made our fight today possible. Kansas City has a deep and meaningful organizing history, one that shows the strength of community care in this city. This history is what makes our city powerful today, and what will make us powerful in the future as well.

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