During my college days, many of my friends became involved, to one degree or another, with the civil rights movement. Here in Louisville, I had grown to adulthood in segregated schools, went to segregated movies and libraries, and played in segregated parks. But a wave of change was spreading across the South.
In 1963 I became involved with an organization called Allied Organization for Civil Rights in Kentucky; a group hoping to pressure the Kentucky legislature into passing a civil rights law to desegregate public accommodations. The group’s leaders included Georgia Davis Powers (later, Kentucky’s first Black female state senator), Fr. John Loftus (dean of Bellarmine College), and Frank Stanley, Jr., editor of The Defender, Louisville’s Negro (the word we used at the time) newspaper. I remember one of the leaders, Lukey Ward, bringing her little boy, Mike, to some of the meetings. Mike later became Louisville’s 3rd District U.S. congressman.
Kentucky’s General Assembly met for 90 days, every two years, back then. In 1964, the January through March session took up the highly contentious debate over civil rights. Our AOCR group organized a “March on Frankfort,” for March 15. We bussed in about 100,000 students, ministers, housewives, and factory workers; to march up Capitol Avenue to the legislature. The leaders of the march included Jackie Robinson, Ralph Abernathy, and a preacher from Georgia named Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., who was starting to make a name for himself in the national press.
The March on Frankfort was a pretty good show. I got to shake Dr. King’s hand, and he gave a truncated version of his famous “I have a dream” speech to the crowd. We all sang, “We Shall Overcome,” and “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.” Up on the hill, however, the Kentucky legislature remained unconvinced.”
In small groups, we infiltrated the Capitol building, and attempted to button-hole any politicians we might recognize. My state representative in the General Assembly was Jessie Oswald Johnson, a Republican from Valley Station. “Oz” and I were old friends: he was the assistant principal of my high school. At least twice a year, I would be sent to his office for a paddling (corporal punishment made me the man I am today). I credit him for slightly attenuating my life of crime.
Oz agreed to speak with me out in the hall (my very first attempt at lobbying). He explained that the Republicans were solidly against the proposed public accommodations law, and that he felt he had to respect the view of his constituents. I suggested to him that it was ironic that the party of Kentucky’s own Abraham Lincoln, the party that freed the slaves, would not now want the descendants of those slaves to eat in the same restaurants with the rest of us. We argued back and forth for about half an hour, and he went back into the House chamber, saying he’s think some more about it.
A bunch of the marchers and organizers crowed the galleries above the House chambers, and watched the final debate and vote on the civil rights bill. It failed to pass. Oz Johnson voted in favor of the bill. Later that year, another politician named Johnson pushed the federal civil rights bill through congress; effectively mooting the need for state legislation. In the next year’s election, Oz Johnson was defeated by a Democrat.
Several of us students in the gallery decided to stage a sit-in protest, and refuse to leave the Capitol building at the close of business. The AOCR leaders had some lawyers standing by with bail money, in anticipation of the massive arrests to come. We hung “Freedom or Death” signs around our necks and dug in for a long siege. The police never came.