JEFFERSON CITY — Presidential hopeful Jesse Jackson was more than two hours late to his own 1984 campaign event at Kansas City's Municipal Auditorium.
The anxiety of the roughly 3,200 people in the crowd was palpable. Many were wondering if the prominent civil rights leader and Baptist minister was going to make it to the "heart of America" at all.
It was the voice of an experienced African-American journalist, who was the editor and publisher at Kansas City's black newspaper, the Kansas City Call, that expressed the sentiment to Jackson.
"Why are you so late?" Lucile Bluford greeted him upon his arrival. The 73-year-old then scolded Jackson and told him he should have notified the Call about his speech earlier and the paper could have helped with turnout.
"She just lit Jesse Jackson up," said Donna Stewart, the current president and publisher of the Kansas City Call. "She didn't care about it being Jesse Jackson running for president. She lit him up."
Bluford, who by her death in 2003 had worked at the Call for about 70 years, was a tough reporter who commanded respect from everyone, said Assistant Minority Floor Leader Rep. Gail McCann Beatty, D-Kansas City.
McCann Beatty is pushing a resolution to make July 1, the journalist's birthday, "Lucile Bluford Day" in Missouri. The resolution was passed out of committee in February but has yet to be taken up on the House floor.
The representative also is gathering signatures to include Bluford in the Hall of Famous Missourians.
"You could watch her work and tell she was a force to be reckoned with," McCann Beatty said.
Bluford's goal was always to do "the right thing," not only for the Call, but also for the African-American community, Stewart said. Through extensive coverage of the civil rights movement and other key moments in black history, Bluford fought to end discrimination against African Americans in all aspects of public life.
She established herself as "the consciousness" of Kansas City, Stewart said.
In 1939, Bluford challenged Missouri's Jim Crow laws by repeatedly applying for enrollment at MU, then the state's "white" school. After getting rejected, she teamed up with the NAACP and sued the university, which admitted Bluford was qualified for enrollment but was rejected because of her race.
Bluford lost her case.
In a letter to university officials, she said MU's efforts to keep her outside its programs would not thwart her career, according to records stored at the State Historical Society of Missouri.
And they didn't. At the time of her application, Bluford was already the Call's managing editor, and she later became publisher and president. During her life, she was showered with awards for her journalism and recognized for her activism, even by the people who once rejected her.
When Bluford walked from her house in a small African-American enclave in an otherwise white neighborhood to her elementary school, she had to pass the "white" school.
That bothered her a bit, she said.
The issue was not about race, but that she had to walk farther to get to class. Segregation was an accepted fact of life in Kansas City, Bluford said in an oral history interview conducted by Fern Ingersoll for the Washington Press Club Foundation.
Bluford graduated from high school in 1928 and enrolled in the University of Kansas after a failed attempt to persuade her father to allow her to attend Howard University, a historically black college. She knew she would be rejected at MU, she said in the oral history interview.
The state of Missouri paid for Bluford’s tuition at Kansas, according to court documents. Missouri’s laws at the time required the state to pay for black students’ education in other states if the careers they were seeking weren’t available at Lincoln University, the school Missouri designated for African-Americans.
Bluford said she was the only African-American student in Kansas' journalism program. This didn't seem to be an issue for her, she told Ingersoll. She said she "got along just fine." Unlike her white counterparts, Bluford couldn't live on campus because black students couldn't room in the dormitories.
Black students also weren't allowed in some of the campus dining facilities. The football team kept African-Americans out. Black students were exempt from Kansas' graduation requirement of taking swimming classes because they weren't allowed in the school's pool.
In her college years, Bluford said she became "worked up about segregation" and fought to dismantle Kansas' discriminatory practices.
In education and in public life, law and tradition dictated the separation of blacks and whites.
Bluford told Ingersoll about a time she went with her friend Anna Jean McCampbell to a movie theater in Lawrence that relegated black patrons to the balconies.
McCampbell was so light skinned she could pass for white, Bluford said in the oral history interview. Taking advantage of her skin tone, McCampbell bought tickets for her and Bluford for the theater's "white section." Bluford and she then walked directly to the main floor of the theater and sat down in the middle.
The theater's ushers saw Bluford and McCampbell sneak into the main floor, but they couldn't spot them once the lights turned off and the film started.
