100 years ago, a governor faced down a mob for civil rights

Augustus O. Stanley
Augustus O. Stanley

On the evening of Jan. 10, 1917, Gov. A.O. Stanley was attending a dinner at Louisville’s Seelbach Hotel when he received a call from Paris, Tenn., south of Murray.

The caller said that the circuit judge and the commonwealth attorney in Murray were being held hostage. They were not to be released until a black defendant, Lube Martin — accused of killing a man who slept with his wife — was brought to Murray from Hopkinsville where he was being kept in custody.

Stanley, as a lawyer and chief magistrate of the commonwealth, would not abide lawlessness. Yet he was unable to mobilize the National Guard. It had already been mobilized to the Mexican border due to incursions into Texas and New Mexico by Pancho Villa during the Mexican Revolution.

Stanley took a special midnight train to Murray from Louisville via Paducah in order to end the hostage standoff and make sure the defendant received a fair trial.

He arrived in Murray before 7 a.m. and walked unarmed through a mob of more than 300, daring them to kill the governor of Kentucky. He walked to the hotel where the hostages were being held and pushed through the armed mob to where the judge and the prosecutor were being held.

He told the hostages that he was going to escort them to the Callaway County Courthouse. Knowing that he was risking his life doing so, he escorted them to the courthouse, where the court opened on schedule and the governor gave a speech. After the speech, the judge set a new trial for the defendant and the mob dispersed.

Stanley was a gifted orator. He could be entertaining as well as serious. This is reflected in one headline in the Courier-Journal: “Stanley’s Appeal Sends Mob In Tears from the Courthouse.”

“Courthouses, reverence for law and order and the willingness of every citizen to look to the law for the vindication of his wrongs and the protection of his property is the essence of civilization,” Stanley said during his remarks. “When you defy courts and insult judges you lapse into barbarism and relinquish all claim to civilization.”

Using only his oratorical gifts and the prestige of the office of the governor, Stanley was able to negotiate the release of hostages without bloodshed. And a black Kentuckian was able to receive a trial and later an appeal.

Later, as a U.S. congressman from Western Kentucky and a U.S. senator (1919-25), Stanley voiced his opposition to the Ku Klux Klan and sponsored legislation to outlaw lynching.

Stanley was inducted posthumously into the Kentucky Human Rights Hall of Fame in 2005 in recognition of his work on behalf of civil rights.

Paul L. Whalen is a Ft. Thomas attorney.