As first black senator, Powers gave voice to the powerless

February 9, 2014

powers2Georgia Powers posed last month in the study of her Louisville apartment, whose walls are covered with honors amd mementoes. Photo by Tom Eblen. Below, an undated photo of Powers in the state Senate. Photo by Keith Williams/The Courier-Journal.

 

LOUISVILLE — She had worked on two statewide political campaigns and helped organize a civil rights march that brought 10,000 people to Frankfort.

But Georgia Montgomery Davis Powers said she never thought of running for public office herself until she was working a part-time clerk’s job in 1966, processing paperwork in the state House of Representatives.

As she passed around copies of a proposed law that would ban discrimination against blacks in employment and public accommodations, she recalled recently, a newly elected representative from Western Kentucky voiced his views.

“I see no reason to change things from the way they are,” he announced. “If I voted for that, I would never get re-elected.”

Powers was furious. A few minutes later, she said she found the courage to tell him: “You know, Representative, what I need is my own seat here.”

Less than two years later, she would have one. Powers became the first black elected to the state Senate, and the first woman elected without succeeding a husband who had been a senator.

Powers is 90 years old now, still healthy, active and engaged. Her high-rise apartment has a commanding view of the downtown Louisville district she represented for 21 years as a tireless advocate for Kentucky’s underdogs: minorities, women, children and poor, elderly and disabled people.

“When you are placed in a powerful position, whatever it is, you should do everything you can do for people who have no voice and need an advocate,” she said when I visited her recently.

Powers also helped lead civil rights marches across the South, becoming a close confidant of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. In 1989, the year after she retired from the Senate, a book by King’s top lieutenant, Ralph David Abernathy, disclosed that Powers and King had also been lovers. Her secret exposed, Powers told her version of the story in a 1995 autobiography, I Shared The Dream.

“Things happen like that,” she said when I asked her about her relationship with King. “You’re working together and you admire them and they like you and things happen. That’s life.”

powers1Powers’ life has been both accomplished and unlikely. She was born to a poor couple in a two-room shack near Springfield. When a tornado destroyed the shack, her family moved to Louisville, where her half-white father got a factory job, enameling bathtubs.

As an only girl with eight brothers, she quickly learned to be tough. “Just because I was their sister did not mean that they tried to spoil me in any way,” she said. “Just the opposite.”

Powers left home at 18 to follow the first of many men in her life, which would include three husbands. She lived in New York and California, and her many jobs included building C-46 cargo planes during World War II as a “Rosie the riveter”.

She didn’t get involved in politics until 1962, when a church friend pestered her to work for former Louisville Mayor Wilson Wyatt’s unsuccessful campaign for the U.S. Senate. She ended up organizing his volunteers statewide, and was hired for similar duties in Edward T. Breathitt’s successful campaign for governor the next year.

Powers realized she was the “token black” in Wyatt’s campaign, and at times she had to demand equal pay and treatment with other staffers. After Breathitt’s victory, other staff members were given jobs in Frankfort, but not Powers. The next year, Breathitt probably wished he had offered her one.

Powers was one of the main organizers of the March on Frankfort, which brought King, baseball great Jackie Robinson and folksingers Peter, Paul and Mary to the Capitol steps with 10,000 others to demand passage of a bill banning discrimination against blacks in hotels, restaurants and other public accommodations.

Breathitt was a no-show, so after the march Powers brought King and Robinson to his office and asked for a meeting. The governor was non-committal, and the bill failed. But it passed in the next session two years later with his support.

By the 1968 session, Powers was in the Senate, and she wasted no time introducing civil rights legislation. She said it was an uphill battle, but she was eventually successful because her Democratic Party was then in the majority, she was able to get along with other lawmakers and she became good at legislative horse-trading.

“I never got angry with anybody if they didn’t vote for something I had up,” she said. “I figured I would need them for something else someday.”

Powers also knew how to stand her ground. “I never had any fear,” she said. “I figured all they could do was shoot me. I had been marching down in Alabama and everywhere else and never got shot.”

At the end of her first, tough legislative session, King asked her to come to Memphis, where he was trying to win better pay and working conditions for striking black sanitation workers. When he was assassinated, she heard the fatal shot and was among the first to find his body.

She said King had initiated their relationship with the help of his brother, A.D. King, who was then a minister in Louisville. Although both were married to others, she said they met several times and she always feared their secret would get out.

Once it did, so many years later, the revelation angered some people in the black community, especially after she elaborated in her own book. A couple of Louisville ministers gave her a hard time, but she says it didn’t bother her.

“They thought somebody was going to tell on them!” she said with a laugh. “And the women just said, ‘I wish it had been me!'” More laughter.

Despite that bit of scandal, Powers thinks she will be remembered more for her legislative contributions, making life better for Kentucky’s most vulnerable citizens. That work earned her walls full of awards, including honorary degrees from four Kentucky universities.

“Kentucky has been good to me,” she said. “I did what I was supposed to do in life.”


50 years ago, March on Frankfort pushed Kentucky toward change

February 1, 2014

 march3The March on Frankfort crowd, estimated at 10,000, stretched from the Capitol steps down Capitol Avenue on March 5, 1964. Associated Press photos

 

This is the story of a black woman from Louisville and a white man from Lexington who helped bring 10,000 people to Frankfort to change Kentucky forever.

