FRANKFORT — Getting and keeping blacks engaged in the political process was the topic of a forum Wednesday at the Thomas D. Clark Center for Kentucky History.
Bill Sheckles, the first black person to be elected the mayor of Bardstown, spent 12 years on city council before being elected mayor in 2010. The key to politics is to make yourself familiar to all people, he said.
"I like to say I know what's going on in the boardrooms and the back rooms of our community, because all those areas have an effect on how you lead your city," Sheckles said.
"That's the major reason I got involved in city government, was to make our voices be heard and make our voices count," Sheckles said.
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Owensboro City Commissioner Pamela Smith-Wright had also served on several community boards and grew to know a cross-section of that city. That community service proved helpful in fundraising.
"When people found out I was running, people who are behind you will come up and just hand you a check," Smith-Wright said. In Owensboro, "our African-American population is not enough to put anyone in office. So that showed me that the community wanted me."
Perryville Mayor Anne Sleet is in her second term as the first female mayor of that Boyle County city of 755 residents. Serving on the council beforehand was an important training ground.
"You've got to be equipped and know what you're doing to run the business of the city," Sleet said.
Lexington-Fayette Urban County councilman Chris Ford said when he was considering a run for council, he received important advice from former councilman Robert Jefferson. Ford said he considered himself pretty active and visible in the community, but Jefferson told him that "nobody knows who you are."
"What he was telling me is that 'You're perhaps known in some circles,' but he put in my mind that I needed to be out and about and needed to go door-to-door," Ford said.
The forum was held after Wednesday's commemorative march in Frankfort to mark the 50th anniversary of the Rev. Martin Luther King's 1964 march for statewide public accommodations. The forum was held in honor of the late Justice William E. McAnulty Jr., the first black to serve on the Kentucky Supreme Court.
Among those in the forum audience was Anthany Beatty, one of three candidates running for Lexington mayor.
Former state representative Eleanor Jordan of Louisville said she fears that "a generation has been lost" in learning the power of the vote and of public service.
"The adults are not really translating to our young people why they have to get involved," Jordan said.
Sheckles said he tries to make himself available for informal talk wherever he goes, whether it's a second-grade class or a church group.
"You have to be the example that they (young people) would want to follow," Sheckles said.
Smith-Wright said when she goes to the Girls Inc. club, she will lead classes in cooking or how to style hair, and she will occasionally field questions about politics from the girls.
"The reality is that not everybody is cut out for this (politics)," she said. But those who ask about politics perhaps need to be encouraged to learn more to see whether that is a path they should pursue.
The message, Ford said, is that "politics is all around us, and you'll either participate in it or you'll be held hostage by it," Ford said.
But Ford said young people, with their ease in social media, have the capacity to bring more information to voters seeking it.