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Interview by Jackson Kurtz
This article was originally published with Hearst Television. Click here to see the video.
Alvin Brooks has been a leader in Kansas City, Missouri, since becoming one of the city’s first Black police officers in the 1950s.
After his time in the police department, Brooks went on to become one of the city’s few Black elected officials and later a civil rights activist for decades.
The 88-year-old sat down with Jackson Kurtz, a reporter at station KMBC, at the Black Archives of Mid-America to discuss the history of the racism he has faced and the hope he has for where we are as a nation today.
Brooks began the conversation by recalling an encounter he had with a white police officer when he was only 9 years old.
“A police car and five of us came to the bottom of Brighton Street hill. One officer, he’s been drinking, he pulled his gun and popped it.
“He said, [expletive], you see that hill, if you—your little Black [expletive] [expletive]—if you can make it up to the top of that hill before I shoot your [expletive] Black [expletive] you]re a free [expletive]. Get to running!”
“I guess the question is, today, how far have we come? Not far. Not far enough.”
Brooks’s parents were only teenagers when his mother became pregnant with him.
“My mother was sent to live with her sister in Little Rock, Arkansas, who lived across the road from the Brookses. She then left me with the Brookses.”
He was born in 1933 in Little Rock before coming to Kansas City, Missouri.
“My dad killed a white man, at a moonshine still. He got away—didn’t escape but something in between happened that he told he had to get out of Arkansas and they brought me.”
Brooks found himself in the booming but segregated Kansas City.
“Living in an all-Black community, going to an all-Black school, and having relationships with white folks was only when you went to the big stores—Downtown Kansas City. We couldn’t eat but one place.
“I always kinda wondered at 9 or 10 years old, ‘Momma why can’t we eat there?’ And she never said why.”
After starting a family, Brooks would join a mostly white police force.
“I worked with gangs, I was the gang person, and I had a good relationship with them,” he says.
Brooks says he joined the police department to make a difference, and be unlike the officers he encountered earlier in his life.
In one incident with police, Brooks describes when a police officer mistreated him, his cousin, and a couple of friends.
“Police car drove up with two white police officers. He grabbed him with his right hand, twisted him over the police car.”
Years later, Brooks would see that officer when he became his co-worker.
“I join the police department, low and beholden my shift, here comes this officer. I said, ‘Do you remember stopping five or six Black kids who had three horses?’ No. And I said, ‘You don’t remember that?’ ‘No, it wasn’t me.’ I said, ‘Yes, it was you.’
“I said, ‘Listen, don’t worry. I patted him on the arm and said, ‘I got your back.’ Blood rushed to my brain, you know. But I had to be cool.”
After leaving the police department, Brooks would go into city government.
He set up Kansas City’s first human relations department and became its first Black human relations director.
In 1977, Brooks founded the Ad Hoc Group Against Crime, which responded to violent crimes in the Black community.
He also spent time helping drug users in the city, which would later land him a position on President George H.W. Bush’s National Drug Advisory Council, where he would serve a three-year term.
Brooks was named one of America’s 1,000 Points of Light by President George H.W. Bush in 1989.
In 1999, Brooks was elected to the Kansas City council representing the 6th District At-Large and was appointed mayor pro-tem. He was re-elected in 2003.
In 2010, he was appointed to the Kansas City Police Department’s Board of Police Commissioners and served as president for two years.
Looking back at the summer of 2020, and how far we’ve come as a nation in regard to race, Brooks says there still so much for us to do to be truly united.
“So, who has the power in America? It's not us—people of color. It’s white America,” he says. “I wonder how many men, Black men, died falsely—and I guess people can say that’s history, it doesn’t happen anymore, but, ah, yes it does. We can pass laws, have slogans, have marches, and all those things are important because they do make a difference, but the question becomes, ‘How do they impact America’s structural racist system?
“I pray for us every night, as a people and as a nation, that these 28 days of Black history month will mean more than just a month. It’ll be a pathway to understanding a pathway to freedom, justice, equality, understanding, human understanding, reconciliation—everything that makes good for us as a people of God.”
During his life of serving others, Brooks has received numerous awards: the Carl R. Johnson Humanitarian Award from the NAACP in 2001, the Annual Peace Award from the Crescent Peace Society in 2007, the Harry S. Truman Service Award from the City of Independence in 2016, and the Kansas Citian of the Year Award by the Greater Kansas City Chamber of Commerce in 2019.
In 2016, the Kansas City council declared May 3 as Alvin L. Brooks Day.
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This story was created as part of Lift Every Voice, in partnership with Lexus. Lift Every Voice records the wisdom and life experiences of the oldest generation of Black Americans by connecting them with a new generation of Black journalists. The oral history series is running across Hearst magazine, newspaper, and television websites around Juneteenth 2021. Go to oprahdaily.com/lifteveryvoice for the complete portfolio.
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