The March on Frankfort on March 5, 1964, featured the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.; Jackie Robinson, who had broken major-league baseball’s color barrier; and the popular folksingers Peter, Paul and Mary.

The 10,000 people who marched to the Capitol steps that cold, wet day were demanding state legislation to keep blacks from being discriminated against in restaurants, hotels and other public accommodations.

March organizers knew that Kentucky lawmakers needed public pressure to force them to do the right thing, which has so often been the case.

To mark the 50th anniversary of what became one of the nation’s most significant civil rights protests, the Kentucky Commission on Human Rights and other groups plan a re-enactment on March 5. (For more information: Kchr.ky.gov.)

The March on Frankfort was the brainchild of the late Frank Stanley Jr., editor of The Louisville Defender, a black newspaper. He recruited King, Robinson and Peter, Paul and Mary to draw national attention to the event, while a network of civil rights and religious leaders throughout Kentucky raised an army of people to march behind them.

march2Georgia Davis Powers was office manager for the march’s organizing committee, Allied Organization for Civil Rights. She came to the role with experience, having organized volunteers for Lt. Gov. Wilson Wyatt’s losing bid for the U.S. Senate in 1962 and Edward T. “Ned” Breathitt’s successful campaign for governor in 1963.

But Powers, now 90, told me recently that she began her personal campaign against discrimination many years earlier. Because her factory-worker father was talented enough to get “a white man’s job,” she grew up in Louisville’s black middle class.

“I had a little white girlfriend who was my age, 8 years old, and we wanted to go to school together, but we couldn’t,” she said. “When you are discriminated against, it does something to your psyche and you never get over it.”

Powers’ job on the day of the march was to pick up King and Robinson at Louisville’s airport and bring them to Frankfort. Her brother, who worked at a funeral, got a limousine, and they arranged for a police escort.

“Jackie Robinson rode up front with my brother, and Dr. King got in the back seat with me because I needed to brief him on the bill, where it stood and what I thought the possibilities were,” Powers said. “That was the first time I’d met him.”

She marched a few steps behind King that day and sat beside the stage as he, Robinson and others made remarks to the rain-soaked crowd.

Breathitt wasn’t at the march, although his 15-year-old daughter, Mary Frances, was among the marchers. A reporter told Powers the governor was in his office. “Since he won’t come out,” she told other march leaders, “we’ll go see him.”

So when the benediction had been said and the crowd began dispersing, Powers led King, Robinson, Stanley and a few others inside the Capitol. She knocked on the governor’s door.

The civil rights leaders had a cordial meeting with Breathitt and posed for photographs. But Powers said he was non-committal, explaining that as a new governor he needed to build rapport with legislators.

“He said, ‘I’ll do what I can,'” she recalled. “But the bill failed.”

When the General Assembly met next, in 1966, Kentucky became the first Southern state to enact a civil rights law. Breathitt backed the law. Others instrumental in its passage included Rep. Foster Pettit, who would later become the first mayor of Lexington-Fayette Urban County Government, and John Y. Brown Sr., father of the future governor.

A key organizer of white participation in the March on Frankfort was Joe Graves of Lexington, whose background could not have been more different than Powers’.

Graves’ great-grandfather was the younger brother of Andrew Carnegie, one of the richest men in 19th century America. The industrialist later became a philanthropist, leaving a legacy of public library buildings in communities across the nation. Graves’ father owned Graves-Cox, a popular store where well-dressed Lexington men bought their clothes.

Like Powers, Graves said his fight against discrimination began in childhood.

When Graves was 9, illness confined him to a wheelchair. The Carnegie family owned almost all of scenic Cumberland Island off the Georgia coast, and he spent time there with relatives. The family hired a black boy his age named William to be a companion.

Graves, 83, recalled in an interview last week how he and William were playing in his aunt’s yard one day at lunchtime, and he called out to her asking if William could stay for lunch. William said, “Joe, I can’t do that. I’m going home for lunch.”

“My aunt couldn’t have heard what he said,” Graves recalled. “But she said, ‘I’m sure William’s mother is expecting him home for lunch.’ I knew something was strange.”

In 1957, while working in his family’s clothing store, Graves persuaded his father to promote a black stock clerk to a sales position so he wouldn’t leave for a better-paying job. The man became the first black clerk in a major Lexington store, and he was so good at it that commissions tripled his previous salary, Graves said.

Three years after, Graves was on the first Lexington Human Rights Commission, negotiating desegregation of the city’s movie theaters. On the day of the March on Frankfort, he was co-chair of Kentuckians for Public Accommodations.

For both Powers and Graves, the March on Frankfort was the beginning of political careers with an emphasis on civil rights.

In 1967, Powers became the first black and the first sixth woman elected to the Kentucky Senate. During 21 years in office, she sponsored much legislation furthering rights for minorities, women and children.

Powers helped lead civil rights marches in several Southern cities. She became a close confidante of King and was with him in Memphis in April 1968 when he was killed. In 1989, the autobiography of King’s top lieutenant, Ralph David Abernathy, disclosed that Powers and King also were lovers.

Graves would go on to be a Lexington councilman and work for the election of the city’s first black councilman, Harry Sykes. Graves served in both the state House and Senate in the 1970s.

“As I took that march,” Graves recalled of that day 50 years ago, “I kept thinking of all the people (King) helped and was trying to help.”

