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We were standing on hallowed ground

8 min read

Christian Motley felt like he was standing on hallowed ground.

So did I.

Motley, from Lexington, hosted the “Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. 50 Year Memorial March to Move” in Frankfort on Wednesday, the 50th anniversary of Dr. King’s murder in Memphis.

We followed in the footsteps of history, trooping up Capitol Avenue toward the state house. Dr. King traveled the same route on March 5, 1964, when he led the March on Frankfort.

More than 200 of us converged on the Capitol. As many as 10,000 joined the March on Frankfort 54 years ago.

The March on Frankfort, 1964

In 1964, Kentucky was part of the Jim Crow South; segregation and racism were the law and the social order. The March on Frankfort was organized to persuade lawmakers to pass legislation outlawing discrimination against African Americans in restaurants, hotels, and other public accommodations.

Wednesday’s march was more than a memorial service. Like the March on Frankfort, it was a call to action.

“There is no better way to commemorate Dr. King’s legacy than to remember that the fight he led for civil rights, for economic justice, and education reform are battles that still rage on today,” said Motley, director of the New Leaders Council-Kentucky.

He added that the name “March to Move” represented the idea that people must “get involved and help make change in their local communities.”

Speakers included a quartet of Democratic office-holders – Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes, state Sen. Gerald Neal of Louisville and state Reps. Derrick Graham, Frankfort, and James Kay of Versailles.

They and other speakers from different fields denounced the pension, tax, and budget bills passed by the GOP majority in the legislature.

Dr. Crystal deGregory of Kentucky State University’s Atwood Institute and author Berry Craig look over their notes before speaking at the March.

“Now, again, comes a time for fighters,” urged Dr. Ricky L. Jones, who chairs the Pan-African Studies Department at the University of Louisville. Kentucky’s “rulers” didn’t protect the people, charged the Rev. L. Clark Williams of Lexington, who chairs the Kentucky People’s Campaign.

I was honored to speak on behalf of the Kentucky State AFL-CIO. I’m on the executive board, and I edit our website.

As I looked over the crowd, my mind’s eye wandered to the old black-and-white photos of Dr. King marching or speaking in the state capital.

But somewhere in the throng was my friend and union brother, W.C. Young of Paducah. He personified what Dr. King meant when he said that “the coalition that can have the greatest impact in the struggle for human dignity here in America is that of the Negro and the forces of labor, because their fortunes are so closely intertwined.”

The coalition that can have the greatest impact in the struggle for human dignity here in America is that of the Negro and the forces of labor, because their fortunes are so closely intertwined.

– Dr. Martin Luther King

W.C. was a nationally-recognized labor and civil rights leader.

He spent 46 years in the labor movement, which Dr. King praised as “the principal force that transformed misery and despair into hope and progress.” Dr. King went to Memphis to stand in solidarity with striking sanitation workers.

W.C. said civil rights leaders like Dr. King “have always known that with the labor movement they have a strong friend with clout.”

W.C. died in his hometown in 1996 at age 77. He never went anywhere without his union card and his NAACP card in his wallet.

He joined the Brotherhood of Railway Clerks at the city’s old Illinois Central Railroad repair shops in 1941 and climbed the union ladder to the upper rungs.

W. C. Young

In 1968, he became field director of the AFL-CIO Committee on Political Education’s Minority Department in Washington. Eleven years later, he was sent to Chicago to be director of COPE Region One, which encompassed seven Midwestern states. After a reorganization, he became head of Region 10, which included Kentucky, Ohio and Tennessee. He retired as Region 10 head in 1987.

All along, W.C.’s civil rights work was noticed in Washington and Frankfort. In 1961, he was named to a national panel that advised President John F. Kennedy on civil rights legislation.

Gov. Edward T. Breathitt hired W.C. as an aide to help with minority recruitment in state government.

Kennedy and Breathitt were Democrats; so was Young. He helped in many local, state, and national campaigns. At age 75, he was a field representative for Congressman Tom Barlow, D-Paducah.

In 1993, W.C. journeyed to South Africa, representing the AFL-CIO on a mission to find out what Americans could do to help blacks long suffering under Apartheid. The trip preceded South Africa’s first free and open presidential election.

Like Dr. King, W.C. was guided by his Christian faith. Both were Baptists.

“I really believed what I was taught in Sunday school,” he told me. “You are supposed to love your brother and sister. That’s the way it is with the union movement.”

So it was in the civil rights movement, too.

