Race Relations and Civil Rights

Kansas City’s cultural vitality was made possible in large part by the diversity of its citizens and by the oft-contested relationships among people of minority races and ethnicities. Prominent leaders confronted traditional legal, social, and political barriers. One of them, Lucile Bluford, opposed segregation by applying for admission to the University of Missouri school of journalism and documenting her struggle in one of the nation’s leading African American newspapers, The Call. African Americans and people of Irish, Mexican, and Italian ancestry comprised significant constituencies of the Pendergast political machine, and consequently they were able to exert unprecedented influence on the city’s politics and development.

There remained, on the other hand, strong resistance to racial liberalism. Hopes for true progress were often dampened by the corruption associated with machine politics. A resurgent Ku Klux Klan reached some six million members nationally by the mid-1920s, holding its second national convocation in Kansas City, Missouri, and exerting considerable influence on the Kansas side of the metropolitan area. As Professor Jeffrey Pasley argues, Kansas City’s contested racial and political landscape ushered in the transition of black voters from the Republican Party to the Democratic Party under the banner of the Pendergast coalition, years before the same party realignment occurred nationally under President Franklin Roosevelt.

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One of the defining political trends of the mid-20th century was the transition of black voters from the Republican Party to the Democratic Party, accompanied by a major shift in the party’s policy platform toward social liberalism and civil rights. Nationally, this change is usually dated to the latter half of the New Deal, roughly around the election of 1936. In Kansas City and the state of Missouri, however, it happened much earlier and in surprising circumstances that greatly influenced national affairs in later years.

Tom and James Pendergast
KANSAS CITY PUBLIC LIBRARY | DIGITAL HISTORY