Toward the end of our conversation last week, Graves’ voice choked as he told me how he has written instructions for his funeral. He has asked for a mixed-race choir to sing at the service, he said, “and one of the hymns has to be, We Shall Overcome.”

 

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The march headliners were the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., center, and baseball great Jackie Robinson, left. Associated Press photo.

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King was the featured speaker on the cold, rainy day. Herald-Leader photo.

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Gov. Edward T. “Ned” Breathitt, right, met with, left to right, Frank Stanley Jr., Jackie Robinson and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.  Photo by Bob Daugherty/Associated Press

Click here to see a gallery with these and other photos from the 1964 march.

 

 


MLK Day is one of Lexington’s great annual celebrations

January 20, 2014

140120MLKDay0080It seemed fitting that the annual march passed Eduardo Kobra’s new mural of Abraham Lincoln. Photos by Tom Eblen

The Martin Luther King Jr. celebration is one of my favorite annual events in Lexington, because it brings a diverse group of local people together to discuss important values and draw inspiration.

The 20th anniversary of Alpha Phi Alpha’s annual Unity Breakfast was especially inspiring because almost the entire program was done by Fayette County Public Schools students. They were all impressive. With sunny skies and mild winter temperatures, the symbolic march through downtown was more pleasant than it often is. And the program that followed the march was a great opportunity to hear Dr. Bernice Johnson Reagon, one of the great voices for civil rights for more than a half-century.

It’s a great day to be in Lexington.

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MLK Day speaker, singer a voice of civil rights for four decades

January 14, 2014

821024BerniceReagon003Bernice Johnson Reagon, right foreground, speaks during a performance by Sweet Honey in the Rock at 50th anniversary festivities for the Highlander Research and Education Center in New Market, Tenn., on Oct. 24, 1982. Other members of the a cappella ensemble performing that day were Yasmeen Williams, right, and, hidden behind her, Evelyn M. Harris, Ysaye M. Barnwell and Aisha Kahlil, Yasmeen Williams. Photo by Tom Eblen 

 

When Bernice Johnson Reagon thinks back on her childhood in segregated southwest Georgia, she recalls a force more powerful than injustice: music.

“I was born in a culture where music was breath,” she said in an interview last week. “If you start to sing as soon as you start to talk, then there’s no separation between talking and singing.”

Reagon will be doing a lot of both Monday, when she is to be the keynote speaker at the annual Martin Luther King Jr. program at Lexington Center’s Heritage Hall. And that’s a good thing.

In addition to being a much-honored scholar, historian and social activist, Reagon has provided one of the most beautiful and powerful voices of the civil rights movement for 53 years.

Reagon, 71, was born outside Albany, Ga., the third child of Beatrice and the Rev. Jessie Johnson.

“If we weren’t in school, we were in church,” she said, describing how she and her young friends sang grace at lunch and games on the playground. “Music was everywhere in the culture I was born into.”

Bernice Johnson Reagon: singer, civil rights activist. Photo by Sharon FarmerIt was only natural that music would play a central role in the Albany Movement, an anti-segregation coalition that in 1961 focused national attention on racial discrimination in her hometown.

While in high school, Reagon was secretary of the junior chapter of the NAACP. She later participated in some of the first civil rights demonstrations in Albany, which got her expelled from Albany State College and put in jail.

She joined the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee and became a member of the famous Freedom Singers, a touring quartet formed by Cordell Reagon, the man she would marry.

“I didn’t go back to complete college until after my second child was born,” said Reagon, who graduated from Spelman College in Atlanta and earned a doctorate in history from Howard University in Washington, D.C.

“But I continued to do the work that got me put in jail,” she said. “I didn’t have to change who I was to do that.”

In 1973, while a graduate student and vocal director of DC Black Repertory Theatre, Reagon formed Sweet Honey In the Rock, a black women’s a cappella ensemble that has toured the world and has made acclaimed recordings ever since. Reagon led the group until her retirement from it in 2004.

“I came out of the civil rights movement with an understanding of and a respect for strong-harmony, unaccompanied singing,” she said. “And singing that in terms of text spoke to injustice and the importance of believing that you can change the world.”

Reagon is a history professor emerita at American University in Washington D.C. and curator emerita of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History. Her scholarship has focused on American black music traditions.

She was the principal scholar and host of Wade in the Water, a Peabody Award-winning series produced by the Smithsonian and National Public Radio in the 1980s. She was the score composer for Africans in America, a PBS documentary film series in 1998.

Reagon has been a music consultant, composer and performer for several film products, including BelovedEyes on the Prize and We Shall Overcome. In 2003, she wrote the music and libretto for Robert Wilson’s production, The Temptation of St. Anthony, which has been performed around the world.

Reagon’s many awards include a MacArthur Fellowship (1989) and a Presidential Medal for contribution to public understanding of the humanities (1995). She has a long list of solo and ensemble recordings. She has collaborated with many other musicians, including her daughter, Toshi Reagon.

Although much progress has been made since she began working in the civil rights movement more than a half-century ago, Reagon sees many challenges of injustice, imbalance and inequity, such as environmental justice and the very survival of the planet.

“My sense of injustice is much broader now,” she said. “I’ve found myself pulled to listen and learn, and I think that has kept me true to the young girl who was the secretary of the first junior chapter of the NAACP in Albany, Ga. I guess I’m describing a great life.”


