Published January 18th, 2021 at 6:00 AM
She had been sent to get an interview and she would get it, but not without some help. Her assignment: talk to the Black minister, civil rights leader and 1964 Nobel Peace Prize winner – Martin Luther King, Jr. – who had just flown into Kansas City.
“I saw him in the airport corridor,” said Helen Gray, the first Black woman hired as a reporter by the Kansas City Star-Times.
“But I could barely get anywhere near him because several men from the local TV stations were there and in those days the cameras they carried on their shoulders were pretty large.
“But somehow Dr. King saw me. I remember him saying ‘excuse me’ to the cameramen and then putting his arm around my shoulder and kind of gently pulling me in. I was able to interview him while I was walking down the corridor with him, and he gave me his full attention.”
“The cameras were big, I was small, but I was going to get the interview, one way or another.”
“Dr. King just made it easier for me.”
Martin Luther King, Jr., whose birthday anniversary is being observed on Monday, Jan. 18, made at least six documented visits to the Kansas City area. Those visits ranged from April 1957 when King spoke at a Kansas City Baptist church when he was just emerging as a national figure, to January 1968 when he flew through what is now Charles B. Wheeler Downtown Airport while traveling to Kansas State University, where he was scheduled to speak.
After Gray’s interview with King in 1968, she joined him and a group of local admirers in an airport lounge, not quite three months before King’s assassination in Memphis. Either in personal encounters like that experienced by Gray, or during public speaking engagements, Kansas City area residents experienced King’s charisma and surpassing oratorical skills.
King’s April 11 appearance at St. Stephen Baptist Church at 1414 E. Truman Road occurred about two months after his face had appeared on the cover of Time magazine, which had described King as a minister “who in little more than a year has risen from nowhere to become one of the nation’s remarkable leaders of men.”
Among the approximately 750 people who heard King speak was the late Dorothy Johnson, a former reporter for The Call, a weekly newspaper serving Black readers across the Kansas City area.
“His charisma made you rise up in a standing ovation,” Johnson told the Kansas City Star in 1998.
“People just kind of automatically rose up without a signal. I did, too, which surprised me.
“As an old newspaper reporter, I had heard so many speeches.”
Upon his 1957 appearance in Kansas City, King was known as the principal leader of the successful 381-day boycott of the Montgomery, Alabama, public transportation system, today considered perhaps the first large American protest of racial segregation.
The boycott had begun following the early December 1955 arrest of Montgomery seamstress and local National Association for the Advancement of Colored People chapter secretary Rosa Parks, who had declined to give up her seat to a white patron on a Montgomery bus.
King and other leaders chose to end the boycott in December 1956, not long after the U.S. Supreme Court had upheld a lower court ruling that found segregated seating on public buses unconstitutional.
During the subsequent spring and summer of 1957, King made more than 50 public appearances in an attempt to build the successful boycott into a national civil rights movement, showcasing the power of nonviolent social action.
King’s local appearance, organized by the Kansas City, Missouri, NAACP chapter, influenced the subsequent social justice agenda adopted by local Black leaders, Johnson said.
In December 1958 Kansas City area civil rights activists launched a sustained boycott of five downtown Kansas City department stores, in protest of the stores’ segregated restaurant policies. Demonstrators carrying picket signs walked outside store entrances throughout the subsequent weeks.
Store representatives agreed to integrate the restaurants that following spring. The Montgomery bus boycott directly influenced the Kansas City protest, according to Johnson.
“Almost everyone who made a speech brought up Martin Luther King or, specifically, the cooperation and unified efforts of the residents of Montgomery,” Johnson told the Star.
In a 1960 thesis submitted to the University of Kansas, Johnson had documented the boycott’s origins and organizers, and detailed how Kansas City protests echoed the Montgomery boycott in its tactics and rhetoric. Handbills advertising the Kansas City boycott also referenced Montgomery, reading “They Stopped Riding in Montgomery – Let’s Stop Buying in Kansas City.”
On June 20, 1958, six months before the department store boycott began, King spoke again in the Kansas City area.