So the ushers turned the lights on for a moment so they could find Bluford and McCampbell. They told them to move. The two women pretended they didn’t know what was happening and stayed in their seats.
"You won that day," Ingersoll told Bluford.
"It was fun to me," she replied.
Bluford spent her college summers filling in for reporters on vacation at the Call. When she joined the publication full time in 1932, she focused on covering civic and community meetings.
The Call "helped the African American community win several local battles for civil rights," according to the Kansas City Public Library website, one of whose branches now bears Bluford's name.
Stewart said most white-owned newspapers only covered African-Americans when the topics related to crime. The Call focused less on institutions such as the city council and the school board, Bluford said in her oral history interview.
"I guess we were too busy fighting discrimination," Bluford told Ingersoll. "... They weren't too interested in the black community, and I guess we weren’t too interested in them."
By 1938, Bluford had risen through the ranks to managing editor. In December, the U.S. Supreme Court came to a decision that would have given Lloyd Gaines, an African-American and graduate from Lincoln University seeking admittance to MU’s law school, permission to enroll.
The nation’s high court ruled that the Missouri law that paid for black students’ out-of-state tuition — which helped Bluford fund her education — didn’t satisfy the Constitution’s equal protections requirements. Missouri had to provide equal education at another school within the state or allow Gaines to study at the MU School of Law.
Gaines wasn't set to enroll until fall of 1939. To test the system, Bluford decided to apply for MU’s graduate journalism program for the spring term. In January 1939, Bluford sent a letter to the University of Missouri, the state's designated white school, asking to be admitted.
Shortly after applying, Bluford found herself walking into MU’s Jesse Hall to register for classes. Her transcripts had been accepted, and she was told to come to Columbia to enroll in the university.
Standing with Bluford at the registrar’s line were people of diverse ethnic backgrounds, but no other African-Americans, according to previous Missourian reporting.
As she waited, a young man tapped her shoulder, she said in her oral history interview.
"Miss Bluford?" he said.
"Yeah," she said.
"Mr. Canada would like to see you in his office."
The young man referred to S.W. Canada, MU’s registrar. He told Bluford she couldn't enroll although she had already been admitted.
"I asked him why not — the Supreme Court said I could be there," Bluford told the Missourian in 1993. "Canada said the Lloyd Gaines case isn't finally decided and he hadn't heard yet what was supposed to happen. Now, you know that's crazy, but that's what he said."
Transcripts from Lincoln University were a tell-tale of black students' race. Bluford's transcripts came from Kansas. Since she had applied by mail, university authorities didn't know that she was "of the colored race," Canada told Bluford in a letter sent after her first rejection.
In March 1939, Gaines, who had set the precedent for Bluford's attempt to enter the school, disappeared, according to the MU School of Law website.
Bluford defied Missouri's "separate but equal" doctrine once more when she applied to MU in September 1939. Again, she was turned down, and "the sole reason" was that she was black, "it being undisputed that she is otherwise eligible," according to court documents stored in the State Historical Society of Missouri.
The NAACP sued Canada to compel him to admit Bluford, according to previous Missourian reporting. The man at the head of Bluford’s legal fight was Charles Houston, a prominent NAACP lawyer who had successfully represented Gaines in his case against Canada.
MU’s lawyers argued that Bluford wasn’t "acting in good faith," because she was part of a "conspiracy" to "destroy the law and the policy of the State of Missouri" as it related to educational segregation, according to court documents.
Although Bluford’s legal team couldn't admit it at the time, MU’s lawyers were right — the NAACP was trying to end the state's educational segregation, Bluford told the Missourian in 1993.
Houston, who was later dubbed "the man who killed Jim Crow," had engineered a strategy to strike down "separate but equal" laws by exposing the inequality of educational opportunities for African Americans, according to the NAACP website.
"We were just trying to break down the dual educational system," Bluford said in 1993. “That’s exactly what we were trying to do."
Bluford lost her lawsuit, as well as an appeal to the Missouri Supreme Court in 1941.
The state’s highest court, which intended "to maintain Missouri’s policy of segregation," ruled against Bluford because she had never "demanded" a journalism program from Lincoln University, according to court documents.