John Egerton chronicled the South, from civil rights to barbecue

November 23, 2013

For a young Southern journalist getting started in the 1980s, there was no better role model and mentor than John Egerton, who died unexpectedly last Thursday at his home in Nashville. He was 78.

I got to know John while I was covering Tennessee for The Associated Press. When I started traveling the upper South for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, he became a friend and valuable resource.

As a freelance journalist since 1971, John’s award-winning books and hundreds of magazine and newspaper articles chronicled in-depth so many things that fascinated me about Southern history, culture, politics and food.

I often called John for information and advice, which he modestly dispensed in a soft drawl. And I knew that if he was in town whenever I came to Nashville, he would take me to some memorable hole-in-the-wall for a delicious breakfast or lunch.

JohnEgerton-webJohn was born in Atlanta but his family soon moved to Cadiz, Ky.. He graduated from the University of Kentucky, which inducted him into its Journalism Hall of Fame and Hall of Distinguished Alumni. UK Libraries honored him last April with its Award for Intellectual Achievement.

I first knew John through two of his early books, A Mind to Stay Here (1970) and The Americanization of Dixie: The Southernization of America (1974). When we met he had just published Generations: An American Family (1983), the engrossing story of nine generations of Kentucky’s Ledford family.

The book that made Egerton famous was Southern Food, a combination cookbook, travel guide and social history that was named the 1987 book of the year by the International Association of Culinary Professionals.

John had spent more than a year eating his way across the South without adding much weight to his tall, lanky frame or, he said, raising his cholesterol. His book chronicled the evolution and role of food in Southern culture, including the substantial contribution of black culture.

I wrote one of the first articles about the book, for the Journal-Constitution. We met for the interview at Hap Townes, a long-gone Nashville “meat and three” where musicians, executives and factory workers sat elbow-to-elbow enjoying house specialties that included stewed raisins.

“If I had been braver, I would have called the book The Stomach of the South; I think W.J. Cash would have understood,” he told me, referring to the author of the 1941 classic, The Mind of the South.

John followed Southern Food with, Side Orders: Small Helpings of Southern Cookery and Culture (1990). He helped start the Southern Foodways Alliance, and he edited the first volume of Cornbread Nation 1: The Best of Southern Food Writing (2002). But John was always amused at his fame as a food writer, claiming his only culinary expertise was eating.

He published several other books: a history of Nashville, an exploration of Tennessee’s 19th century utopian communities and a collection of his magazine essays that explored the South’s complexity.

His masterpiece was the 700-page book Speak Now Against The Day: The Generation Before The Civil Rights Movement in the South (1994). It drew on his nearly three decades of reporting on Southern race relations, beginning in 1965 for the magazine Southern Education Report. It won the Robert F. Kennedy Book Award, and it deserved a Pulitzer Prize.

John’s soft voice, gentle humor and modest demeanor masked a moral compass that compelled him to speak out against things he believed were wrong.

When the Tennessee Valley Authority condemned his Trigg County farm and others in the 1960s to build the Land Between the Lakes outdoor recreation area, John became the lead plaintiff in a federal court battle. With Justice William O. Douglas dissenting, the U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear his appeal.

In 2006, John wrote a book of political satire, Ali Dubyiah and the Forty Thieves. He described it, only half seriously, as his only work of fiction.

John’s most popular writing celebrated what was good about the South, but his biggest contribution as a journalist and historian was his examination of what held the region back: race, class, poverty, inequity and corruption. He was a masterful storyteller who had the courage to not only report facts, but explain what those facts added up to.

 


Longtime cook, maid finds fans when historic home opened for tour

November 4, 2013

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Cozene Hawkins came to Airy Castle, then called Wyndhurst, in 1961 to work for Corrilla English. She stayed more than 35 years. Photos by Tom Eblen

 

PARIS — I recently wrote about Airy Castle, whose new owners restored the 1870s Victorian mansion and opened it for a tour to benefit the preservation group Historic Paris-Bourbon County.

That tour two Sundays ago drew a large crowd, but the elegantly restored mansion wasn’t the only treat. A friend who attended said an interesting thing happened when an elderly black lady in a dark pants suit walked through the door.

As Cozene Hawkins slowly made her way down the hall, she was stopped several times by older white women wanting to shake her hand. They asked if she remembered them and raved about her cooking, especially her beaten biscuits. They treated her like a star.

“That’s the way I felt!” said Hawkins, 79, who worked 35 years as cook and housekeeper for the mansion’s previous owner.

“It made me feel good after all those years that people remembered,” Hawkins said when I visited her in her own small home. “To be back in that house and see what the new owners have done; it’s remarkable! They restored so much. It brought back so many memories.”

HawkinsHistoric preservation is more than saving unique architecture and bygone craftsmanship. It is about preserving our collective memory. Old buildings are powerful links to the past, helping us realize how much society has changed. They also help us remember the valuable contributions of people like Cozene Hawkins.

Hawkins first saw Airy Castle in 1961. The oldest of 10 children, she was a young wife and mother working part-time as a domestic for a prominent Bourbon County family. She needed more work.

Hawkins was recommended to Corrilla English, whose grandparents bought Airy Castle in 1888 and renamed it Wyndhurst. English lived there with her grown son, Woodson. Hawkins was soon working full time for the Englishes.

