On March 5, 1964, a cold rainy day, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., led a peaceful march on the Kentucky Capitol in Frankfort. The Kentucky General Assembly was in session at the time and was considering a civil rights bill that would have effectively ended segregation in private accommodations in Kentucky.
I know the weather that day because my friend Calvert McCann, who marched with Dr. King in Frankfort, as he had in Washington, told me. I wrote about Calvert last February, during a series of profiles of my own personal civil rights heroes for Black History Month.
I wrote about how, as a high school student and amateur photographer, he chronicled Lexington’s Civil Rights Movement with his camera, creating the only photographic record of that struggle. I wrote about his service in the Peace Corps among the first volunteers to work in Nigeria, and about the rediscovery of his work as Lexington’s accidental historian in 2004.
One thing I didn’t write was that the weather always figures into Calvert’s stories. “Oh, it was miserable,” he told me. “Raining, and I got wet and it was cold.” They held an umbrella over Dr. King, and he spoke, echoing many of the themes of his I Have a Dream speech, which Calvert had heard in Washington the previous year, when it was hot, and he was so tired that he fell asleep, only to be awakened by the sound of Dr. King’s booming voice.
Ten thousand people showed up in the rain in Frankfort to hear Dr. King speak and Peter, Paul and Mary sing. They came from across the state and some from across the nation. Baseball star Jackie Robinson, the first modern black major league baseball player, and a civil rights leader in his own right, marched with Dr. King, as did Dr. Ralph Abernathy, Dr. King’s right arm.
Dr. King asked the Kentucky General Assembly to pass the civil rights bill it was considering. The bill would have ended discrimination by private businesses in public accommodations, such as housing, and in employment.
Dr. King’s pleas for a civil rights bill in Kentucky had come at a propitious time. In a courageous move – in my view under-appreciated by historians – in 1962, departing Gov. Bert Combs signed an executive order requiring the elimination of racial discrimination in all businesses formally regulated by the state. Combs later boasted that no one thought much of the order until they realized just how many types of businesses, from restaurants to plumbers to hotels, the state regulates.
As courageous as the executive order was, it pleased no one: Civil rights advocates thought it hadn’t gone far enough (though many changed their views later), and opponents thought it had gone too far. Neither side liked the fact that the edict came as an executive order, rather than as an act of the legislature. Gov. Edward T. Breathitt had defended the executive order during the 1963 gubernatorial campaign against charges that it was rule by “executive decree,” and had won a narrow victory despite the order’s unpopularity in some quarters.
For once, Dr. King and a Southern governor were on the same side. Gov. Breathitt wanted a civil rights bill passed, even if it did little more than the executive order, to both legitimize the order, and to make it permanent. Breathitt was acutely aware that the next governor could revoke the order, as his opponent in 1963, had promised to do if elected.
Breathitt had two chances to secure passage of the bill, during the 1964 and ’66 sessions of the General Assembly. In 1964, unpersuaded by either Gov. Breathitt or Dr. King, the bill’s opponents kept it bottled up in committee throughout the session. No vote was taken.
Between 1964 and 1966, though, things changed; the Federal Civil Rights Act of 1964 and Voting Rights Act of 1965 had been passed, and the winds were blowing toward civil rights legislation, not against.
A stronger civil rights bill was introduced in the 1966 legislative session, and it easily passed. Gov. Breathitt got his victory, the first state civil rights statute passed in the South. I am proud to say that another civil rights hero of mine, my old law partner, Joe Johnson, introduced the bill in the Kentucky legislature and worked to put together the bipartisan coalition that passed it. I wrote about Joe and his adventures in civil rights last year, too.
The civil rights leaders of that era are slowly dying off. Dr. King was felled by an assassin’s bullet all too early, but the ravages of time attacked the others. Jackie Robinson passed away in 1972, as did Abernathy in 1990. Ned Breathitt passed away in 2003, and Joe Johnson followed in 2008. Thankfully, Calvert remains with us, though in a nursing home.
As we celebrate Martin Luther King Day, let us also celebrate the lives of those who marched with Dr. King, right here in Kentucky, the famous ones like Jackie Robinson, and the not so famous ones like Calvert McCann. They are slowly fading away.
Robert L. Treadway is senior policy analyst at Kentucky First Strategies, LLC, a full-service political consulting, lobbying and governmental relations firm. In his role as a legal consultant, he also provides legal research and writing services to attorneys and law firms throughout Kentucky. Bob has a lifelong interest in Kentucky history, which he pursued as a student at Transylvania University, where he graduated with a major in history and minor in political science, and was an award winning editor of Transy’s student newspaper, The Rambler. He is a graduate of Harvard Law School, where his media activities included scriptwriting for Harvard Law Professor Arthur Miller’s TV series, and for Prof. Miller’s role as legal editor on ABC TV’s Good Morning, America. He writes, posts, and Tweets about Kentucky history. Look him up on Facebook; his Twitter feed is @rltreadway.