W.C. lived a few steps away from Washington Street Baptist Church. He was baptized in the historic house of worship in 1937, the fateful year in which Paducah had its own version of the Biblical flood. Young ended up a deacon, trustee, moderator, Sunday school superintendent, and building committee chairman.

W.C.’s work on behalf of his church, organized labor, civil rights, and his hometown did not go unrecognized. He received many honors, including a 1989 award from the Louisville chapter of the A. Phillip Randolph Institute, a national organization that helps encourage minorities to vote and get involved in the political process. Like W.C., Randolph was a labor and civil rights activist. W.C. served on the national board of the A. Philip Randolph Institute.

In addition, W.C. was posthumously inducted into the Kentucky Civil Rights Hall of Fame in 2003.

Paducah’s W.C. Young Community Center is named for him. Local labor remembers him, too. The highest honor the Paducah-based Western Kentucky AFL-CIO Area Council bestows is the W.C. Young Award. Young received the first award in 1994. I was privileged to receive mine five years ago.

When it came my turn to speak Wednesday, I wondered where W.C. had been in the crowd. All of us spoke from where Dr. King stood.

Wednesday was chilly but sunny. It was cold, cloudy, and damp on March 5, 1964. Though the marchers were “thoroughly chilled,” their spirits remained high, according to the Louisville Courier-Journal.

Dr. King speaking at the March on Frankfort, 1964

Dr. King addressed the crowd from “a wide, wooden speaker’s platform,” the paper said. Somebody held an umbrella over his head to shelter him from “a thin rain mixed with a little hail.”

Other speakers included baseball hall-of-famer Jackie Robinson, who broke the big league color barrier in 1947, two years before I was born; the Rev. Ralph David Abernathy, Dr. King’s close associate; and the Rev. Wyatt Walker, executive secretary of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.

Peter, Paul and Mary sang at the March on Frankfort. Kentuckians Sandra “Cissy” Williams and Jessie Laine Powell sang at Wednesday’s march.

When Dr. King came to town, the legislature’s conservative Democratic majority was reluctant to get behind a comprehensive public accommodations bill introduced by state Rep. Norbert Blume. A liberal Louisville Democrat, he sat on the speaker’s platform behind Dr. King.

Breathitt, who had been in office less than three months, assured the civil rights leaders that he “applauded the objectives of the march.” But he and most lawmakers supported legislation that was narrower than Blume’s proposal, the C-J story said. Even so, those who marched to sway the legislature and Breathitt included the governor’s daughter, 15-year-old Mary Frances Breathitt.

The legislature was not in session Wednesday, but it was during the March on Frankfort. Most legislators, Democrats and Republicans, said King and the marchers had little or no effect on how they felt about the public accommodations bills, the C-J story said.

Some senators and representatives condemned the march. “I think it’s a very poor idea to try to use pressure of this nature…I think the reaction of the Legislature will be negative,” the paper quoted conservative Senate Majority Leader Casper Gardner, D-Owensboro. “The demonstration wouldn’t impress me if they had 100,000 out there.”

Dr. King, according to the Courier-Journal, challenged conservatives who claimed morality couldn’t be legislated. “The law can’t make a man love me,” he said, “but it can prevent him from lynching me.”

He urged the crowd to go home from the march “with a determination to free ourselves…and now is the time.”

Blume’s perseverance was rewarded the next time the legislature met. Lawmakers overwhelmingly approved the Civil Rights Act of 1966, making Kentucky “the first state south of the Ohio River to enact a civil rights law,” according to the C-J.

Blume’s bill was a precursor to the landmark legislation which prohibited discrimination in hiring and public accommodations. Breathitt signed the act beneath the statue of President Abraham Lincoln in the Capitol rotunda.

Dr. King later praised the measure as “the strongest and most comprehensive civil rights bill passed by a Southern state.”

Before we spoke on Wednesday, everybody heard a recording of Dr. King’s last address, the famous “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” speech. He delivered it in a Memphis church the night before he was assassinated.

In the prophetic conclusion to his speech, Dr. King said he was not afraid to die. God, he explained, “allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the Promised Land. And I’m happy, tonight. I’m not worried about anything. I’m not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.”

More than a few in the crowd wept at those powerful words.

They reminded me of W.C.’s Biblical allusion in which he compared young trade unionists to the Israelites Moses led to the Promised Land.

“Moses told the children they would have houses they did not build, wells they did not dig and vineyards they did not plant,” he said, adding that “some of our young people don’t know how hard we have had to struggle toward the Promised Land.”


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