Commission on Human Rights
Governor will recognize Human Rights Commission 50th anniversary in capitol ceremony
Fifty years ago on March 21, 1960, Gov. Bert T. Combs signed into existence the first state human rights commission south of the Mason-Dixon Line.
Next week on Thursday March 18 at 2 p.m. (EST) in the capitol rotunda in Frankfort, Ky., 61st Kentucky Governor Steve Beshear will sign a proclamation to recognize the Kentucky Commission on Human Rights for its half-century of service. The public is invited.
“The creation of the Kentucky Commission on Human Rights in 1960 was a historic move that did not come easily to a region long entrenched in institutional discrimination,” said John J. Johnson, executive director of the commission. “Laws and customs upheld segregation in the classroom, in the public, and in the neighborhood long after slavery was abolished in the late 19th century,” he said, “and in 1960, discrimination was legal and encouraged by many.”
Like elsewhere in the south, people fighting for equality were descending upon the state in the years leading up to the commission and afterward during the sixties. People pushing for civil rights laws staged rallies, sit-ins, protests and marches. With the creation of its own human rights commission, Kentucky made one of its first real commitments to change.
Governor Combs fought for the commission's creation and was a civil rights supporter. Later, in 1963, he issued an executive order requiring restaurants licensed in Kentucky to end discrimination and serve black customers. He said it was unconstitutional for Kentucky to license discrimination. Following his gubernatorial term, he was appointed to the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals by President Lyndon B. Johnson, serving from 1967 to 1970. Combs was the 50th governor of Kentucky and served from 1959 to 1963.
When the Kentucky Commission on Human Rights first executive director Galen Martin took the helm, the agency had no power. The commission could only monitor the legal rights of Kentuckians. In its early days, its statutory mandate allowed it “to act only as a forum for minority groups in seeking peaceful solutions to racial problems.” As a result of its limitations, the commission’s early program consisted largely of research and study.
It wasn’t until 1966, two years after the passage of the U.S. Civil Rights Act of 1964, that the Kentucky Civil Rights Act became law. With its passage, the commission was granted enforcement powers in the areas of employment and public accommodations. Martin, who was executive director from 1961 to 1989, lobbied for and was a major writer of the act. Kentucky became the first state in the south to pass a state civil rights law.
Gov. Edward T. (Ned) Breathitt, 51st Kentucky Governor from 1963 to 1967, signed the Kentucky Civil Rights Act for which he had pushed. On January 27 of this year, the late governor’s daughter Linda Breathitt joined the Kentucky Commission on Human Rights in Louisville to recognize the 44th anniversary of the Kentucky Civil Rights Act. She said her father believed signing the act was one of the most important moments of his life. “My father wanted equality for all people,” she said. “He worked very hard to make sure the Kentucky Civil Rights Act became law.”
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. later praised the Kentucky Civil Rights Act as the “strongest and most comprehensive civil rights bill passed by a Southern state.”
The commission's enforcement powers were expanded two years later, when the Kentucky Fair Housing Act became law. At that time, Kentucky became the first state in the country to enact a fair housing law. Galen Martin also spearheaded the push for passage of this act.
“Kentucky can be very proud of being the first state in the south to establish a human rights commission, the first state in the south to pass a civil rights law, and the first state in the nation to pass a fair housing law,” said George W. Stinson, Kentucky Human Rights Commission chair. “It is our great hope that Kentucky will add more protected classes to the Civil Rights Act for people who still lack adequate protection against discrimination,” he said.
With other expansions throughout the years, the Kentucky Commission on Human Rights through enforcement of the Kentucky Civil Rights Act now protects people from discrimination based on race, color, religion, national origin, sex, age, disability, familial status, and tobacco smoking status in the areas of employment, public accommodations, housing and financial transactions with varying stipulations.