Missouri’s Civil Rights Stories: Protests and Progress

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Photo of Bruce R. Watkins marching in Kansas City in April of 1968.
Credit: LaBudde Special Collections, UMKC University Libraries

Kansas City

Like many cities in the United States in the early-to-mid 1900s, Kansas City had long enforced segregation that ultimately resulted in racial tension. While the city saw its share of unrest, the area witnessed many civil rights breakthroughs during this time.

  • 1919 – Chester Arthur Franklin started The Kansas City Call – a weekly newspaper that catered to and advocated for the Black community of Kansas City. The Call reported on significant events, highlighted injustices and called readers to action. It played an important role in the fight for civil rights in Kansas City and eventually became one of the most prominent Black newspapers in the country.
  • 1920 – Due to segregation within sports, Black baseball players could not join professional teams. Players worked together to create their own teams all across the country, and in 1920, the first organized league – the Negro National League – was formed during a meeting held in Kansas City.
  • 1941 – Lucile Bluford was a well-known activist and editor of the Kansas City Call. She applied to the University of Missouri School of Journalism to pursue a graduate degree. She was initially accepted, but was ultimately denied admission because of her race. In response, she filed numerous lawsuits against the university in an attempt to gain equal treatment in higher education. In 1941, the Missouri Supreme Court ruled in her favor.
  • 1942 – During World War II, many factories adapted to provide supplies and equipment for the war effort. While employers were starting to hire women to fill the factory positions left open by men who left for military service, the Black community was excluded from the war industry. Black citizens banded together to protest the factory segregation and, due in part to the desperate need for labor, they succeeded in integrating war industry factories.
  • 1948 – President Harry S. Truman – who was raised in Independence, just outside of Kansas City – desegregated the United States military by executive order. Many consider this action the starting point of the civil rights movement.
  • 1958 – A group of Black female professionals, with assistance from Lucile Bluford, established the Community Committee for Social Action (CCSA). The committee worked to desegregate restaurants in department stores by trying to privately resolve the issue with the stores’ management. When that didn’t work, they developed a plan to boycott the department stores. After several months, the Kansas City Merchants’ Association met with the CCSA and agreed to integrate their dining areas.
  • 1968 – Most public and private businesses in Kansas City were integrated by 1964. However, anger over persistent segregation in residential neighborhoods coupled with the devastating assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. resulted in demonstrations and violent race riots that lasted several days. To prevent more conflict, the city council addressed the issue of housing discrimination and desegregated housing sales and rentals.

St. Louis

Some of the earliest milestones in the fight for civil rights happened in St. Louis. Key court cases, influential protests and outspoken activists all left a lasting mark on the city.

  • 1819 – A group of free Black people and white sympathizers gathered in St. Louis for one of the first civil rights protests in the country. The demonstrators opposed Missouri entering the union as a state where slavery was permitted, but the Missouri Compromise of 1820 enabled Missouri to enter the union as a slave state. Under the Missouri Compromise, slavery was banned from the rest of the territory in the Louisiana Purchase north of the 36° 30′ parallel.
  • 1824 – Winny v. Whitesides was the first freedom suit heard by the Missouri Supreme Court. Winny was an enslaved woman who had been moved to free territories by the woman who owned her. The court decided that any slave taken to a free state or territory would be considered free even if they returned to a slave state. This case established the “once free, always free” precedent in Missouri.
  • 1846 – When Dred and Harriet Scott filed a lawsuit for their freedom from slavery because the man who had owned the Scotts had taken them to live in states and territories where slavery was outlawed. Precedent dictated that the Scotts should win the case – and they did, before it was appealed – but with nationwide tension increasing over the issue of slavery, the Missouri Supreme Court made a blatant political statement by ruling against the Scotts.
  • 1856 – The Dred Scott case reached the U.S. Supreme Court where it was decided that Dred and Harriet Scott were still slaves and could not sue for their freedom, and the Missouri Compromise was deemed unconstitutional – Congress did not have the power to outlaw slavery in any state or territory.
  • 1861 – Four months after the start of the Civil War, Major General John C. Frémont announced in St. Louis that all slaves of Union enemies in Missouri were immediately emancipated. Frémont was the commander of the Western Department, and he was sent to Missouri after the Battle of Wilson’s Creek to prevent the Confederacy from gaining a foothold in the state. However, his bold abolitionist proclamation was withdrawn by Lincoln in order to keep the border states – Missouri, Maryland, Delaware and Kentucky – from seceding.
  • 1865 – The Missouri Equal Rights League was formed at the 8th Avenue Colored Baptist Church in St. Louis. The league’s mission was to make it legal for Black citizens to vote. It was one of the first civil rights groups in St. Louis that gave Black people a voice in politics.
  • 1942 – A one-man protest helped desegregate Saint Louis University. Charles Anderson was not admitted into the university due to his race, so he created a pamphlet outlining his experience and reasoning for why he should be admitted. His efforts were the first in a series of events that saw local community members speak out against segregation. St. Louis University’s own priest, Father Claude Heithaus, made a homily denouncing racism. By 1944, the university began admitting Black students – the first college in Missouri to do so. 
  • 1943 – Protesters banded together to fight for equal access to jobs by organizing demonstrations at Southwestern Bell. As a result, Southwestern Bell opened an office in a Black neighborhood and hired Black employees.
  • 1944 – Lunch counters came under scrutiny when the Citizens Civil Rights Committee, a group formed by Black and white women, organized sit-ins at department store lunch counters. Some department stores began allowing Black citizens to patronize their lunch counters, but it wasn’t until 1961 that all locations in St. Louis were desegregated.
  • 1948 – When the Shelley family purchased a home in a white area of the St. Louis, a member of the community sued them in an attempt to prevent them from living in the neighborhood. The court ruled in favor of the Shelley family and declared that restrictive housing covenants were a violation of the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.
  • 1963 – The Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) began protesting at Jefferson Bank and Trust. The issue of discriminatory hiring was rampant in businesses across the city, so demonstrators called for Jefferson Bank to hire four Black clerks. They hoped that this would be the first step toward employment equality. After seven months of protesting, the bank agreed to hire five Black clerks.
  • 1964 – Civil rights activists Percy Green and Richard Daly staged a bold protest at the Gateway Arch, an iconic symbol of St. Louis. The men climbed 125 feet up an unfinished leg of the Gateway Arch to protest a lack of Black workers on the job site.
  • 1968 – Joseph Jones attempted to buy a house in St. Louis County, but the real estate company refused to sell the home to Jones based on his race. Jones successfully sued the company for discrimination in the U.S. Supreme Court after being ruled against in the U.S. District Court and the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.