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Washington Post's first black woman reporter among those discussing voting rights at UK event

Dorothy
Gilliam
said the fight for voting rights is personal to her.
Dorothy Gilliam said the fight for voting rights is personal to her.

Dorothy Gilliam grew up in segregated Louisville at a time when most blacks, including her parents, were kept out of Southern voting booths. She became the first black female reporter at the Washington Post in 1961, and four years later she watched television footage of Bloody Sunday in Selma, Ala., when Alabama police brutally beat civil rights protesters marching for voting rights, "the terror of the time," as she calls it.

She recalls just a few days later, when President Lyndon Johnson introduced the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which opened voting booths to black Southerners and changed America's political and social landscape.

As a journalist, Gilliam has also observed how one of the most significant civil rights laws in history has been challenged during the past 50 years. On Oct. 13, she and a host of other experts will examine the law's turbulent existence in a special symposium — "The Foundation of a Democracy: Voting Rights, Past, Present & Future" — hosted by the University of Kentucky's Martin School of Public Policy and Administration at the Singletary Center for the Arts.

Joining Gilliam will be Pulitzer Prize winner and former Newsweek editor Jon Meacham, journalist and author Ari Berman and a host of legal and journalistic experts.

The symposium is free and open to the public.

"It's very personal to me — to me that whole period is not theoretical, and it starts way before Bloody Sunday," Gilliam said in a telephone interview from her home in Washington, D.C. "I'm going to talk about what it was like as a black woman who grew up in the South, about living the pre-voting rights experience as a Southerner."

Gilliam lived through the entire Civil Rights Movement and experienced some of it firsthand. In 1962, she was sent to Oxford, Miss., to cover James Meredith's integration of Ole Miss under the watchful eyes of federal troops. She stayed in a funeral home for blacks because none of the Oxford hotels would have her.

Her speech — which will cover the history that led to 1965 — will kick off the event at 1 p.m.

Gilliam said recent court decisions on voting rights, including a 2013 decision by the U.S. Supreme Court that weakened Congressional oversight, threaten to reverse many of the act's achievements.

"I think that's one of the really sad things about what is happening now — it's reminiscent of the long, long struggles that have been at play in order to get this very basic democratic right available to every American," Gilliam said. "I am going to talk about the poll tax and some of those things that were a factor in the South, those things that had kept my parents from voting, but it's hard to talk about that without also talking about the whole history of what had happened in the South leading up to the passage of the 1965 bill."

Gilliam's presentation will be followed by journalist Ari Berman, the author of Give Us the Ballot: The Modern Struggle for Voting Rights in America, who will focus on recent events, including an ongoing federal lawsuit in North Carolina.

Former Kentucky Secretary of State Trey Grayson will then moderate a discussion of voting-rights issues in the states featuring David Becker, director of election initiatives for The Pew Charitable Trusts, and Pedro A. Cortés, secretary of state for Pennsylvania.

Retired U.S. District Judge Jennifer Coffman will lead a discussion of recent court decisions regarding voting rights with Judge Robert Hunter of the North Carolina Court of Appeals, North Carolina voting rights attorney Daniel Donovan, and Josh Douglas, the Robert G. Lawson and William H. Fortune Associate Professor at the UK College of Law.

In 2013, the U.S. Supreme Court voted in Shelby v. Holder to essentially gut Congress's ability to pre-approve changes in state voting rights laws. That led to a legislative package in North Carolina that rolled back many voting protections, which has been the subject of lawsuits ever since.

The mixture of politics and race have always made the Voting Rights Act a controversial subject, and one that always deserves discussion, said UK's Douglas.

"I think it will be really fascinating," he said. "It's bringing together both lawyers and media types, and the combination will make this a really good program."

At 7 p.m., Jon Meacham, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of American Lion and Franklin and Winston, will present the inaugural Wendell H. Ford Public Policy Lecture, honoring the late U.S. senator and Kentucky governor. Ford, a longtime advocate for the Martin School, was the principal sponsor of the 1993 National Voter Registration Act, sometimes called the Motor Voter Act.

Meacham's address is expected to focus on current and future developments in voting rights and elections.

His presentation will be followed by a discussion of future developments with Kentucky Lieutenant Gov. Crit Luallen and other panelists.

Kentucky Educational Television (KET) will televise the symposium live on KET KY and KET.org/live, and will air highlights on KET2 and KET KY from Oct. 18-23.

"This promises to be a compelling and fascinating day on our campus," said Merl Hackbart, founding and interim director of the Martin School. "The theme of voting rights in the U.S. is in the news almost every day. The discussion and examination of this subject is very timely, especially with 2016 being a presidential election year."

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