Defeated in court, Bluford didn't quit her attempts to enter the Missouri School of Journalism. As late as April 1942, more than three years after Bluford's first application, Canada received telegrams and letters from Bluford about her desire to enroll, according to State Historical Society of Missouri documents.
"I have been waiting now for two years and a half for the state of Missouri where I am a citizen and taxpayer to provide me with the graduate training in journalism to which I am entitled and for which I am qualified," Bluford wrote. "I beg of you in the name of justice and democracy not to be a party to any further delay."
In February 1942, Lincoln University established a journalism program, according to the institution’s website. In a court hearing, it was determined that Lincoln's program wasn't equal to MU's because it only offered undergraduate classes.
This meant MU had to admit Bluford, according to previous Missourian reporting. At that time, however, MU's graduate journalism program was shut down temporarily because of World War II. The university argued the war had depleted the program of teachers and students.
"Do you believe that?" Bluford told the Missourian in 1993. "They had no choice but to let me in, and that shows you how desperate they were. I applied so many times, wasn’t it silly?”
In one of Bluford's last letters to Canada, she said that if Lincoln didn't have a graduate school by the time MU re-established its program, she would attempt to enter the university again.
"You may consider this a standing application," she wrote then.
Although she attempted to enter MU for six consecutive semesters, Bluford was never admitted.
And MU wouldn't open its doors to black students until the fall of 1950.
For Bluford, who never married, "her husband and her children was the Call," said Stewart, the Call's publisher.
The iconic reporter made her mark by covering issues concerning black equality, Stewart said. Bluford covered the March on Washington in 1963, and many other events centered on African-Americans.
Because of her long career — which spanned from the early 1930s until her death into 2003 — Bluford "probably had more authority than anyone" in covering the civil rights movement in Kansas City and in Missouri, said Brian Burnes, who has worked as reporter for the Kansas City Star since 1978.
To Burnes, one of the best measures of Bluford's prominence is the fact that many journalists wanted to write her "unique and fascinating story." Despite Burnes' and his colleagues' attempts to persuade Bluford to let them profile her, she refused time and again.
"She never saw herself as the story," said Burnes, who is an MU alumnus and wrote "Mizzou 175," a book about the university's history. For her, "the story that was worth paying attention to was the civil rights story."
There might be another reason why Bluford didn't agree to having journalists write about her: She didn't trust reporters, Stewart said.
"She had her reasons," Stewart said. "I think she felt she might be misquoted. I don't know."
Most of all, Bluford "just wanted to work and get the paper out," Stewart said. As an editor, she tried to instill in her reporters the values of truth, speed and accuracy.
"She demanded perfection and professionalism, but she was interested in you as a whole person," Stewart said. "Not just the work part, but your development as a human being."
Bluford returned in 1984 to the university that had put more than three years into keeping her off its grounds. This time, she visited the campus at MU’s request — the School of Journalism wanted to recognize her with the Missouri Honor Medal, its highest award for distinguished service in journalism.
During her stay at MU, Bluford paid a visit to Canada, who was about 90 years old and still living close to MU's campus, according to previous Missourian reporting.
"Do you remember me?" Bluford said, according to her oral history interview.
"Oh yes, come on in," she recalled him saying.
"He admitted the university told him not to let me in," she said, according to previous Missourian reporting. "He knew he was wrong, but he was trying to keep his job. They spent a lot of time and money trying to keep two blacks out of the university."
Lloyd Gaines, the man whose case opened the door for Bluford to apply to MU, was never found. Even today, his whereabouts remain a mystery. In 1993, MU dedicated a walkway of the law school to Gaines and established two scholarships in his name.
"That university is changing, isn't it?" Bluford said about the dedication, according to previous Missourian reporting.
In 1989, five decades after Bluford’s first application, MU granted her an honorary doctorate degree in humanities. With speeches and a diploma, the university recognized Bluford's fight and accomplishments. A document in her commencement materials read:
"We are embarrassed now that you lost the battle at this university, but today we are proud to add you to our list of degree holders. At long last."
Many details in this story come from an oral history interview conducted by Fern Ingersoll for the Washington Press Club Foundation, which promotes "equality, education and excellence among journalists in print and broadcast media," according to its website. The foundation's "Women in Journalism" oral history project comprises dozens of interviews with pioneer women journalists. Visit wcpf.org for more information about the project.
Supervising editor is Gary Castor.