Black citizens “must not use violence to achieve integration because this will cause bitterness for generations to come,” King told listeners in the auditorium of what is now Sumner Academy of Arts and Science at 1610 N. 8th St. in Kansas City, Kansas.
King added that while Black citizens may “hate segregation and injustice,” according to a Kansas City Times account of his speech, “this hate must not include segregationists.”
King, the Times reported, added that segregation was doomed and “only the date of burial remains to be determined.”
On March 15 King spoke to 400 persons at a “Temple Brotherhood” dinner at Congregation B’nai Jehudah, one of the oldest Reform Jewish congregations in the country and the oldest synagogue in the Kansas City area, then located at 69th Street and Holmes Road.
At the dinner King explained that he favored non-violent resistance as a method for ending oppression.
“With this method, one can affect moral ends with moral means,” King said. “One can deal with an unjust system and still maintain love for those who, perhaps by training, were caught up in the system.”
King likely had been invited to speak by Rabbi William Silverman, who had come to lead B’nai Jehudah in 1960 after proving to be an outspoken civil rights advocate in Tennessee.
In 1958, following the bombing of a Nashville Jewish community center, Silverman had delivered an address defending his support for the integration of Nashville schools.
Silverman caught the attention of Rabbi Samuel Mayerberg, who by 1960 had led B’nai Jehudah since 1928 and had established his own social justice legacy as a frequent critic of the political machine led by Tom Pendergast.
At B’nai Jehudah, Silverman went on to lead the Greater Kansas City Council on Religion and Race, while also serving as a public advocate for fair housing legislation.
“Rabbi Silverman was rabbi of the largest and most influential and oldest Jewish congregation in the city,” said Bill Worley, history professor at the Metropolitan Community College-Kansas City’s Blue River Campus in Independence.
“While Dr. King was primarily concerned against discrimination against African Americans, he was certainly open to creating alliances with people like Rabbi Silverman,” Worley added.
“King’s taking on the fair housing issue was really part and parcel of the overall civil rights dialogue going on at that time.”
Worley, the author of a “J.C. Nichols and the Shaping of Kansas City,” a 1990 biography of the Kansas City real estate developer, said that Kansas City proponents of fair housing legislation believed they would benefit from their association with King.
“He was invited to B’nai Jehudah to give greater influence to the efforts to get fair housing ordinances passed,” Worley said.
The Kansas City Council approved an initial fair housing ordinance in 1967. While opponents prompted a referendum election on the ordinance the following year, that vote was cancelled after the council unanimously approved a new ordinance incorporating the protections against discrimination included in The Civil Rights Act of 1968.
President Lyndon Johnson would sign that legislation on April 11, 1968, one week after King’s assassination.
King’s next visit to Kansas City, only a few months later, would prove contentious.
A six-day annual convention of the National Baptist Convention, U.S.A., Inc. was marred by a struggle between two factions.
The convention was split between supporters of incumbent president J. H. Jackson of Chicago and Gardner Taylor of Brooklyn.
Jackson and his followers disapproved of the nonviolent direct action protests such as lunch counter sit-ins and the ”Freedom Rides” of earlier that year, in which protestors had ridden buses through the American South to demonstrate against segregated interstate bus policies.
The convention attracted about 10,000 delegates to Kansas City’s Municipal Auditorium, 301 W. 13th St., where they would vote on the new president. King was in attendance but his voice appeared muted, according to daily newspaper coverage of the event, saying only that he supported Taylor.
During one convention session, a struggle for control of the speaker’s podium apparently contributed to the fall of a delegate, a Detroit minister, off the speaker’s platform and onto the convention hall floor. The minister later died at Kansas City’s Menorah Medical Center.
In the vote tally, Jackson prevailed over Taylor.
Jackson blamed the Detroit delegate’s accidental death on King, saying he had helped organize the disruption.
King denied the charge.
“King went into that hoping to reform the policies of the convention,” said Worley. Subsequently King helped form a new organization, the Progressive National Baptist Convention.
Just over a year later King would revisit Municipal Auditorium, this time to address the annual Festival of Faith, an annual service observing the Protestant Reformation.
