Tom Eblen: 50 years ago, the March on Frankfort helped push Kentucky toward change

Herald-Leader columnistFebruary 1, 2014 

  • Black History Month

    This is the first in a series of columns for Black History Month that will run throughout February. Next Sunday: Tom Eblen talks with Georgia Davis Powers about her life, career and relationship with the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.

This is the story of a black woman from Louisville and a white man from Lexington who helped bring 10,000 people to Frankfort to change Kentucky forever.

The March on Frankfort on March 5, 1964, featured the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.; Jackie Robinson, who had broken major-league baseball's color barrier; and the popular folksingers Peter, Paul and Mary.

The 10,000 people who marched to the Capitol steps that cold, wet day were demanding state legislation to keep blacks from being discriminated against in restaurants, hotels and other public accommodations.

March organizers knew that Kentucky lawmakers needed public pressure to force them to do the right thing, which has so often been the case.

To mark the 50th anniversary of what became one of the nation's most significant civil rights protests, the Kentucky Commission on Human Rights and other groups plan a re-enactment on March 5. (For more information: Kchr.ky.gov.)

The March on Frankfort was the brainchild of the late Frank Stanley Jr., editor of The Louisville Defender, a black newspaper. He recruited King, Robinson and Peter, Paul and Mary to draw national attention to the event, while a network of civil rights and religious leaders throughout Kentucky raised an army of people to march behind them.

Georgia Davis Powers was office manager for the march's organizing committee, Allied Organization for Civil Rights. She came to the role with experience, having organized volunteers for Lt. Gov. Wilson Wyatt's losing bid for the U.S. Senate in 1962 and Edward T. "Ned" Breathitt's successful campaign for governor in 1963.

But Powers, now 90, told me recently that she began her personal campaign against discrimination many years earlier. Because her factory-worker father was talented enough to get "a white man's job," she grew up in Louisville's black middle class.

"I had a little white girlfriend who was my age, 8 years old, and we wanted to go to school together, but we couldn't," she said. "When you are discriminated against, it does something to your psyche and you never get over it."

Powers' job on the day of the march was to pick up King and Robinson at Louisville's airport and bring them to Frankfort. Her brother, a funeral home operator, had a limousine, and they arranged for a police escort.

"Jackie Robinson rode up front with my brother, and Dr. King got in the back seat with me because I needed to brief him on the bill, where it stood and what I thought the possibilities were," Powers said. "That was the first time I'd met him."

She marched a few steps behind King that day and sat beside the stage as he, Robinson and others made remarks to the rain-soaked crowd.

Breathitt wasn't at the march, although his 15-year-old daughter, Mary Frances, was among the marchers. A reporter told Powers the governor was in his office. "Since he won't come out," she told other march leaders, "we'll go see him."

So when the benediction had been said and the crowd began dispersing, Powers led King, Robinson, Stanley and a few others inside the Capitol. She knocked on the governor's door.

The civil rights leaders had a cordial meeting with Breathitt and posed for photographs. But Powers said he was non-committal, explaining that as a new governor he needed to build rapport with legislators.

"He said, 'I'll do what I can,'" she recalled. "But the bill failed."

When the General Assembly met next, in 1966, Kentucky became the first Southern state to enact a civil rights law. Breathitt backed the law. Others instrumental in its passage included Rep. Foster Pettit, who would later become the first mayor of Lexington-Fayette Urban County Government, and John Y. Brown Sr., father of the future governor.

A key organizer of white participation in the March on Frankfort was Joe Graves of Lexington, whose background could not have been more different than Powers'.

Graves' great-grandfather was the younger brother of Andrew Carnegie, one of the richest men in 19th century America. The industrialist later became a philanthropist, leaving a legacy of public library buildings in communities across the nation. Graves' father owned Graves-Cox, a popular store where well-dressed Lexington men bought their clothes.

Like Powers, Graves said his fight against discrimination began in childhood.

When Graves was 9, illness confined him to a wheelchair. The Carnegie family owned almost all of scenic Cumberland Island off the Georgia coast, and he spent time there with relatives. The family hired a black boy his age named William to be a companion.

Graves, 83, recalled in an interview last week how he and William were playing in his aunt's yard one day at lunchtime, and he called out to her asking if William could stay for lunch. William said, "Joe, I can't do that. I'm going home for lunch."

"My aunt couldn't have heard what he said," Graves recalled. "But she said, 'I'm sure William's mother is expecting him home for lunch.' I knew something was strange."

In 1957, while working in his family's clothing store, Graves persuaded his father to promote a black stock clerk to a sales position so he wouldn't leave for a better-paying job. The man became the first black clerk in a major Lexington store, and he was so good at it that commissions tripled his previous salary, Graves said.

Three years after, Graves was on the first Lexington Human Rights Commission, negotiating desegregation of the city's movie theaters. On the day of the March on Frankfort, he was co-chair of Kentuckians for Public Accommodations.

For both Powers and Graves, the March on Frankfort was the beginning of political careers with an emphasis on civil rights.

In 1967, Powers became the first black and the sixth woman elected to the Kentucky Senate. During 21 years in office, she sponsored much legislation furthering rights for minorities, women and children.

Powers helped lead civil rights marches in several Southern cities. She became a close confidante of King and was with him in Memphis in April 1968 when he was killed. In 1989, the autobiography of King's top lieutenant, Ralph David Abernathy, disclosed that Powers and King also were lovers.

Graves would go on to be a Lexington councilman and work for the election of the city's first black councilman, Harry Sykes. Graves served in both the state House and Senate in the 1970s.

"As I took that march," Graves recalled of that day 50 years ago, "I kept thinking of all the people (King) helped and was trying to help."

Toward the end of our conversation last week, Graves' voice choked as he told me how he has written instructions for his funeral. He has asked for a mixed-race choir to sing at the service, he said, "and one of the hymns has to be, We Shall Overcome."

Tom Eblen: (859) 231-1415.Email: teblen@herald-leader.com. Twitter: @tomeblen. Blog: tomeblen.bloginky.com.

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