FRANKFORT — A nostalgic re-enactment of a civil rights march on Frankfort that 50 years ago featured Martin Luther King Jr. and baseball star Jackie Robinson turned into a political rally on the perennial issue of voting rights.
Several thousand people of all ages marched up Capitol Avenue under cold sunny skies Wednesday morning to hear speakers urge more support for House Bill 70, which would restore voting rights to most felons who have served their time.
"I want to say to you, ladies and gentlemen, that the right to vote is a sacred right," said Rep. Jesse Crenshaw, D-Lexington, who has worked unsuccessfully on similar legislation for the past 10 years. "It is not a privilege like driving a car. It is a sacred right!"
Georgia Davis Powers, who was Kentucky's first black female state senator, spoke Wednesday 50 years after she marched in 1964 with 10,000 others on a cold, snowy day in support of civil rights legislation.
"It is a blessing for me to be able to celebrate 50 years of progress," Powers said, but "our efforts are not complete."
Powers, now 90, first started working on a public-accommodations bill in 1963. The Kentucky Civil Rights Act passed in 1966.
"But now it is about House Bill 70," Powers said.
She spoke of a Senate substitute version of the bill that would require felons to wait five years without any further misdemeanor or felony convictions before regaining their voting rights. It also would exclude those who have more than one felony conviction.
More than half of the 180,000 Kentuckians barred from voting because of a felony conviction would remain permanently disenfranchised under the Senate version of the bill, according to an analysis by the League of Women Voters of Kentucky.
"They messed up," Powers said. "They voted a substitute that needs to be killed. ... It is now time for the activists of yesteryear to pass the torch of equality."
Later Wednesday, the House rejected the Senate's changes to HB 70, which means the two chambers will likely set up a conference committee in an effort to negotiate a compromise.
One of the few Republicans who appeared at the rally, House Minority Leader Jeff Hoover, R-Jamestown, talked about his support for HB 70.
"For me, House Bill 70 is not a political issue, and this is not a political event," Hoover told the crowd. "We are all here today as Kentuckians for a common purpose — not only to commemorate the historic event that took place 50 years ago today but to show our support for the restoration of voting rights for those who have paid their debt to society."
Kentucky Poet Laureate Frank X Walker, who recently received an NAACP Image Award for his latest collection on civil rights hero Medgar Evers, recited a poem he wrote titled Who is the Real Criminal?
"Redemption and forgiveness and the concept of paid in full should not be a privilege reserved for only the perfect few who never ever made mistakes," he recited. "If a man or a woman commits a crime then serves their time, we should treat them like the returning citizens that they are, not penalize them for their race, color or previous condition of servitude.
"And if anyone would still insist on denying them that privilege, a right guaranteed by the 15th amendment, then who is the real criminal?"
Fifty years ago, the goal was simple: laws that would allow black people the same rights and accommodations as white people. On Wednesday, in addition to voting rights, marchers displayed signs supporting a smorgasbord of causes, including same-sex marriage, immigration reform, a statewide fairness law to prevent discrimination against gays and lesbians, and raising the minimum wage.
Buses brought church and school groups from all over the state; many people stayed in Frankfort to visit the Capitol or a civil rights exhibit at the Governor's Mansion.
Angela Rogers of Frankfort brought her daughter, Ainye, to the march to celebrate how much life has changed for her family.
"It's paved the way for 50 years of progress," she said. "This is where it all started."