“I never learned to drive,” she said. “Every morning Mrs. English picked me up at 8:30 and she brought me home at 2:30. And after she began to age, the men who worked on the farm would come in and get me.”

Hawkins spent much of her time cleaning the huge house and polishing an extensive collection of sterling silver. She also prepared a big noon meal each day. English was an excellent cook, and she taught Hawkins.

“As the years went, I learned so much,” she said. “Mrs. English loved to entertain with lunches for just women. That’s when she taught me to cook the finer dishes. We had to get out the fine china and the sterling silver and the crystal.

“She taught me to make a fabulous corn pudding; we made a lot of cheese souffles and her chicken salad,” she said. “And the famous dessert was egg kisses — meringues — and we always served those with sliced, fresh strawberries and homemade whipped cream, because they had their own cows.”

English also taught Hawkins to make beaten biscuits, a Southern delicacy that required dough to be beaten on a marble slab and run through rollers over and over for a half-hour until it popped. The hard, bite-size biscuits were served as country ham sandwiches.

“It never bothered me that whenever Mrs. English entertained I had to wear a white uniform,” Hawkins said. “And I could never wear pants out there. No woman in pants. No!”

Hawkins said the mansion was a pleasant place to work.

“Not a cross word was ever said to me from Mrs. English,” she said. “I was able to cook and please her, keep house and please her. She never had to tell me to do anything; I just knew.”

The only thing that bothered Hawkins was her low wages. It wasn’t as if English couldn’t see twice a day that she and her eight children — seven sons and a daughter — lived in a public housing project, which has since been demolished.

Corrilla English died in 1996 at age 96. Woodson English moved to an assisted-living facility and died in 2004.

“They were good days; I regret none of it,” Hawkins said. “It has a lot to do with the way you’re treated. I was always treated with respect. I learned so much, too.”

Hawkins now lives with a son, Darrell. Most of her other children are in Central Kentucky, too. She has lost count of all her grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

“She did a good job raising us; taught us all to cook,” son Steve said. “We all turned out well.”

Hawkins still likes to cook at church. “They’re trying to make me sit down,” she said, “but I refuse!”

Physicians Jack and Sonja Brock bought Airy Castle in 2003 and began an extensive restoration that is almost finished. They plan to retire there and open a bed-and-breakfast inn.

“It was awesome to go into each room and see what the Brocks have done,” Hawkins said. “The only thing that threw me off was my kitchen. Oh mercy! That new kitchen is so nice. I wouldn’t have had to roll beaten biscuits; they probably would have had an electrical roller.” 


Doctor has seen a lot, from World War II to 1,000 newborns

July 31, 2013

FRANKFORT — When we recall history, we often think of famous leaders, pioneers and heroes. But history is mostly shaped by ordinary men and women just trying to do their best under the circumstances.

I was reminded of that recently when a friend introduced me to Dr. James T. Ramsey of Frankfort. Ramsey, 91, was a child of the Great Depression who grew up in a small, northeast Ohio town.

“We had a general store, a blacksmith shop, a cider mill and that was about it,” he said.

“We were Methodists, and my mother was bent on me being a Methodist minister,” he said. “She somehow located Asbury College in Wilmore. Spent all of her inheritance on the first year’s tuition. After that, I was on my own.”

ramseyBut Ramsey preferred chemistry and physics to theology. He wanted to become a doctor. “I guess it was my admiration for the old country doctor who delivered me in the home,” he said.

Ramsey’s senior year ended early when Japanese warplanes bombed Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941. Like virtually all of his classmates, he joined the military.

“But I didn’t want to die in the trenches,” he said. “I always felt it was a cowardly decision that I wanted to fly.”

He was hardly a coward. Ramsey joined the Army Air Corps and proved to be a talented pilot. By May 1944, he was in Italy piloting a B-24 Liberator. He and his crew flew 50 bombing missions all over occupied Europe. Then he returned stateside to train other bomber pilots.

What did Ramsey learn from World War II?

“Do the best you can with what assignment you get,” he said.

After he had completed cadet training, but before he went to war, Ramsey made a quick trip back to Central Kentucky. Kathleen Horn of Lexington was assigned to meet him at the train station. After that meeting, they began a correspondence.

“She was instructed by her friends that she ought to write to service people,” he said. “I happened to be the service person she wrote to. I came back through Lexington and we spent some time together on furloughs.”

After the war, they married and he enrolled in medical school at the University of Louisville. Like most of his classmates, the government paid for his education. Otherwise, he said, he could never have afforded to become a doctor.

“I think the GI Bill was great,” Ramsey said. “I’m sure the cost has been repaid in taxes many times over.”

After a residency in Cincinnati, Ramsey began a medical practice in Owen County, where there was then no hospital, x-ray machine or laboratory. He did his own lab work, with help from a local veterinarian.

Two years later, Ramsey completed a mini-residency in anesthesiology and moved to Frankfort. Over the next three decades, he practiced anesthesiology, general medicine and obstetrics, delivering more than 1,000 babies.

“A baby’s birth is a miracle, and I felt that way with every one,” Ramsey said, adding that many of them have kept in contact with him over the years.

Ramsey served on the school board, helped start Frankfort’s first nursing home and admitted the first black patient to King’s Daughters Hospital in 1959 after a federal loan for an expansion required that the hospital be desegregated.

“Prior to that, the only hospitalization we had available to black people was a dwelling house, and not a very good one,” he said, referring to a frame house that in 1915 had become Winnie A. Scott Memorial Hospital.

