Ky. voices: Kentucky led South in civil rights, what about now?

Civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. met with Kentucky Gov. Edward T. "Ned" Breathitt in 1966 after Kentucky passed the first civil rights legislation in the South.
Civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. met with Kentucky Gov. Edward T. "Ned" Breathitt in 1966 after Kentucky passed the first civil rights legislation in the South.

On this Martin Luther King Jr. Day, we should pause to reflect on King's memory, to consider the civil-rights struggle here in Kentucky, and to challenge ourselves to renew what is truly a lifetime commitment to justice.

During King's journey, he made many visits to Kentucky to assist in various civil-rights efforts. In fact, after Kentucky passed the Civil Rights Act of 1966 — becoming the first state in the South to have enforcement powers over civil-rights violations —King called the act, "the strongest and most comprehensive civil-rights bill passed by a Southern state."

If he were to return to Kentucky today, would he see the commonwealth's legacy in action?

In Louisville, he would see a city highly segregated by race and income. Throughout Kentucky, he would see growing immigrant populations from all over the world — hard-working individuals and families from Sudan, El Salvador, Guatemala and the Philippines, to name but a few. He would also see those same individuals facing discrimination — landlords refusing to rent to them or employers refusing to pay them or paying them less than other employees because of the color of their skin, their accent or their country of origin.

King would see gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender individuals and families making Kentucky their home, despite a dearth of rights and protections.

He would see some of the most draconian policies in the country as to voting rights of people who have committed felonies.

Sadly, he would also see racist backlash to the re-election of an African-American president — such as a yard display of a life-sized mannequin depicting President Barack Obama holding a piece of watermelon.

Yet, he also would see agencies and organizations taking concrete steps to further fair housing choices for all, to transform vacant properties into affordable homes and to promote strong neighborhoods through community organizing.

He would see the DREAMers — inspiring, undocumented immigrant students advocating and organizing for their ability to simply stay legally in the country in which they have resided since their youth.

King would see Covington, Lexington, Louisville and Vicco leading the way in passing local ordinances protecting gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender individuals from discrimination.

He would see whites and people of color working together for racial justice through organizations like the Kentucky NAACP, the Urban Leagues of Lexington and Louisville, Kentucky Alliance Against Racist and Political Repression and Louisville Showing Up for Racial Justice. Those organizations apply King's words from the Birmingham jail: "We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly."

As we take a hard look at justice struggles here in Kentucky, we must give meaning to the words, "liberty and justice for all." To do so, we must act. We must educate ourselves on the struggles for justice and join with others in making change. We must affirm the dignity, value and uniqueness of each individual, regardless of personal differences.

We do so by funding affordable housing programs like the Louisville Affordable Housing Trust Fund. We do so by amending the Civil Rights Act to include sexual orientation and gender identity as protected classes, so that it is against the law, for instance, to deny housing, employment or entry into a restaurant to someone solely because of that person's sexuality.

We do so by lifting the lifetime voting ban on individuals who have committed felonies so that we can all meaningfully participate in democracy. We do so by interrupting racist comments or behaviors when we witness them and by speaking out against racist policies enacted by authorities.

As we honor King on this holiday, we must recognize him for what he truly was — a freedom fighter seeking to upend the unjust status quo.

Further, we draw strength in knowing he did not go it alone. There was a great tide of people throughout the country and the world who demanded justice and equality, and this remains true today. Many of those people are here in Kentucky.

In the 1960s, Kentucky was the nation's southern civil rights leader. On a day when we remember the work and life of Martin Luther King Jr., let us also honor our commonwealth's legacy with reflection and with action.