As Kentucky celebrates the 50th anniversary of the Kentucky Civil Rights Act on Jan. 27, the Kentucky Commission on Human Rights asks all Kentuckians to stand strong for equality and fair treatment, to foster mutual understanding and respect, and to discourage discrimination.
Kentucky became the first state south of the Mason-Dixon Line to pass its own state-level civil rights act. Gov. Edward T. Breathitt signed the law on Jan. 27, 1966. This followed two years after the passage of the U.S. Civil Rights Act in 1964.
The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. sent a telegram to Breathitt: “This is a milestone for a southern state … a great step forward for any state. (It) will serve as a great beacon light of hope for all men of goodwill … and hopefully inspire other states to follow suit.”
After others in the South followed suit, King called the Kentucky law “the strongest and most comprehensive civil rights bill passed by a southern state.”
The Kentucky Civil Rights Act began a new and brighter era and helped end a nightmare of legal segregation, discrimination and government-sanctioned racism, an atrocity African-Americans and other minorities had endured since Kentucky’s beginning.
With its passage, the Kentucky Commission on Human Rights became the state governing authority to enforce the law, which it continues to do today. Over the past 50 years, the commission has investigated thousands of discrimination complaints. In 2015, the commission filed over 230 cases and closed 322 cases of discrimination complaints for the people in the state.
Civil rights were not easily achieved. Thousands of people rallied and marched, many participated in hunger strikes and sit-ins across the country. Meanwhile, in Kentucky, hundreds of people, white, black and of other races, demonstrated and were arrested before the law was enacted so that the human rights commission could enforce this law that prohibits discrimination.
When it was passed, the Kentucky law protected people from discrimination based on race, color and religion in the areas of employment and public accommodations. Throughout the years, many amendments were passed to expand the protections of the law that mirrored the amendments being added to the national Civil Rights Act.
Today, the Kentucky Civil Rights Act makes it unlawful to discriminate against people in the areas of employment, financial transactions, housing and public accommodations. Discrimination is prohibited in the aforementioned areas based on race, color, religion, national origin, gender and disability.
In employment, discrimination is further prohibited on the basis of age (40 years and older) and on the basis of tobacco-smoking status. In housing, discrimination is further prohibited based on familial status, which protects people with children in the household under the age of 18, and it protects women who are pregnant.
It is also a violation of the law to retaliate against a person for complaining of discrimination or serving as a witness in a case to the commission.
The 21st century has brought a new spirit of competition and urgency. The destiny of America and Kentucky depends on bringing out the best in all people. It is more important than ever to move our people forward and into a new day of hope where discrimination is an old, outdated concept, and where equal opportunity and diversity are appreciated and enjoyed.
The commission appreciates all people who work hard to live and practice the principles of democracy, freedom and equality. We ask everyone to renew and continue to carry out the commitment to continually promote liberty, justice and equality for all in this state.
John J. Johnson is executive director of the Kentucky Commission on Human Rights.
Civil rights symposium
The Kentucky Commission on Human Rights, in conjunction with the University of Kentucky law school, will hold a Kentucky Civil Rights Act 50th Anniversary Law Symposium on Jan. 27 in Lexington. Visit the www.kchr.ky.gov to register for the free event.