On Jan. 19, 1968, Chester Owens Jr., and several other Kansas City leaders posed for a photo with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in a TWA lounge. King was passing through due to a speech at Kansas State University. The men had been summoned, “really just there to make him comfortable,” as Owens put it on KCUR’s Central Standard.
King was supposed to come back to help with Kansas state Sen. George Haley’s re-election campaign; Haley and King were friends from college. It never happened. King was assassinated on April 4, 1968.
At the time, Owens says, people had “backed away” from King and the fervor of the civil rights movement had died down since the early 1960s.
“He probably would have been considered by ‘the establishment,’ whatever that means, as a troublemaker if he had come to Kansas City during that time,” Owens says.
He also notes that some of the people in the group — Owens included — had been publicly opposing the Vietnam War to the point that the FBI had become a presence, so we “understood very plainly what he was going through.”
But what he remembers the most is what he told his wife when he came home that night: “I made the statement to my wife that you could see fear, and also you could see, I made the comment, that you could see death in his eyes. Yes, that’s what I saw.”
Owens finds it difficult to put into words what exactly happened during the civil rights movement in Kansas City, Kansas, and the broader Kansas City area, especially looking at it now.
“You were going against the norm. You did not know what to expect,” he says, adding, “Fear was eliminated from most of our lives. … When nothing happens and when you continue to do what’s right — at least for myself and the people who were involved — your spiritual beliefs, and I might quote a scripture that says: ‘For God has not given us a spirit of fear, but of power and of love and of sound mind,’ things like that become clear.
“You begin to understand a whole lot of things.”
Erica Hunzinger is the editor of Harvest Public Media and a contributor to KCUR 89.3. You can reach on on Twitter @ehunzinger