The eyes of the nation were watching the tiny capital of Kentucky on this day 42 years ago. It was a Thursday. Unlike the weather of late it was extremely cold. Early that morning the city experienced sleet, which tapered off into a cold rain.
It was a day when African Americans were not permitted to eat in Frankfort restaurants, nor stay in Frankfort hotels, nor try on clothes in Frankfort stores. It was a day that would change all of that. But not overnight. They called it The March on Frankfort.
Forty-two years ago an estimated 10,000 black and white people marched down Capital Avenue in the name of equality and civil rights. Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. led the nations first major civil rights march south of the Mason-Dixon line. Jackie Robinson, who broke the major league baseball racial barrier in 1947, was here that day, too.
Clinton Streets First Baptist Churchs pastor Rev. K. L. Moore convinced Dr. King to participate in the march. Moore said, I told him if he didnt come here, he would go to heaven being sorry for what he missed.
Gus Ridgel, former Kentucky State University vice president, served as grand marshal and was supposed to keep an eye on Dr. King during the event. Two FBI officers were also assigned to protect King. Ridgel made history himself when he filed a suit against the University of Missouri in 1950 becoming the first black admitted there.
Sheila Mason-Burton, a student at Frankfort High School then, recollected: The day before, the principal said anyone who goes to the march will be suspended from school. Imagine the principals chagrin when then-Gov. Ned Breathitts daughter Mary Fran, Burtons FHS classmate, took off from school and participated in the march the next day.
Rev. L. A. Newby, pastor of First Corinthian Baptist Church, cherishes a photo showing him standing just behind Dr. King in the 1964 Frankfort march. Newby, who had just finished college at Central State University in Ohio, said, The march was a highlight of any black persons life, mainly because of the struggle we had experienced personally. For Dr. King to come to Kentucky and march with us was just inspiring, exhilarating.
It would be two years before Gov. Breathitt and the 1966 General Assembly would enact a civil rights bill prohibiting discrimination in employment and public accommodations, the first southern state to do so.
On the 40th anniversary of the event chairwoman of the Kentucky Commission on Human Rights Priscilla Johnson said, the marchers called for laws that would bring to an end the legal humiliation of an entire race of people, an outrage that had plagued the commonwealth from its beginnings. The law now prohibits discrimination against people on the basis of race, religion, national origin, sex and age in employment, housing, public accommodations and financial transactions.
When we address those events of forty-two years ago theres another name to be remembered: Gertrude Ridgel. A Kentucky State professor at that time, Ridgel participated in student Frankfort restaurant sit-ins.
I remember going with a group of students in Putts Restaurant, which was supposed to be an outstanding restaurant, said Ridgel. We sat there and sat there, and they completely ignored us. After an hour and a half, we left.
Her next sit-in was at Horn Drug where she ordered a hamburger, and to her surprise, a man brought it to me on a plate. I sat there and ate it and, of course, everybody was giving me that you-dont-have-any-business-in-here look. When her husband Gus appeared the next day for lunch he was refused service.
The march 42 years ago today was not a march of rage in spite of all the outrages, all the indignities, the injustices they and countless others like them had endured. It was a march of hope. They were against violence. Their approach was to pray and work within the system. And theres still work to be done.
Sources consulted for this article include Lowell H. Harrisons Kentuckys Governors, Historic Images of Frankfort, Volume I, Kentuckys Black Heritage from the Kentucky Commission on Human Rights, State Journal staff writers Charles Pearl and Susan Allen, AP writer Charles Wolfe, and Lexington Herald-Leader columnist Dick Burdette.