Merlene Davis: Minister who marched in 1964 in Frankfort for civil rights plans to attend commemoration

Herald-Leader columnistMarch 1, 2014 

  • IF YOU GO

    Wednesday's 50th Anniversary Commemoration March on Frankfort

    9:30-11 a.m.: Gather at Second and Capitol streets in Frankfort and march to the Capitol, 700 Capital Avenue Bay. In the case of inclement weather, the event will be in the Frankfort Convention Center, 405 Mero Street.

    11 a.m.- noon: Rally at the Capitol, with speakers including Gov. Steve Beshear, former State Sen. Georgia Powers, State Rep. Jesse Crenshaw, D-Lexington, and State Sen. Gerald Neal, D-Louisville. For more information, call Kentucky Commission on Human Rights, (502) 782-9728, or e-mail AOCR@ky.gov

    12:30-1:45 p.m.: Lobby legislators

    2 p.m.: "William McAnulty Forum on African Americans and the Future of Kentucky Politics." Brown-Forman Room at the Thomas D. Clark Center for Kentucky History, 100 West Broadway, Frankfort. Panelists include Bardstown Mayor Bill Sheckles, Perryville Mayor Anne Sleet, Lexington-Fayette Urban County Councilman Chris Ford, and Owensboro City Commissioner Pamela Smith-Wright. The moderator is KET's Renee Shaw. For information, call (502) 564-7005, Ext. 125, or e-mail tressa.brown@ky.gov.

    All day: Tours of the Governor's Mansion and the 1964 March on Frankfort exhibit at Education Center, next door to the mansion. For information, call (502) 564-1792.

  • Free ride

    A caravan to Frankfort will assemble at Shiloh Baptist Church at 7 a.m. March 5. Three buses and several church vans will be available to take people to Frankfort. After a send-off by Mayor Jim Gray and 1st District Councilman Chris Ford, the caravan will leave at 7:30 a.m. Call (859) 252-4931.

On March 5, 1964, the Rev. Louis A. Newby was just a young face in a crowd of 10,000 mostly black people who had gathered in Frankfort in a united show of force.

They were hoping the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., the Rev. Ralph David Abernathy, and baseball great Jackie Robinson could help them push for a state law mandating equal access to public accommodations.

A bill had been introduced in the General Assembly that would desegregate public facilities in Kentucky. No southern state had passed such a measure, but a coalition of civil rights organizations, black and white churches, ministers and civic leaders — known as Allied Organizations for Civil Rights — decided to have a march on Frankfort to change that.

Newby, then 31, had tasted the equality that AOCR was trying to bring to Kentucky. He had spent two years in Europe while enlisted in the Army and had been treated just like everyone else by Europeans.

"It was completely equal opportunity," Newby said. "I traveled first class, lived first class, and could eat first class. My system adapted to first-class living."

Born in Keene, he was the second son of parents who moved from farm to farm in this area as sharecroppers.

"By eighth grade, we had moved eight times," he said. "That was a detriment to my education. I stayed two years in the fourth grade."

Newby lowered his head and admitted he was in the fifth grade before he started reading. He had a book of Bible stories that he would sneak off to the shed to read. "I would begin, read a little part, and put a 'stop' so I would know where to begin again," he said. "I guess I was a teenager by then."

When he graduated from high school, he enlisted. When he returned to the U.S., he also returned to segregation.

Newby decided to test the waters in Lexington at the Greyhound Bus Station on Short Street. It had black and white lunch counters and black and white bathrooms.

"I went to the bus station and sat at the (white) lunch counter, waiting to be served," he said.

The waitress asked him to leave. He declined. She called the police. When he saw two officers approaching the station, "I got up and ran out the back door and down the alley," Newby said, laughing at the memory.

It didn't stop him from committing similar one-man protests of what he called "immoral conditions in our country."

He enrolled in then Central State College in Wilberforce, Ohio, returning to Kentucky during the summer. But in the summer of 1957, he stayed in Springfield, Ohio, to work at the U.S. Post Office. It was across the street from the YMCA, where he knew he could get a room.

When paying the weekly rate for the room, a clerk told him he also had to pay the membership fee which covered using the weight equipment, the swimming pool and eating in the restaurant. After paying, the clerk told him that although he had paid the fee he would not be allowed to use any membership privileges.

Newby raised concern and told the clerk how unfair it was. The clerk didn't budge and said if Newby wanted to stay, he had to pay the fee. Throughout the summer he asked to speak to a manager to protest the injustice. It never happened. Near the end of his stay, Newby was finally given permission to eat in the restaurant.

"I ordered hot apple pie and two dips of ice cream," he said. "It was mission accomplished without getting angry or showing any acts of violence."

Life went on and so did discrimination.

In 1961, Newby married Sarah Clark Newby. She taught school in Fayette County for 50 years and they raised two daughters. He had been hearing the call to ministry but had ignored it successfully until 1971. He would pastor two churches, Davistown Baptist Church, in Garrard County, and First Corinthian Baptist Church in Frankfort for a total of 42 years.

In 1964, Newby heard that there would be a march on Frankfort and it would be led by King. He knew he wanted to participate.

"King had been leading marches throughout the Southern states," Newby said. "When the news came, I said I wanted to be a part of that. It was an extension of what I was trying to do earlier."

The march on Frankfort was a united front which Newby believed would have greater impact than a lone black man at a lunch counter.

"I drove down with a buddy of mine," he said. "I really wanted to be close to the man who was important. I had heard about him and read about him. I just wanted to be close to him."

And he was. He was right behind King when a surge from the back of the crowd pushed him into the civil rights leader, whom he grabbed to regain his balance.

"He turned to me and asked, 'Are you falling?'" Newby recalled. "I said, 'You'd be the first one to know.'"

Newby said King didn't seem to mind and the march continued. "We had a greater aim," he said.

"Everybody was so joyful knowing we were doing something that mattered," Newby said. "I wasn't interested in the fall and wasn't interested in who hit me. My concern was that we were going to the Capitol to speak to the governor. We had dignity and we were nonviolent."

Newby was not a part of the delegation that spoke with Gov. Ned Breathitt that day, didn't hear the governor give his assurances that he would fight for the civil rights bill. And despite those assurances, the bill never made it out of committee.

But the march helped build support for both the U.S. Civil Rights Act of 1964 and for the Kentucky Civil Rights Act of 1966. The latter became the first state civil rights law south of the Mason-Dixon Line.

Newby is proud to have played a small role in that. He plans to attend the commemoration this year as well, which is placing emphasis on voting rights.

"I'm going because it is still an extension of what I would like our country to do," he said. "I am going to help bring notice to the conditions that need improving in Kentucky."

Merlene Davis: (859) 231-3218. Email: mdavis1@herald-leader.com. Twitter: @reportmerle. Blog: merlenedavis.bloginky.com.

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