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April 19, 2014

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Perseverance is a key element of civil rights

The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination affected John W. Bluford III’s time in college and career.

The first black president and CEO at Truman Medical Center in Kansas City was at historically black Fisk University in Nashville, Tenn., when shots on April 4, 1968, killed King across the state in Memphis.

A concert at Fisk University was interrupted with a moment of silence. Student unrest followed. Though a freshman, Bluford got involved, helping to bring calm to the campus.

“That, in a large way, really started a lot of my leadership maturity,” said Bluford, who graduated in 1971 with a bachelor’s degree in biology and in 1975 earned a master’s in business administration with an emphasis in health care at Kellogg School of Business at Northwestern University.

Civil rights gains opened doors for blacks like Bluford. But his family already was part of an often overlooked black middle class with high expectations for success despite racism and discrimination. It includes F.D. Bluford, president of North Carolina A&T College from 1925 to 1955; John W. Bluford II, a prominent dentist in the Philadelphia area; Lucile Bluford, longtime publisher and editor of The Call of Kansas City; and Guion Bluford, who in 1983 became the first black astronaut to make a trip into space.

“There is an expectation for success because others have had it in the family,” said Bluford, who joins others for this column series looking at 50 years of civil rights advances while sharing a vision for the next half-century. He grew up partly in north Philadelphia but mostly in Columbia, S.C., from third through 12th grade with his grandparents — far away from the distractions and trouble of the big city.

“Living with your grandparents has an interesting impact,” Bluford said. “They’d been through the drill before with kids.”

Bluford played basketball in high school and college and maintains a competitive edge.

“Perseverance is a key element in my progression in my career,” said Bluford, who started at Cook County Hospital in Chicago. Before coming to Truman Medical Center in Kansas City 14 years ago, he was at Hennipen County Medical Center in Minneapolis for 22 years — the last seven as CEO. He has a strong reputation for turning around troubled places. That certainly has been true at Truman.

Bluford said his success reflects community and hospital staff support for needed changes, broad ownership in the plan, an innovative governing body and an exceptional leadership team.

Bluford embraces the responsibility of providing health care for people who otherwise would do without. But he also knew how to draw on his family ties.

He credits Lucile Bluford with anchoring him in this community. She helped him understand the people, traditions and history. He said she also got people to return his phone calls.

Bluford calls himself an optimist and is excited about civil rights in the next 50 years.

“You have to think that the color line will be obliterated by then,” he said. The races will have blended so much that black and white will be irrelevant.

What concerns him, though, is the diminishing ability of people to have good relationships forged through meaningful communications.

“People don’t talk to each other right now,” he said. “Relationships are based on conversations.”

The communication void will “lead to less understanding” of others. But once fixed, the society of the future will be more intelligent, possess greater knowledge of other cultures and be prepared for challenges.

It also will be healthier because of lifestyle, medical and technical advances. Fifty years ago, King had a vision that helped make today possible.

Today it’s time to dream about what 50 years from now will look like.

Lewis Diuguid is a member of the Kansas City Star’s Editorial Board.

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