A large crowd of people marches outside Kentucky's capitol

50 Years After the March on Frankfort

This week, Kentucky will mark the 50th Anniversary of the March on Frankfort. Despite growing up next door in Indiana, I knew nothing about this bit of Civil Rights-era history.

On March 5, 1964, more than ten thousand people marched outside the Kentucky state capitol in support of a state civil rights act to de-segregate public accommodations. Organized by the AOCR (the Allied Organizations for Civil Rights), the event featured Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Jackie Robinson, with performances by Peter, Paul & Mary. Other speakers included Rev. Ralph Abernathy and Rev. Wyatt T. Walker, then the Executive Director of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.

A large crowd of people marches outside Kentucky's capitol

10,000 people marched on Kentucky’s state capitol on March 5, 1964, in support of a state civil rights bill. (Source: Kentucky Department for Libraries and Archives)

Despite the size of the march — and a brief, subsequent hunger strike in the gallery of the Kentucky legislature — the bill never made it out of committee. But by the end of March 1964, the Civil Rights Act had made it to the floor of the U.S. Senate. On June 10, 71 Senators voted to break the filibuster; on July 2, President Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964 into law. Two years later, Kentucky Governor Edward Breathitt successfully pushed the state’s civil rights act through the legislature, making his state the first in the south to pass such a law.

I had trouble finding many contemporary primary sources about the March on Frankfort. The SCLC’s March 1964 newsletter includes a brief mention. Luckily, this week the Courier-Journal re-posted a 1964 account of the rally by Georgia Davis Powers, one of the organizers of the march — along with some excellent photographs. (Davis Powers would go on to be the first African-American elected to the Kentucky State Senate.) And the Civil Rights in Kentucky Oral History Project has collected many amazing stories, including several videotaped interviews used for a documentary. Here’s part of the interview with Georgia Davis Powers:

There’s a certain historical irony to the timing of this anniversary — just in the last few weeks, we’ve been exposed to a new debate on public accommodations, with several states (like Arizona and Mississippi) considering legislation to allow businesses to refuse to serve customers for religious reasons. And although these new efforts are targeted at LGBT people, the arguments aren’t all that different than the ones heard 50 years ago, as Ian Millhiser noted for Think Progress last week:

For Senator Bilbo, however, racism was more that just an ideology, it was a sincerely held religious belief. In a book entitled Take Your Choice: Separation or Mongrelization, Bilbo wrote that “[p]urity of race is a gift of God . . . . And God, in his infinite wisdom, has so ordained it that when man destroys his racial purity, it can never be redeemed.” Allowing “the blood of the races [to] mix,” according to Bilbo, was a direct attack on the “Divine plan of God.” There “is every reason to believe that miscengenation and amalgamation are sins of man in direct defiance to the will of God.”

Bilbo was one of the South’s most colorful racists, but he was hardly alone in his beliefs. As early as 1867, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court upheld segregated railway cars on the grounds that “[t]he natural law which forbids [racial intermarriage] and that social amalgamation which leads to a corruption of races, is as clearly divine as that which imparted to [the races] different natures.” This same rationale was later adopted by state supreme courts in Alabama

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, Indiana and Virginia to justify bans on interracial marriage, and by justices in Kentucky to support residential segregation and segregated colleges.

So while Kentuckians will gather to remember those who fought for basic justice in public accommodations 50 years ago, let’s not forget that there’s still plenty of work left for us to do today.