July 15, 2020 marks the 50th anniversary of the assassination of civil rights leader and Missouri state legislator Leon Jordan. Marking the date filmmaker Emiel Cleaver’s documentary, Leon Jordan: A Legacy of Leadership will air live at 8pm on KSHB.com, and the 41 Action News Facebook Page and YouTube channel. The new documentary follows Cleaver’s 2012 film about Freedom Inc., the political organization that Leon Jordan helped found. When we spoke in February, Cleaver was completing interviews, collecting photos, and shooting reenactments with actors.
The documentary begins at the end: in 1970 Jordan was murdered outside his bar, the Green Duck Tavern. There is intrigue and mystery surrounding the assassination; it was not officially solved until 2010 when Kansas City Star reporters uncovered details that, along with pressure from activists, compelled police to reopen the case. For Cleaver, it’s the life that Jordan lived that is the most interesting. “I grew up hearing about Leon Jordan. My father [Congressman Emmanual Cleaver] was a part of Freedom Inc. and I knew everyone involved in that organization. Jordan was gone before I was born, but he was talked about like a mythical figure.”
Jordan was a police detective in Kansas City beginning in the late 1930s. During this time Black officers could not arrest white people. In 1947 he left the US to train the Liberian police force. When he returned, although he had been promoted in rank, he found that he had little influence and he left the force to enter the political arena, founding Freedom Inc. with Bruce R. Watkins.
Freedom Inc. quickly gained a reputation for getting things done. In 1963, a year before the federal Civil Rights Act, the organization worked to pass an accommodations ordinance, desegregating public facilities in Kansas City. Much of their work was in organizing voters and developing candidates. An endorsement from Jordan carried the Black vote in Kansas City and politicians were eager to get his approval. Since he was so influential, some saw him as a threat to their power. “Back in the day, the Mafia ran politics in Kansas City. They would choose candidates that would work in their interests,” Cleaver says. Jordan posed a threat in taking votes away from those chosen candidates.
Even now, people are hesitant to speak on the record about Mafia involvement. “There were conversations I couldn’t use for the doc because of that,” says Cleaver. “People had no problem talking about Leon Jordan, but some folks didn’t want to get into the reasons he might have been killed.”
The details of Jordan’s assassination and the investigation that followed are tangled. Although the hit was carried out by members of the Black Mafia, they were hired by the Italian Mafia, who ranked above them in the hierarchy of organized crime. Jordan knew many young members of the Black Mafia including the ones who killed him. “He liked helping young people in the community and sometimes couldn’t see past that,” says Cleaver. Although people could name Jordan’s killers soon after his death, it took four years to formally prosecute just one person involved. After he got off, though, charges were dropped on the other suspects. The case remained unsolved until 2010.
After the documentary premieres, Cleaver would like to see it used to develop curriculum about Black history in Kansas City, which his documentary on Freedom Inc. was used for with help from the Black Archives of Mid-America. He sees Jordan’s legacy live on in the continued existence of Freedom Inc., which laid the groundwork for other grassroots political organizations and leaders in Kansas City.
Drea DiCarlo, July 2020