Cold case

For many years a man’s photograph hung outside the door of a state representative’s office at the Capitol. The picture was of Leon Jordan whose widow, Orchid, occupied the office.

Leon Jordan was a state representative from Kansas City who was running for his fourth term when an assassin killed him with three shotgun blasts as Jordan closed his Green Duck Tavern for the night and got ready to go home. That was July 15, 1970.

His murder has gone unsolved for forty years.

A few weeks ago the Kansas City Star asked the police department to see the evidence file for the case. The request has led the department to reopen the case although it had to track down some evidence that had been misplaced. Some modern investigative techniques will be used that might extract information that could not be drawn from the evidence forty years ago.

This is not just any cold case. To say that Leon Jordan was a state representative does not adequately describe his importance to Missouri politics or to a large segment of Missouri’s population. Time has obscured his importance and the importance of his murder.

Here is a little bit about why the Kansas City Star felt his murder in 1970 was worth more attention than other murders that year in that city.

Leon Jordan was just short of 65 when he was killed. He graduated from Wilberforce University in Ohio, the oldest private African-American University in the United States. He joined the Kansas City Police Department in 1938. He became the first African-American Lieutenant. The department allowed him a long leave of absence in 1947 so he could go to Liberia where he reorganized a 450-man police force.

The Kansas City police department’s historical page says he left the department soon after coming back to the United States to go into business and start a political career. In 1961 Jordan and long-time friend Bruce Watkins and three others formed an organization to develop African-American candidates for public office and to increase the influence of black voters. Jordan was elected Chairman and Watkins was named co-chairman. They called the new club Freedom Incorporated.

Freedom Incorporated immediately went to work to increase the size of the Kansas City council from six members to twelve by adding a half-dozen at-large districts. The organization argued that the restructuring would give African-Americans more chances to serve on the council, which had no black members. Although voters rejected the idea, the organization later negotiated with the council that passed an ordinance creating the 12-member council. Bruce Watkins and Dr. Earl Thomas became the first black council members in 1962.

In 1963, the organization led one of the biggest voter registration drives in city history. At the time, a public accommodations ordinance was on the ballot. It passed by 1600 votes.

In 1964 Jordan and Harold Holliday Sr. were elected to the Missouri House as the first black representatives to serve from Kansas City. He was reelected in 1966 and 1968. He was about three weeks away from a primary election when a car drove up to him as he left his tavern. Somebody inside the car shot him with a shotgun and then got out of the car and fired two more shots at close range.

Sixty local, state, and federal agents investigated his killing. Two men were arrested but there was never a conviction.

Lt. Gov. Tom Eagleton said Jordan “helped produce more benefits in a short time for the black community of Kansas City than have ever been produced in any comparable period in city history.”

A few weeks later, Bruce Watkins became the first black man to be chairman of the Jackson County Democratic Commttee. In November, Jordan’s widow, Orchid, was elected in his place. She served eight terms in the House, a quiet and dignified presence in the House.

Freedom Incorporated continues as a strong political force in Kansas City and by extension, at the state capitol. Its candidates have served on the city council and the Kansas City School Board. The organization’s support has sent many state representatives and senators to Jefferson City, including Alan Wheat, who later became Missouri’s second black congressman, and Phil Curls, who was the first African-American state senator from Kansas City.

The organization backed city councilman Emanuel Cleaver in the mayor’s race in 1990. Cleaver became the city’s first black mayor in 1991, served eight years, and in 2004 was elected to Congress. In all of those advances, Leon Jordan’s Freedom Incorporated had a major role.

Through all these years, through all these advances and accomplishments, no one has been convicted of the killing of the man who made many of those things possible.

That’s why this 40-year old murder is not just another cold case.

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