Legislators recall Martin Luther King Jr. march

Lawmakers reflect on rally to support desegregation, anti-discrimination

By Kevin Wheatley, Published:

Sen. Gerald Neal knew he was part of something historic when, as a freshman at Kentucky State University, he joined a mass of 10,000 who marched peacefully on the Capitol with the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and other civil rights leaders 50 years ago today.

Some of the excitement he felt that day — “We thought we were on the path of eliminating racism in society, bigotry,” he said — has resurfaced as organizers recognize the Freedom March on Frankfort.

State lawmakers interviewed by The State Journal recalled the historic significance of King’s peaceful rally on the Capitol grounds that day in 1964, which was coordinated to boost support for desegregation and anti-discrimination legislation before the General Assembly.

The U.S. Civil Rights Act was enacted four months later, and lawmakers passed the Kentucky Civil Rights Act in 1966, making Kentucky the first southern state to pass such a comprehensive civil rights bill.

“Living in it was exhilarating and frightening at the same time, depending on circumstances,” said Neal, D-Louisville.

His two sisters, one a junior at KSU at the time, and brother, a senior at KSU then, also participated in the march, and Neal said he and his siblings demonstrated at non-violent sit-ins and marches during the civil rights movement, sometimes ending those days in handcuffs.

Rep. Derrick Graham was a 5-year-old kindergarten student when King led the Capitol march, but he can vividly recall looking down on the throng of people as his friend’s father stopped his truck on the East Main Street hill, just past the Capital Avenue bridge.

“He told us all, ‘Look at that big crowd down there,’” recalled Graham, D-Frankfort. “He pointed toward the Capitol ... and said, ‘That’s history being made, and you all never forget it.’”

Although he was too young to participate, Graham said his late mother, a teacher, kept him informed of the civil rights movement and other important debates of the day.

Graham said his mother embodied some of the struggles of African-Americans in those days. She couldn’t find work as a teacher in Franklin County in the early 1960s, so she taught in Richmond.

She and a neighbor, who also taught in the district, would stay with another teacher throughout the week and return home on Fridays, said Graham, whose aunt stayed with him until his mother was hired at Thorn Hill School in 1967.

Sen. Julian Carroll was still a cub representative in the House when King marched in Frankfort. He had never seen such a crowd converge on the Capitol, and there was apprehension by some at welcoming a polarizing civil rights leader such as King.

“There was a great deal of racial prejudice existing at that time,” said Carroll, D-Frankfort.

But signs of changing attitudes became more and more apparent. Gov. Bert T. Combs had issued executive orders in 1963 against discrimination in state government and discouraging segregation in public accommodations.

His successor, Gov. Edward Breathitt, came out in support of a civil rights bill during the 1963 gubernatorial campaign and oversaw its passage in 1966. What’s more, former Gov. A.B. “Happy” Chandler was Major League Baseball commissioner when Jackie Robinson, who participated in the march, broke baseball’s color barrier as a member of the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1948.

Rep. Reginald Meeks was 10 when King came to Frankfort, but he understood the civil rights movement’s meaning through family and friends.

Not all African-Americans agreed with King’s methods, though.

“There was definite tension, I guess you’d have to call it, between those who really felt like things should stay as they are, keep things as they are versus riling people up and getting the community bent out of shape over some issue,” Meeks said. 

“And Dr. King was kind of at the forefront of that. There were a lot of black people in leadership, church ministers who kind of wanted to keep it quiet and slowly get to where we need to be. Dr. King comes along and says, ‘We’re not moving fast enough.’”

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