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  • Writer's pictureDavid Carlson

296: Our history doesn’t have to own us. We're humbled by how far we have to go.

Day 296: January 6th, 2021

Our history doesn’t have to own us.

We are grateful for how far we’ve come.

We are humbled by how far we still have to go.

At Emmaus we have opened our minds and hearts to the Black Lives Matter movement. This is a reflection from the Kansas City Star Newspaper that apologizes for a century and a half of racist coverage of the Black community.

The truth in Black and white: An apology from The Kansas City Star


Today we are telling the story of a powerful local business that has done wrong.

For 140 years, it has been one of the most influential forces in shaping Kansas City and the region. And yet for much of its early history — through sins of both commission and omission — it disenfranchised, ignored and scorned generations of Black Kansas Citizens. It reinforced Jim Crow laws and redlining. Decade after early decade it robbed an entire community of opportunity, dignity, justice and recognition.

Before I say more, I feel it to be my moral obligation to express what is in the hearts and minds of the leadership and staff of an organization that is nearly as old as the city it loves and covers: We are sorry.

The Kansas City Star prides itself on holding power to account. Today we hold up the mirror to ourselves to see the historic role we have played, through both action and inaction, in shaping and misshaping Kansas City’s landscape.

It is time that we own our history.

It is well past time for an apology, acknowledging, as we do so, that the sins of our past still reverberate today.

This spring, the Memorial Day death of George Floyd in Minneapolis beneath the knee of a white police officer ignited protests worldwide over racial injustice. In doing so, it has forced institutions to look inward.

Inside The Star, reporters and editors discussed how an honest examination of our own past might help us move forward. What started as a suggestion from reporter Mará Rose Williams quickly turned into a full-blown examination of The Star’s coverage of race and the Black community dating to our founding in 1880.

We pored over thousands of pages of digitized and microfilmed stories. Our reporters searched court documents, archival collections, congressional testimony, minutes of meetings and digital databases. Periodically, as they researched, editors and reporters convened panels of scholars and community leaders to discuss the significant milestones of Black life in Kansas City that were overlooked or underplayed by The Star and The Times.

Critically, we sought some of those who lived through the events the project explored. They include victims of the 1977 flood, and students (now long into adulthood) of the illegally segregated Kansas City Public Schools. We talked to retired Star and Times reporters and editors, many of whom, along with other colleagues in their time, recognized institutional inertia, and fought for greater racial inclusion.

Reporters were frequently sickened by what they found — decades of coverage that depicted Black Kansas Citizens as criminals living in a crime-laden world. They felt shame at what was missing: the achievements, aspirations and milestones of an entire population routinely overlooked, as if Black people were invisible.

Reporters felt regret that the papers’ historic coverage not only did a disservice to Black Kansas Citians, but also to white readers deprived of the opportunity to understand the true richness Black citizens brought to Kansas City.

Like most metro newspapers of the early to mid-20th century, The Star was a white newspaper produced by white reporters and editors for white readers and advertisers. Having The Star or Times thrown in your driveway was a family tradition, passed down to sons and daughters.

But not in Black families. Their children grew up with little hope of ever being mentioned in the city’s largest and most influential newspapers, unless they got in trouble. Negative portrayals of Black Kansas Citians buttressed stereotypes and played a role in keeping the city divided.

(William Nelson Co-Founder Kansas City Star)

In the pages of The Star, when Black people were written about, they were cast primarily as the perpetrators or victims of crime, advancing a toxic narrative. Other violence, meantime, was tuned out. The Star and The Times wrote about military action in Europe but not about Black families whose homes were being bombed just down the street.

(Charlie "Bird" Parker)

Even the Black cultural icons that Kansas City would one day claim with pride were largely overlooked. Native son Charlie “Bird” Parker didn’t get a significant headline in The Star until he died, and even then, his name was misspelled and his age was wrong.

In 1968, five Black men and one Black teenager were killed over three days of rioting in Kansas City at the time the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was to be buried, having been assassinated by a white man’s bullet only days prior. At least four and perhaps all were shot by police. A mayor’s commission determined that most were “innocent victims,” and yet there was no follow-up newspaper probe as there would be today, no independent investigation, no calls for the officers to be charged, or for the police chief to resign.

Nearly a decade later, raging waters surged in the deadly flood of 1977. The Star and Times quickly dubbed it “The Plaza Flood.” That set the stage for the papers, both lacking the staff diversity to challenge assumptions, to focus mainly on property damage at the Country Club Plaza, not so much the 25 people who died, including eight Black residents.

(1977 Flood in Kansas City)

More than 40 years ago, when its waters ripped through the Country Club Plaza, The Star and Times neglected to go downstream to report on the flood devastation in minority communities.

This year alone, The Star relentlessly covered the city’s Black Lives Matter protests and the reckoning that followed: An examination of streets named after slaveholders and monuments to the Confederacy, and a renewed look at J.C. Nichols, a Kansas City icon who “stood for hatred” in promoting his racist housing policies.

To grapple with the fact that Missouri ranks No. 1 in the country for the rate at which Black residents are killed by gun violence, The Star launched a two-year solutions journalism project and started with an investigation of how a lack of trust in police in communities of color drives gun violence in Kansas City.

It still pains me personally to know that in The Star’s monopolistic heyday — when it had the biggest media platform in the region — the paper did little to unify the city or recognize the inherent rights of all Kansas Citians.

But our history doesn’t have to own us.

We are grateful for how far we’ve come.

We are humbled by how far we still have to go.



Sitting across the aisle

on the B train

I look at the row of weary faces

various shapes, sizes, colors, ages,

a horizontal explication of what it means

to have woken many mornings

to brave routine, to leave concerns at home

along with scattered laundry and unwashed

dishes to head for same/same at work.

I picture each of you, one at a time. I try to

observe without you knowing and suddenly I

see round, soft faces, no creases in foreheads,

no wrinkles like parentheses around eyes, no down-

turned mouths, no slumped shoulders. I see the plump

babies you once were. And with that, a rush of hoping

that you were affectionally held on generous laps, that

you were sung tender songs, that you were offered

a bowl of blueberries as initiation to the messy pleasures

of this world. I hope that occasionally you reach back,

even if only briefly to recall your beginning self as a

visitor new to the planet, unencumbered and dear.

- Irene Sipos


Roger Miller: Kansas City Star

Simon & Garfunkel: El Condor Pasa

Marvin Gaye: Mercy Mercy Me

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