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Richard ‘Kirk’ Bowden, 82; protected civil rights figures as a US marshal

By Matt Schudel Washington Post 

WASHINGTON — Richard K. ‘‘Kirk’’ Bowden, who served as a deputy US marshal during the civil rights era, providing security at the 1963 March on Washington and for James Meredith, the first African-American student at the University of Mississippi, died Jan. 20 at his home in Silver Spring, Md. He was 82.

The cause was congestive heart failure, said his wife, Shirley Watkins Bowden.

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Mr. Bowden was an Air Force veteran and a former District of Columbia police officer before he joined the US Marshals Service in 1962.

Within months, he was assigned to provide protection for Meredith, whose enrollment at the University of Mississippi touched off one of the most tumultuous moments in civil rights history. Riots claimed two lives and injured hundreds more. White federal marshals accompanied Meredith to class, but off campus he was guarded by a small group of black deputy marshals, including Mr. Bowden.

‘‘We were his protectors off campus,’’ Mr. Bowden said in a 2007 oral history interview for the Historical Society of the District of Columbia Circuit.

‘‘We were armed,’’ he recalled, ‘‘but yes, we were in plain clothes, dressed very casual, no collar and tie. We tried to blend in with the community as best we could, to not look as though we were who we were.’’

When he and the other marshals picked Meredith up from campus, Mr. Bowden said, ‘‘state troopers would follow us, not as friends but as foe.’’

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Mr. Bowden once joined Meredith as he did some Christmas shopping at a store with a white cashier.

‘‘He presented his credit card,’’ Mr. Bowden said in the oral history. ‘‘The lady picked the credit card up, looked at it, and said, ‘Do you have any more identification?’ I couldn’t resist it. I said, ‘Miss, do you think that anybody else with their right mind would be in the middle of Mississippi saying they were James Meredith, other than the real James Meredith?’ ”

Later, in August 1963, Mr. Bowden was called on to provide protection for the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. at the March on Washington, where King delivered his ‘‘I Have a Dream’’ speech.

At the time, Mr. Bowden later said, he didn’t recognize the historic significance of his work. ‘‘It was a detail, an assignment: Let’s keep this guy alive kind of thing and let’s stay alive in the process,’’ he said. ‘‘But I was a young fellow and didn’t have the kind of foresight to say, ‘Oh wow, I’m making history.’ It didn’t occur to me to take a camera and take pictures of this.’’

Richard Kirkland Bowden was born Dec. 24, 1935, in Memphis and was adopted soon after birth. His father was a plumber, his mother a homemaker.

Mr. Bowden was an amateur boxer in his youth and attended the segregated Douglass High School in Memphis, later learning that 19th-century abolitionist and author Frederick Douglass had been a US marshal.

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After attending what is now LeMoyne-Owen College in Memphis, Mr. Bowden served in the Air Force’s criminal investigations division from 1954 to 1958. He later joined the District’s police force, working as an undercover narcotics officer.

‘‘I didn’t wear a badge nor carry a gun or anything to identify myself as a police officer for two years,’’ he said in the oral history, noting that he developed a certain sympathy for the drug addicts and other downtrodden people he met.

With the Marshals Service, Mr. Bowden often accompanied prisoners and witnesses to legal proceedings, including Joe Valachi, an informant who testified before Congress in the early 1960s on organized crime.

Later, Mr. Bowden helped guard sequestered jurors during federal trials related to the Watergate scandal. He retired in 1987 but within a few years returned to work on contract for the Marshals Service until 2017.

Mr. Bowden was on the board of the Luke C. Moore Academy, an alternative high school in the District and was a 55-year member of Allen Chapel AME Church, also in the District.

His first wife, the former Lovenger Hamilton, whom he married in 1964, died in 2000. He leaves his wife of 11 years, Shirley Watkins Bowden; a son from his first marriage, Richard ‘‘Rickey’’ Jr.; two stepchildren ; a sister; three grandchildren; and two great-granddaughters.