By Dorri Partain

In the 1979 Kansas City, Mo., mayoral election, Democratic candidate Bruce R. Watkins faced Republican candidate Richard Berkley.

Born in 1924, Watkins was adopted by his step-father Theron B. Watkins, an early leader in the local Civil Rights movement. During World War II, the younger Watkins served with the famed Tuskegee Airmen as navigator and bombardier with the 99th Pursuit Squadron. 

Following the war, he returned to Kansas City and became a licensed embalmer and funeral director, working alongside other family members at their local business.

Inspired by his step-father’s activism, Watkins worked with Kansas City Police Department officer and close friend Leon Jordan to found Freedom, Incorporated in 1962. The group’s mission encouraged Black Americans to register to vote and support Black candidates to run for public offices. 

Bruce R. Watkins

In 1963, Watkins was the first Black candidate to run for City Council and win. His first accomplishment was the proposal and passage of the city-wide Public Accommodations Ordinance #29153. That success led to his election as the first Black person to serve as Jackson County Circuit Court Clerk in 1966. In 1975, he was re-elected to the City Council.

Watkins filed as the first Black candidate to run in the race for Mayor of Kansas City in 1978.

Shortly after losing to opponent Berkley, Watkins was diagnosed with lung cancer and passed away on September 13,1980.

Known as a trailblazer during the Civil Rights movement, Watkins has been honored throughout Kansas City. The Spirit of Freedom Fountain, located at Cleveland and Brush Creek Boulevard, was dedicated in his honor in 1981. The Bruce R. Watkins Cultural Heritage Center, 3700 Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard, opened in 1989 and contains a dedicated display regarding his achievements along with personal artifacts. A portion of U.S. 71 highway was opened as Bruce R. Watkins Drive in 2001.