About 8,000 people attended the Nov. 4 event, organized by the Kansas City area Council of Churches.
“All men are one in Christ Jesus,” King said.
“And it must be realized that segregation is not only politically and economically wrong… Its underlying theme is diametrically opposed to the Christian meaning.
“The Negro doesn’t want to defeat his white brother, but to win friendship and equality.”
King always spoke from a minister’s perspective, said Gray, the Star-Times reporter who in 1971 would be named the newspapers’ religion editor.
“One thing I felt that often was lost on some people is that Dr. King was first, always, a man of God, a man of faith, a preacher,” Gray said.
“Even his speeches as a civil rights leader had the cadence of a minister preaching in the Black style, and everything he did in the civil rights movement was an extension of his faith and beliefs. His faith was always in the forefront of everything he did.
“The marches he helped lead as a civil rights leader always started with a church service.”
King last visited Kansas City on Jan. 18, 1968.
He had agreed to deliver a speech at Kansas State University the following day. Before traveling to the campus in Manhattan, Kansas, King visited with friends and admirers in a Kansas City airport lounge.
In both his remarks at Kansas State, and in his airport interview with Gray, King voiced his opposition to the Vietnam War.
King had detailed his objections to the war in an April 1967 address in New York. The speech had caused controversy, even among admirers.
Officials with the NAACP had criticized King for connecting the two issues – the Vietnam War and civil rights. Roy Wilkins, NAACP executive director – who during the 1920s had served as reporter and columnist for The Call in Kansas City – said that “civil rights groups do not have enough information on Vietnam, or on foreign policy, to make it their cause.”
But in his address at Kansas State, King remained committed to his anti-war message.
“In the war in Vietnam, we have the most unjust, ill-conceived war in our history,” King said at Ahearn Field House.
“We see in our nation everywhere the damage being done to our nation by this war.”
In his remarks to Gray, King had said the war had caused the country’s attention to domestic issues – chief among them the “Great Society” initiative of domestic programs unveiled by President Lyndon Johnson in 1964 – to suffer.
“The ‘Great Society’ programs are the casualties of the war,” King told Gray.
The approximately 7,200 spectators who heard King speak in Manhattan gave him a standing ovation. But the controversy over his anti-war position seemed to concern him while he had met with Kansas City area admirers in the airport lounge, said Chester Owens, Jr., a longtime Kansas City, Kansas, civil rights activist.
“We spent about an hour with him and you could see, from my perspective, the fear in his eyes,” Owens said.
Bill Worley, then Kansas State University student body president, believed King had looked fatigued during his speech in Manhattan.
“My impression was that he was tired of having to talk about the same things over and over and over again,” Worley said.
“He gave bits and pieces of several speeches that he had given, and there were parts of the ‘I Have a Dream’ speech, which at that time was more than four years old.
“So what struck me was that this man was tired – tired physically and probably tired emotionally of having to continue to say what he had to say – which is still very relevant today but to him was an old message and a message that had not been responded to.”
Gray, who also joined the group of admirers in the airport lounge, disagreed with descriptions of King’s fear or fatigue.
“He did seem to be kind of low-key,” said Gray, who had seen King deliver his “I Have A Dream” speech during the 1963 March on Washington.
“You think of him when he is giving these great speeches, how he would be so animated, like at the March on Washington.
“At the airport I don’t recall him being tired, but just low-key and relaxed, like you see in the photograph. He was smiling and leaning forward, enjoying the company.”
Many of those meeting with King in the airport lounge were friends of Kansas State Sen. George Haley.
King and Haley had been students together at Morehouse College in Atlanta, Georgia. Once he had agreed to speak at Kansas State, King had contacted Haley to arrange transportation to Manhattan.
Gray, who retired from the Star in 2013, recalls that those present asked King to return to Kansas City in the fall, to campaign on behalf of Haley’s 1968 re-election campaign.
“He said that he would,” Gray said.
“But this was only about three months before his assassination – so, of course – he never did.”
The story first appeared in the Jackson County Historical Society‘s E-Journal. Flatland contributor Brian Burnes is a Kansas City area writer.