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Robert Treadway: Story of Will Lockett reminds us of MLK’s greatest contribution

“Come here, I want to show you something,” the senior partner in my old law firm said. We were walking toward the Old Fayette County Courthouse in downtown Lexington. At the time, it was still the courthouse, and we went there nearly every day. But today he wanted to talk. He walked around the side of the building to the right as one faces the big front steps and showed me a chip in the concrete design work on the wall.

“It’s a bullet mark,” he said, “from the Will Lockett riot.” I looked at it, a tiny pockmark in an otherwise unblemished façade to a building standing since 1910. I put my finger in it. “Who was Will Lockett?” I asked.

That bullet hole came to mind as I read a blog post titled, ‘Most of you have no idea what Martin Luther King actually did’ written by Hamden Rice, a Daily Kos blogger. The title refers not to what Dr. King did for America, but to what he did specifically for African Americans.

Will Lockett, I learned, was an African American veteran of the First World War, whose date of birth appears lost to history. In February, the month we celebrate Black History Month today, in 1920, Lockett was accused of the Lexington murder of a 10-year-old white girl, Geneva Hardman. While it is less than clear that he committed the crime, without benefit of counsel, he confessed to the murder in police custody. One assumes that his interrogation was not gentle. His trial took less than half an hour, and the judge sentenced him to die in Kentucky’s new electric chair.

Mr. Rice on Daily Kos recounted a conversation in which his father, who had grown up as a black man in the segregated South, told him that the marches and the “I Have a Dream Speech” and the Nobel Prize were all nice but were not King’s real contribution for black people living in the South. “He ended the terror of living as a black person, especially in the South.”

Will Lockett’s conviction was entered on Feb. 9, 1920. The trial was set that day because it was February Court Day, the traditional monthly market days in downtown Lexington. This brought a large crowd downtown, and several hundred people crowded the courthouse. Kentucky Gov. Edwin Morrow called out all local and state law enforcement and militia to quell the riot. The state troops opened fire on the crowd, killing six and wounding 50.

“It wasn’t that black people had to use a separate drinking fountain or couldn’t sit at lunch counters or had to sit in the back of the bus. You really must disabuse yourself of this idea. Lunch counters and buses were crucial symbolic planes of struggle that the civil rights movement used to dramatize the issue, but the main suffering in the south did not come from our inability to drink from the same fountain, ride in the front of the bus or eat lunch at Woolworth’s.

“It was that white people, mostly white men, occasionally went berserk, and grabbed random black people, usually men, and lynched them. You all know about lynching. But you may forget or not know that white people also randomly beat black people, and the black people could not fight back, for fear of even worse punishment,” Mr. Rice wrote.

The day after Will Lockett’s trial, he was transported under the protection of 400 federal troops to the state penitentiary at Eddyville, where he was executed on March 9, 1920. At the time, the Lockett case received national news coverage because it was the first time local troops had been called out in the South to quell a potential lynching. Kentucky was held up as a model of the New South, for attempting to quell lynching without outside pressure. What the national press perhaps missed was that Will Lockett ended up as dead by judicial execution as he would have at the hands of a lynch mob, a phenomenon often referred to as “judicial lynching.”

Mr. Rice’s blog entry credits Dr. King and the leadership of the Civil Rights Movement as having taught black people in the South to do the things they feared most. Sit at white lunch counters. Register to vote. The purpose, Mr. Rice writes, is to confront one’s worst fears about what white people could do to African Americans. And, they suffered the worst that the white establishment could dish out, and found that it wasn’t unbearable.

“That, my friends, is what ended the terrorism of the South. Confronting your worst fears, living through it and breaking out in a deep-throated freedom song. The jailers knew they had lost when they beat the crap out of these young Negroes, and the jailed, beaten young people began to sing joyously, first in one town then in another.”

No doubt the ghost of Will Lockett cheered them on.

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.

To read more from Robert Treadway, click here.

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