“It was two-story and we had rigged an operating and delivery room on the second floor, so we had to carry people up the stairs,” he said. “I thought that was disgraceful for the whole community.”

Ramsey and his wife had seven children — five boys and two girls — all of whom went on to successful careers. He retired from medical practice in 1993, but continued doing consulting work until a year ago. His wife died in May 2010.

When we sat down in his living room to talk recently, Ramsey said he didn’t see anything remarkable about his life. Yet, he fought a war, raised a family and took care of a community. Like many of his generation, Jim Ramsey helped make America what it is today.

 


‘Religious freedom’ law more about discrimination, pressure politics

March 31, 2013

Kentucky’s new “religious freedom” law sure looks like an attempt by conservative Christians to justify discrimination against gay people and get around local “fairness” ordinances.

That is why many people were puzzled when Jim Gray, Lexington’s first openly gay mayor, was the most muted voice in the choir of opponents who urged Gov. Steve Beshear to veto the bill.

Beshear did issue a veto, but the General Assembly overturned it by a wide margin last week.

Beshear’s veto came at the urging of dozens of organizations and individuals — liberal churches, gay rights groups, the American Civil Liberties Union, the Kentucky League of Cities, the Kentucky Association of Counties and Louisville Mayor Greg Fischer, who said the bill would “take us backwards as a city and Commonwealth, hurting our strategic position in an increasingly global economy.”

Gray, however, issued a tepid statement that stopped short of urging a veto. He has declined to elaborate publicly.

“The legislation’s stated goal is to encourage religious freedom. That’s a worthy goal,” his statement said. “However, many citizens are concerned the bill may unintentionally open the door to discrimination. Last Thursday, I talked to the governor, shared these concerns and urged him to consider these issues carefully.”

Gray took a beating in social media from some gay people and their supporters, but gay rights leaders were more circumspect. Lexington Fairness chairman Roy Harrison, in an interview Friday, avoided any criticism of Gray.

“We are really happy that he brought more discussion to the bill,” Harrison said. “Everyone has their own political calculus.”

The General Assembly’s political calculus was clear. Most opponents of the bill were lawmakers from progressive urban districts. Legislators from more conservative rural, small-town and suburban districts voted for it.

In a conservative district, there is nothing more dangerous in the next election than having an opponent claim you voted against “religious freedom.” Rural Democrats, especially, are feeling the heat.

Gray is seeking re-election to a second term as mayor next year, so he may have wanted to avoid alienating conservatives. But few people expect Gray to get serious opposition. Former Police Chief Anthany Beatty floated a trial balloon about running, but it hasn’t gotten much lift.

Gray seems to be widely popular in Lexington, even among former critics. As mayor, he has had significant accomplishments and has made few missteps.

Besides, voters knew Gray was gay when they elected him to council in 2006 with enough votes to make him vice mayor. His sexual orientation wasn’t really an issue when he unseated incumbent Mayor Jim Newberry in 2010. Since then, Gray hasn’t tried to be “the gay mayor” — just “the mayor.”

Gray’s political calculation may have been that everyone, including the governor, knew where he stood on this subject, so he had little to gain by being vocal on a statewide controversy where he had no real influence.

Gray did come out strong a year ago on a Lexington controversy, when Hands on Originals cited religious objections in refusing to print T-shirts for a gay pride festival, sparking an ongoing investigation by the city’s Human Rights Commission.

A more important political calculation may have been that Gray didn’t want to anger the bill’s sponsor, Rep. Bob Damon, D-Nicholasville, an influential member of the Central Kentucky delegation. Rep. Sannie Overly of Paris may have unseated Damron as chair of the House Democratic caucus this year, but the way this bill sailed through the General Assembly showed Damron still has plenty of clout.

For all the huffing and puffing on both sides, nobody seems to really know what this legislation will do. The stated intent is to make it easier for Kentuckians to ignore state laws or regulations that conflict with their “sincerely held” religious beliefs unless there is a “compelling governmental interest.”

Bill supporters such as The Family Foundation, which could be more accurately called the Foundation for Families Just Like Ours, insists it is not a vehicle for discriminating against gay people. But a spokesman also has argued that the Hands on Originals case wasn’t really discrimination.

The law’s uncertainties and unintended consequences were a big reason Beshear said he vetoed it. “As written, the bill will undoubtedly lead to costly litigation,” he said.

Don’t forget the hundreds of thousands of taxpayer dollars that have been wasted on defending clearly unconstitutional attempts by some local governments to post the Ten Commandments in public buildings.

Harrison, the Lexington Fairness chairman, said gay rights and civil liberties groups will be watching to see if this new law is used to try to justify discrimination. If so, they will aggressively challenge it.

Rep. Kelly Flood, D-Lexington, a Unitarian Universalist minister and opponent of the new law, mused that one unintended consequence of it could be to advance gay rights.

Unitarians support gay marriage. Could not they use this law to challenge Kentucky’s 2004 constitutional amendment banning gay marriage and civil unions as an infringement of their “sincerely held” religious beliefs? Might the state then be forced to show a “compelling governmental interest” for banning gay marriage?

One thing is for sure: this bad law will keep the culture warriors battling for years to come.


