Emiel Cleaver, son of Congressman Emanuel Cleaver II of Missouri, reveals an important part of Kansas City’s–and our nation’s–history in his film Freedom is Now: A Documentary, which tells the story of Freedom, Inc., the groundbreaking political organization which empowered the city’s black community for both social and political change.
Founded in 1960 and formally organized in 1961 with Leon Jordan as Chairman and Bruce Watkins as Co-chair, Freedom, Inc. assigned Precinct Captains to each ward and precinct and began to organize. Freedom, Inc.’s first goal: To increase the size of the Kansas City’s City Council from six to twelve members by adding six at large districts which would have opened the door for African-Americans to get on the council, while edging out organized crime which controlled the elections in the black neighborhoods. Although the ballot measure failed, the City Council passed an ordinance that increased the council size to twelve members, and in 1962 Bruce Watkins and Dr. Earl Thomas were elected to the City Council as the first black members, thanks to the efforts of Freedom, Inc.
Using grassroots organizing, voter registration, and canvassing door to door, as well as working with churches, Freedom, Inc. continued to make in-roads towards desegregating Kansas City; and in 1964, the public accommodations ordinance–which would eliminate separate facilities for African-Americans and allow them to eat in downtown restaurants–passed by a narrow margin of 1,600 votes. The same year also saw Leon Jordan and Harold Holliday, Sr. elected as the first African American State Representatives from Kansas City.
Leon Jordan continued his political career as State Representative until he was gunned down in front of his place of business, The Green Duck Tavern, three weeks before the Democratic primary that year. Jordan’s widow, Orchid Jordan ran in his place and was elected. (Leon Jordan’s murder was solved 40 years later).
By the 1980s, Freedom, Inc. had helped elect officials at every level, and Emiel’s father, Emanuel Cleaver II, was elected Mayor of Kansas City in 1991 after serving as a City Council member for a decade. After two terms as mayor, Cleaver was elected to the U.S. Congress where he serves as head of the Congressional Black Caucus.
Freedom is Now illuminates the civil rights era and shows the importance of grassroots organizing and community activism in engendering positive change. This film is must-see for anyone interested in civil rights issues and political organizing.