Former KSU choir director Dr. Carl Smith spoke about his experience directing the college's choir at the march. "I wasn't sure what to expect. I sure didn't sleep much in the days before." (Anna Latek | State Journal)
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. (center) stands with Dr. Rufus B. Atwood (R), president of Kentucky State University, and Frank Stanley, Jr. (L), journalist and publisher of the Louisville Defender at the college's 1957 commencement ceremony. (Photo | KSU Archives)
The website, educational program, and filmed oral histories collected to commemorate the 1964 civil rights march to the state Capitol were premiered to attendees at a special community event on Sunday, the 59th anniversary of the event. The presentation was hosted by project co-creators Joanna Hay and Dr. LeDatta Grimes, as well as Focus On Race Relations-Frankfort.
Local notables who participated in the march and gave oral testimonies for the website were in attendance, including Rev. Louis Newby, former pastor of the First Corinthian Baptist Church, Sheila Mason-Burton, Dr. Carl Smith and Joseph Smith Jr.
The march, organized by local civil rights leaders including future senator Georgia Davis Powers, Kentucky State University professor Helen Holmes, andLouisville Defenderjournalist Frank Stanley Jr., brought Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., baseball legend Jackie Robinson, and 10,000 marchers to Frankfort in support of an accommodations bill that was to be presented to the state legislature.
While the 1964 bill failed, and another, less-impactful version was supported by government leaders including then-Gov. Ned Breathitt, on Jan. 1, 1966, the Kentucky Civil Rights Act was ultimately signed into law, making it the first open accommodations bill in the southern U.S.
“I didn’t have the votes in 1964,” Breathitt said in a 2000 interview with the Nunn Center at the University of Kentucky. New legislative leadership in 1966 meant more support for amendments to increase the civil liberties for African Americans that were protected under law.
Joseph Smith Jr., who was a student at the University of Kentucky in 1964, acted as a marshal for the parade, said that he was in awe of King.
“He was a man who lit fires and kept them burning,” he explained.
Dr. Grimes, who presented the website to the Frankfort City Commission last month, spoke of the importance of the diversity among the participants in the march and the project’s focus not on the marquee names involved, but in the local participants, people who “exercised the power that they had to do what they thought was right.”
“They marched, they organized, and they were people who took what they had in their hands and decided to do what was right.”
There was also a discussion of the progression of the fight for civil rights in Frankfort, including the 1960 sit-ins led by KSU professor Arthur Edward Norman at such places as Woolworths, Putt’s Restaurant and Frisch’s (formerly on East Main). Norman lost his position at the university in light of these peaceful protests, and the school’s chapter of CORE (Congress of Racial Equality) was kicked out.
It was then that Helen Holmes, a professor of English at KSU, took up the mantle and led further non-violent social protests at the Union Railroad station, Greyhound bus station, YMCA and municipal pool at Juniper Hill Park to decry the segregationary practices in place.
The project, which can be found atwww.MLKMarchOnFrankfort.com, provides an interactive map of the march route along Capital Avenue, oral history films by Hay with local march participants, and special educational modules developed by Dr. Grimes and researcher Judy Sizemore that focus on fifth, eighth, high school and music students of all ages.
When asked if the website would be referencing recent civil rights marches held in Frankfort, Dr. Grimes said that their oral history project “could not be directly connected to recent events,” due to educational prohibitions on the topic implemented by individual school districts, not due to KRS regulations.
Speaking on the rise in recent racial tensions nationwide, activist Ed Powe was greeted with a heavy round of applause after he said that “racism isn’t about black versus white. It is about wrong versus right. These people are coming out of the woodwork, and we need to come out ourselves. You have to be willing to learn about things — to step up, and step out.”
Focus On Race Relations will be hosting monthly gatherings starting Thursday, April 13, called “Let’s Talk About It,” where they hope local residents will gather to create an open discourse on issues of race, bias and injustice. The meetings will take place at the Paul Sawyier Public Library’s Community Room from 5:30-7 p.m.
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