As you reflect on civil rights history, imagine the future

January 19, 2013

When I was a child, many white Americans, and most of them in the South, considered Martin Luther King Jr. and other civil rights activists to be radicals and trouble-makers. Some even called them “communists.”

Almost everyone now considers them heroes. Ideas about racial equality and justice that were then controversial are now common sense.

Segregationist leaders such as George Wallace, Lester Maddox and Orval Faubus are now remembered with contempt, when they are remembered at all. We pity the average people who enabled the bigots, either with their actions or their silence.

On Monday, we mark the 27th annual holiday honoring King, as well as the second inauguration of the nation’s first president of African descent. Looking back, it is amazing how much changed in so short a time. Racism still exists, to be sure, but it is no longer acceptable in mainstream society.

It makes me wonder: What controversial ideas today will seem like common sense in just a few years?

The first that comes to mind is gay rights. It is today’s most controversial civil rights issue, yet the nation has clearly turned the corner. You can tell it the same way you could tell by the early 1960s that we had turned the corner of black civil rights. The groundswell of support wasn’t just coming from the victims of discrimination, but from others who realized it was wrong and found the courage to say so.

If there has been a consistent theme of social progress during my lifetime, it is this: discrimination against any group of people because of who they are is un-American.

We saw an example of that last week when the small Perry County town of Vicco became the fourth municipality in Kentucky to ban discrimination against gays, joining Lexington, Louisville and Covington. Vicco officials said they weren’t endorsing homosexuality; they just thought discrimination was wrong.

Most opposition to gay rights comes from religious conservatives. During King’s lifetime, many white Christians found Biblical justification for segregation and discrimination, just as their great-grandfathers had for slavery. Everyone is entitled to their religious beliefs. What is problematic is when they try to impose them on others.

Wendell Berry, the renowned Kentucky writer and lifelong Baptist, made that point and many others to Baptist ministers meeting at Georgetown College on Jan. 11. Coverage of his talk has attracted a lot of attention. (Read more about what he had to say on my blog.)

When I think of other controversial issues that will seem like no-brainers in a few years, the reasons for our clouded judgment have more to do with economics than religion.

Kentuckians’ disregard for the environment reminds me of our willful ignorance about the health and social costs of tobacco just two or three decades ago. Only after the price-support system that made tobacco an economic mainstay of family farms was abolished did we stop trying to deny the obvious and defend the indefensible.

More than 30 local governments in Kentucky now have public smoking bans, and some legislators are pushing for a statewide version to curb soaring health-care costs. Restricting smoking in most public places is now common sense, yet it would have been unthinkable in Kentucky a generation ago.

Sit back for a moment and try to imagine conventional wisdom a few years from now. For one thing, I think, discrimination based on sexual orientation will be as unacceptable then as discrimination based on race, gender or national origin is now.

I also can imagine hearing comments like these:

Why did people back then allow the beauty and future economic viability of Eastern Kentucky’s mountains to be destroyed just so coal companies could extract the last measure of profit in return for a declining number of short-term jobs?

How could people back then have denied the scientific consensus about climate change and refused to act when the signs — melting glaciers, the increasing frequency of killer storms and droughts, year after year of record-high temperatures — were so obvious?

What were they thinking?

As we honor civil rights heroes Monday, and pity the bigots and their enablers, let us also give some thought to the future. Who will people honor then, and who will they pity?

And ask yourself: which side of history will I be on?


Discrimination is wrong, no matter the excuse

April 1, 2012

Discrimination has a price, and Hands On Originals, the Lexington T-shirt printer, could pay dearly for it.

The Gay and Lesbian Services Organization of Lexington filed a complaint against the company last week with the city’s Human Rights Commission. It alleges that Hands on Originals bid to print shirts for the 5th annual Lexington Pride Festival in June, then refused the job because it is “a Christian organization.”

The T-shirt design shows a stylized number 5 and the words “Lexington Pride Festival” on the front and the event’s sponsors on the back.

“Hands On Originals both employs and conducts business with people of all genders, races, religions, sexual preferences, and national origins,” owner Blaine Adamson wrote in a statement. “However, due to the promotional nature of our products, it is the prerogative of the company to refuse any order that would endorse positions that conflict with the convictions of the ownership.”

Since 1999, city law has forbidden discrimination in employment, housing and public accommodation — including the sale of goods — on the basis of race, color, religion, national origin, sex, disability, old age, sexual orientation or gender identity.

This complaint is unusual, both because it involves sexual orientation and because it was made by a group, said Sandra Canon, who chairs the commission. Most complaints come from individuals and involve gender or race discrimination in employment or housing.

The Human Rights Commission will thoroughly investigate the complaint and, if it is substantiated, offer to mediate a resolution, Canon said. If mediation fails, the commission could take the company to court for violating city law.

“I’m against discrimination. Period,” Mayor Jim Gray said in a statement after the complaint was filed. “It’s bad for business and bad for the city. I support the Human Rights Commission in a full and thorough investigation.”

City government has done more than $53,000 in business with Hands on Originals since June 2010, most of it related to downtown festivities during the Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games. The law prohibits the city from doing business with companies that discriminate.

Another big customer also has expressed concern about the complaint. A University of Kentucky spokesman said the school was reviewing the matter before deciding whether to renew a contract with Hands on Originals that recently expired.

I am sure Hands on Originals will have plenty of support from Kentuckians who either don’t like gay people or believe that homosexuality is a sin. Others will argue that a private business should be able to choose or refuse customers at will, regardless of what civil rights laws say.

