Kentucky to mark 50th anniversary of March on Frankfort

Kentucky to mark 50th anniversary of March on Frankfort
The March on Frankfort was held on March 5, 1964. (Source: Kentucky Human Rights Commission)
The March on Frankfort was held on March 5, 1964. (Source: Kentucky Human Rights Commission)
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. can be seen in the front row of this photograph of the March on Frankfort. (Source: Kentucky Human Rights Commission)
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. can be seen in the front row of this photograph of the March on Frankfort. (Source: Kentucky Human Rights Commission)
An estimated 10,000 ascended on Frankfort on that day. (Source: Kentucky Human Rights Commission)
An estimated 10,000 ascended on Frankfort on that day. (Source: Kentucky Human Rights Commission)
John Johnson of the Kentucky Human Rights Commission
John Johnson of the Kentucky Human Rights Commission

LOUISVILLE, KY (WAVE) - The state of Kentucky will soon mark the 50th anniversary of the March on Frankfort. Although the state and the nation are being called on to mark this historic day, civil rights leaders in the state are calling everyone to action.

"We will come together on March 5, 2014 to mark the 50th anniversary of the '64 march", explained Executive Director of the Kentucky Human Rights Commission John Johnson.

An estimated 10,000 people led by the Louisville Defender newspaper's Frank Stanley Jr., Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., baseball legend Jackie Robinson and local civil rights leaders ascended on Frankfort in 1964. In 2014, Johnson asked that people not just look back but move forward.

Johnson stressed the purpose of the march today, "not just to remember what happened 50 years ago but to call the states attention, to call the nation's attention to issues that are currently before us."

There are many issues, according to Johnson, that must be addressed before we are living in the land of the free. Freedom's price is time, attention and action.

Johnson wanted everyone to take note. "Some of the time our elected officials, they respond to the pressure they receive. We passed the '66 civil rights law because of pressure of the people," he said.

That pressure by the people began in 1963 when the Kentucky Commission on Human Rights drafted a proposed Public Accommodations Bill that was presented to the General Assembly when it met in 1964.  Governor Edward T. "Ned" Breathitt was at the beginning of his first term as Governor of Kentucky in January of 1964. The proposed legislation would prohibit discrimination in employment and accommodations based on race, national origin, color or religion.

The pressure began in 1963. It continued with the historic march of 1964 that called in forces from the state and the nation. In 1966, Kentucky became the first state in the south to adapt a statewide Civil Rights Law. Johnson believes it was an example for states throughout the nation.

He stressed it passed only due to pressure and voter interest, "not because of the goodness of legislators," Johnson said.

It often takes the voice and the vote of the people before change will come. The process in today's world is no different.

"We get issues that relate to sex disability, all sort of issues," Johnson said with urgency. "The truth is, even white males should not be discriminated against because they are white males."

Even in our world today, in order for justice to work, the people must work for justice.

Johnson stressed an issue in front of the commission right now, "Kentucky has the highest rate of disenfranchisement for African-Americans in the nation. Nationwide, one out of every 12 African-Americans cannot vote because of disenfranchisement laws, but in Kentucky, one out of every four black folks in the state cannot vote because of out dated disenfranchisement laws."

Florida and Iowa are the only other states in the nation that, like Kentucky, removed all voting rights from convicted felons. Kentucky's disenfranchisement law took effect in 1799.

"So a part of the march, a major focus, will be to call attention to these issues," stated Johnson.

Former State Senator Georgia Powers looked back at the emotions tied to the fight for the public accommodations law and her fight to change her home state of Kentucky.

"We were just tired of being left out. We were not being recognized as citizens," Powers said as she shook her head. "We at that time were marching and fighting discrimination."

It was a personal battle, and everyone involved got their own scars.

"When I was 15, I got a job at Grants Five and Dime store on 4th Street," Powers recalled. "I was told when I was hired, 'You can serve colored people, but they can't stand at the counter and eat.' I got two warnings 'cause I didn't tell anybody they couldn't stand there and eat."

Powers also got something else. She got the attention of the store manager. In a matter of a few days, she got a powerful lesson that would change her life.

"The bookkeeper had a little envelope with my paycheck in it. It was cash. It wasn't payday. I quit and they fired me same time," Powers proudly explained.

Rev. Charles Elliot from King Solomon Baptist Church was also part of the March 5 march on Frankfort in 1964 and a victim of discrimination. He described the sting of discrimination then and the affects it has even now.

"Right here on 4th Street, I went up there to get a ticket and the lady said to me without any hesitation, 'We don't sell niggers tickets here. Niggers don't go to this theater,'" Elliot's shaky voice explained with more pain than anger.

It was because those incidents were every day occasions that every civil rights activist was ready to fight for a bill to prohibit segregation and discrimination in Kentucky. It was a fight they believed in, not knowing that our piece of Kentucky legislation would eventually foreshadow the future direction of the nation.

Frank Stanley, editor, general manager and president of the Louisville Defender lead the way to that march on Frankfort in 1964.

Elliot vividly remembered, "It was Frank Stanley Jr. who contacted Dr. King and asked him to be the speaker, and also Jackie Robinson. Peter, Paul and Mary were there as entertainers, and he contacted them."

Stanley secured free office space for the group calling itself the Allied Organization for Civil Rights. Their office was located in the Eli H. Brown building, located on the northwest corner of 3rd and Main Streets.

The National Office of the NAACP provided funds to partially equip and staff the office. To generate capital, the AOCR implemented a plan to issue and market stock in "the interest of human dignity."  Shares sold for $1.00 and became prized acquisitions of social, church and school groups.

The atmosphere was electric, explained Powers, "When we got to Frankfort, this mass of people were there, and they just covered us."

Ten-thousand people met Kentucky civil rights leaders and national stars in the fight against discrimination. Rev. Dr.  Martin Luther King Jr., legendary baseball player Jackie Robinson, and civil rights activist Rev. Ralph Abernathy all took part in the march on March 5, 1964. The general assembly was in session at the time of the march and Governor Ned Breathitt was inside the capital.

"One of the reporters said to me, 'the governor is in his office.' We asked him if he was coming out. He said no," Powers recalled.

Powers then decided to take the march one more step. "When the reporter said to me, 'The governor is in, he won't come out,' [I thought,] I'll just take some people in there," she said.

As a former worker for Governor Breathitt's gubernatorial campaign, Powers wanted to introduce him to some friends, or considering their mission, maybe foes. King, Abernathy and Robinson followed Powers into the governor's office.

Powers explained the significance of the day."Well, of course that bill never got out of committee in 1964.  The number of people who marched and the way they carried themselves, the impact they made brought pressures to bear that created 1966 civil rights."

The determination of Kentucky residents and the legislation passing in 1966 were important, not just to Kentucky, but the nation.

"Kentucky then became the first state in the south to adapt a state wide civil rights law. It was an example for many throughout the south to follow," Johnson cheered.

The commemoration of the march on Frankfort will gather March 5, 2014 in Frankfort at Second Street and Capitol Avenue at 9:30 a.m. The one-hour rally at the Capitol steps will begin at 11 a.m. They are also asking residents of Kentucky to visit their state legislators and use their lobbying power that day for issues that in are in the forefront now.

There will be volunteers available to help marchers find their legislator if they do not know that information so they can participate in the lobbying process.

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