By RONNIE ELLIS
This time the welcome was warmer; still cold, but the sun shone; and 50 years of progress was marked.
It was different, cold and rainy, and the welcome by the white establishment just as chilly 50 years ago when 10,000 marched on the state Capitol seeking passage of a public accommodations law.
Many who were there 50 years ago weren’t Wednesday – but some were and they came to remember, to celebrate the progress of civil rights, but also to advocate for passage of another measure, this one to automatically restore the voting rights of felons who’ve completed their sentences.
Roughly 4,000 converged on the Capitol to commemorate the march 50 years ago led by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Ralph Abernathy and Jackie Robinson. When King spoke, a cold sleet fell and someone stood holding an umbrella over him.
Then Gov. Ned Breathitt wasn’t among them, staying in his office where after the march, King, Abernathy, Robinson and others asked him to push passage of the public accommodations legislation.
The bill, sponsored by Norbert Blume, Arthur Johnson and J.E. Smith, never got out of committee that year. But two years later, the bill passed with Gov. Breathitt’s backing and Kentucky became the first southern state to pass civil rights legislation.
Karen A. Coleman of Louis-ville was there Wednesday, singing “Lift Every Voice” with others in the crowd, holding a copy of The Courier-Journal with a photo from 50 years ago. There she was, the 8-year-old little girl huddling against the cold by hugging her aunt, Evelyn Evans.
Raoul Cunningham, President of the Kentucky NAACP, and master of ceremonies Wednesday, was there the last time. Wednesday, he thanked Frankfort Mayor Bill May for the help the city provided with planning the event.
“Frankfort has done everything and Mayor May has done everything to make us welcome,” Cunningham told the crowd. “What a difference 50 years make.”
“For those who did not get a welcome 50 years ago, we’re here to say we love you and we welcome you to the Capitol City,” May told the crowd.
Gov. Steve Beshear and Georgia Davis Powers, who helped organize the 1964 march and later became the state’s first African American state senator, recalled the sacrifices of the men and women Powers called “fighters for equality” and the gains their fight produced for civil rights. But they also told the crowd it is time Kentucky lawmakers restored the voting rights of those who committed crimes but have paid their penalties.
There is nothing “more fundamental to democratic society” than the right to vote, Beshear said.
“It is a blessing for me to be here to celebrate 50 years of progress,” said Powers, now 90. “But this is about House Bill 70.”
That’s the bill which would allow voters to approve a constitutional amendment to permit automatic restoration of voting rights. The House passed the bill, sponsored by Rep. Jesse Crenshaw, D-Lexington, on a bi-partisan vote, but the Republican Senate altered the bill drastically, requiring ex-felons to wait five years before voting rights are restored and adding other restrictions.
“The right to vote is a sacred right,” Crenshaw told the crowd. “It is not a privilege like driving a car.” He called on the crowd to call state senators and urge them to pass the bill in its original form.
Michael Hiser is a convicted felon who completed his sentence and now is a productive member of society. He noted how long Crenshaw has crusaded to pass the measure. “Before I was committing felonies, you were fighting for me.”
Hiser said he’s got “half my rights – I have the right to be taxed. Every check I send the IRS, they’ve cashed.”
Republican House Minority Leader Jeff Hoover of Jamestown co-sponsored Crenshaw’s bill and argued for its passage. He told the crowd Wednesday the bill is a matter of fairness and his support of the bill is based on tenets of his Christian faith.
But Hoover was apparently the only Republican lawmaker in attendance.
Later, Sen. Gerald Neal, D-Louisville, who now holds the seat once held by Powers, praised her and introduced her on the Senate floor. Powers was invited to address the body from the president’s chair.
“I’m here to ask you to restore House Bill 70,” Powers said.
Senators from both parties praised Powers and many rushed to shake her hand afterward. Majority Leader Damon Thayer, R-Georgetown, sponsor of the altered Senate version of the bill, sat at his desk reading.
Later, the House voted to refuse to accept the Senate changes to the bill. Crenshaw and supporters now must hope a conference committee between the two chambers can restore the bill to its original form.
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