During a Martin Luther King Jr. ceremony hosted by Brescia University earlier this month, an elected official said that they didn’t notice any racial tensions in the community in 1968. Local activist Richard Brown was in attendance and says that, with respect, his memory of Owensboro is vastly different — though he added that community advocates have worked to bring change and create peace.
The year was 1968. In April, King had been assassinated. What followed were racial tensions across the nation.
“Owensboro was no exception to that feeling. There was always a situation of something going on related to our police department,” Brown said.
Brown was 26 at the time and had returned home after military service. He joined the NAACP and played a very active role in voicing concerns and helping bring about change. He had many hats in different parts of the community.
To his three children, he was dad; to Brescia University, he was a student until 1972; held several roles during his time with the Department of Corrections; he was also active on several boards throughout the community.
Over the years he has continued to make an effort throughout the community with his advocacy, including volunteering with the immigration center. He was inducted into the Kentucky Civil Rights Hall of Fame in 2012 for his work, and declared Brescia University’s Distinguished Alumni for Civil Rights in 2016.
Now 80 years old, Brown spoke with Owensboro Times about a couple of his experiences in the late 1960s. He recalled an incident where two business partners of a Black club on West 7th Street had a disagreement which resulted in one of them being shot. He claimed that when authorities arrived, there was refusal to take the victim to the hospital.
Brown claimed that was a stark contrast to how roughly a week prior a white person needed medical assistance in a similar situation and authorities obliged.
He said that following the incident at the club, there were several days of violence in the Baptist Town area — he claimed businesses were set afire and cars driven by white people had rocks thrown at them before ultimately there was intervention by the police department.
“Anybody that’s relatively close to my age would tell you the policemen in the area — white policemen — were pretty tough [at that time]. They created an environment that you wouldn’t dare challenge. So it just made it pretty rough to have an understanding of protection for the community, more so than keeping us in our place,” Brown said.
Brown added that similar issues occurred throughout the predominantly Black neighborhoods — such as Snowhill, Mechanicsville and other places — but said Baptist Town was a main focus of policing in town he said.
“We had people who wanted to, I use the term ‘put Black folks in their place’ by creating fear and intimidation and harassment,” Brown said. “The majority of the folks who were subjected to harassment [by police] came from that particular area. Now, there were other Black areas in town, but they weren’t as prevalent.”
When the time came to talk to a group of concerned residents at what is now named Kendall-Perkins Park, Brown said the meeting went something like this:
“We’re all these Black folks and the mayor’s in the center, next to him is R.L. McFarland, and some people were screaming out their concerns. And you know how when you get a group of people together and everybody wants to voice their opinion, they were screaming it out,” Brown said.
So the mayor, after what Brown estimated was 15-30 minutes, left the park.
“And we knew, some of us were advocates at the time, that the conversation needed to continue. And so we organized a meeting, and then the next meeting took place at the old courthouse,” he said.
Brown said the meeting at the courthouse was very organized and there was progress being made, but claimed there was a moment when an elected official pointed a finger in his face and said, “‘You people ought to be glad you got a mayor like him.’ And when he said ‘you people,’ it was very intimidating.”
Brown said subsequent meetings were held to talk about intimidation, relations between the police and the Black community, and several other issues in the community.
“From there, peace ensued. There wasn’t much of the other stuff. We have people beginning to talk. The right people were put together and stuff like that, but not until C. Waitman Taylor came to power [as the mayor] did the federal monies start flowing toward the area,” he said.
More than half a decade later, Brown now looks back at 1968 and said there have been advancements in Owensboro — especially when it comes to policing. He said it was almost like flipping a switch.
“What happened then is not a thing of today. I see a lot of community now,” he said.
In the ’60s, he said, it was common for police officers to only commune with other policemen, and the same for city officials. Now, Brown said, people from many walks of life are participating together in community activities, including interacting with the police department.
“It’s more of a community thing where your local police are involved with the community. They know the people and have an opportunity to participate in what other folks are participating in, when years ago they just weren’t doing that,” Brown said.
Brown added that he feels the police department is becoming more diverse and reflective of the community it serves has helped with the progress that’s been made. However, he said there’s still room to grow in all areas of life when it comes to inclusivity and representations because in his eyes, “diversity is the reality of today.”