Commission on Human Rights
Ceremony for Kentucky Civil Rights Act 44th anniversary and human rights commission approaches 50 year mark
LOUISVILLE, KENTUCKY – Seated beneath the statue of native son Abraham Lincoln in the state capitol rotunda, Gov. Edward T. Breathitt, on Jan. 27, 1966, signed the Kentucky Civil Rights Act, the momentous law that made Kentucky the first state south of the Mason-Dixon Line to prohibit discrimination.
Today at the Brown Theatre in downtown Louisville, the late governor’s daughter Linda K. Breathitt told an audience of about 40 people that 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.”
Breathitt joined the Kentucky Commission on Human Rights to commemorate the 44th anniversary of the historic law that, along with the U.S. Civil Rights Act of 1964, helped end the long, hard age of segregation.
The ceremony kicked off the commission’s 50-year anniversary celebration, which will include special events and activities throughout 2010 to raise public awareness about civil rights. Gov. Bert T. Combs established the commission on March 16, 1960. It was the first human rights commission in the south. On display today at the theatre were 60 proclamations from cities and counties all over Kentucky that passed the proclamations in support and honor of the historic commission and its work to enforce the Kentucky Civil Rights Act.
“The Kentucky Civil Rights Act began a new and brighter era and helped end a nightmare of legal discrimination and government sanctioned racism, an atrocity African Americans had endured since Kentucky’s beginning,” said John J. Johnson, executive director of the state human rights commission.
Attending the ceremony were Raul Cunningham, president of the Louisville NAACP, Ben Richmond, president of the Louisville Urban League, Suzie Post, former executive director of the Metropolitan Housing Coalition, and George Burney, president of PRIDE. They, along with several others, today, received Kentucky Commission on Human Rights Soldier for Justice Awards.
The Brown Theatre was a poignant backdrop for the proceedings, an example of countless, once segregated public accommodations in the region. Fifty years ago this past Christmas Day, a youth group demonstrated in front of the building because blacks could not enter to watch a movie of the famous “Porgy and Bess,” the classic opera centered around African American characters.
Cunningham said he was 16 years old when he picketed with the citizens who demonstrated that day at the theatre. “We’ve come a long way,” he said. “And, we’re not finished, yet.”
When it passed, the Kentucky Civil Rights Act outlawed segregation and discrimination in the areas of employment and public accommodations and made the Kentucky Commission on Human Rights the state authority to enforce the law and investigate discrimination complaints.
Governor Breathitt said, “This act is a moral commitment kept after a hundred years of hope deferred…a promissory note long overdue.”
The law was the high-water mark of the civil rights movement in Kentucky. Martin Luther King Jr. and Baseball Great Jackie Robinson had helped lead 10,000 people to the capitol in Frankfort in 1964 to demand such a law. Governor Breathitt met with the two men that day and promised he would do what he could to make the law a reality.
Upon its passage, King sent a telegram to Breathitt: “This is a milestone for a southern state…a great step forward for any state. [It] will serve as a great beacon light of hope for all men of goodwill…and hopefully inspire other states to follow suit.” Sometime after its passage and others in the south followed suit, King said of the Kentucky law, “[It] is the strongest and most comprehensive civil rights bill passed by a southern state.”
Since its passage in 1966, the Kentucky Civil Rights Act has achieved expansion a number of times. It now prohibits discrimination in employment, public accommodations, housing and financial transactions and covers the protected classes of race, color, religion, national origin, age, sex, disability, familial status, and tobacco smoking status (in employment).