Christianity’s view of homosexuality is open to broad interpretation. The way I read the Gospels, Jesus Christ never specifically addressed homosexuality, although he had a lot to say about self-righteous people who are eager to condemn others.

People have always tried to use religion to validate their beliefs, desires, prejudices and economic interests. With enough twisting, you can justify almost anything with scripture. Before the Civil War, many Southern ministers used the Bible to justify slavery.

Despite what many politicians say in campaign speeches, this is not a Christian nation. It is a nation where people have freedom of religion and freedom from religion. In recent decades, this nation has developed a strong tradition of protecting the rights of minorities.

Lexington, Louisville and Covington are the only places in Kentucky where anti-discrimination laws specifically protect gay people. Attempts by other cities to pass similar laws have been blocked, often by church folks.

Opposition to equal rights for gay people was at the heart of legislators’ shameful refusal last month to pass a law that would strengthen protections for children who are bullied at school.

Equal rights for black people was controversial in the 1950s and 1960s. Equal rights for women was controversial in the 1970s. Equal rights for gays and lesbians is controversial today, although legal support for anti-gay prejudice is rapidly disappearing.

When you look at this 235-year-old experiment in democracy that we call the United States of America, a couple of things are apparent. One is that discrimination of all kinds has become less acceptable with each passing year. Another is that history has not looked kindly upon those who discriminate, no matter how they justify it.


Berea should again be a leader, enact fairness law

June 22, 2011

The nation has begun commemorating a series of 50th anniversary milestones from the civil rights movement.

Looking back, it is hard to imagine an America where citizens could be denied a job, a home or service in a restaurant or hotel because of their race, sex, ethnicity, religion or disability. But that was acceptable until anti-discrimination laws were passed in the mid-1960s.

Those laws didn’t just happen. People were beaten, jailed and even killed while fighting for them — and it wasn’t just the people who suffered discrimination. Things didn’t change until enough other people found the courage to speak out.

I offer this history lesson because Kentucky’s civil rights law remains incomplete. In most of this state, citizens can still be denied a job, a rental home or service in public accommodations based on their sexual orientation or gender identity.

Berea is now debating whether to join Louisville, Lexington and Covington as the only places in Kentucky that prohibit such discrimination through so-called fairness ordinances.

Berea’s suggested ordinance would protect gay, lesbian and transgender people from discrimination in the workplace, housing and public accommodations. Still, there might be exceptions for employment at small, private businesses and faith-based organizations. The ordinance also might create a local human rights commission to investigate allegations of discrimination.

At a crowded public meeting in May, called by a three-member city council committee studying the issue, many citizens, including some Christian pastors, spoke against a fairness ordinance. “That was sufficient evidence to me that the possibility of discrimination exists,” said Jason Howard, an ordinance advocate.

But at a second public meeting last Thursday, speakers for an ordinance outnumbered opponents by three-to-one. The committee must eventually recommend that the council draft and vote on an ordinance, or not, or put the issue up for a public referendum.

Fairness laws have faced significant opposition across Kentucky. Henderson city commissioners adopted one in 1999, only to repeal it two years later amid voter backlash. Louisville’s ordinance failed several times before it passed in 1999.

Most opposition to fairness laws comes from Christians who consider homosexuality to be a sin. Other Christians disagree, or they believe laws shouldn’t be based on religious views.

Berea’s debate over a fairness ordinance has gained special attention because of the town’s progressive history. Berea College was founded in 1855 by the Rev. John G. Fee based on what he considered the Christian principles of fairness and equality. At the time, many other Christians quoted the Bible to justify slavery. The college was the first in the South to admit African-Americans and women. It is best known now for educating students of modest means who work in return for full scholarships.

A fairness ordinance is supported by two Berea churches Fee founded: First Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) and Church of Christ, Union. Berea College hasn’t taken a stand on the issue, although it prohibits such discrimination on its campus and offers same-sex partner benefits to employees.

Christians have differing views on homosexuality. Many point to a few Bible verses that condemn it. But the Bible also prohibits divorce and says adulterers and non-virgin brides should be stoned to death.

Other Christians note that Jesus didn’t mention homosexuality in the Bible, but he did talk about loving your neighbor, treating people as you would want to be treated and being careful about judging others.

Homosexuality will always be subject to religious debate, because each Christian interprets the Bible to fit his or her own conscience and understanding. But that’s not really the point.

Freedom of religion — even freedom from religion — is a core American value. The same goes for equal protection under the law. Gay, lesbian and transgender people deserve the same legal rights and protections as everyone else. It won’t happen easily, though, so long as elected officials can get more votes by pandering to some people’s fears and prejudices.

The people of Berea have long set an example for the rest of Kentucky by treating society’s marginalized people with fairness and justice. The right thing to do in this case should be obvious. And it might even help other Kentuckians find the courage to speak out.


King’s forgotten legacy: seeking economic justice

January 15, 2011

One of the most remarkable people I got to know as a young reporter in the 1980s was Myles Horton, whom Rosa Parks called “the first white man I ever trusted.”

Horton helped start the Highlander Center in Tennessee, which became a cradle of the civil rights movement. He was a confidant of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., whom he told me he first met when King was a student at Morehouse College in Atlanta.

As Horton and I sat outside his hilltop cabin at Highlander one afternoon, enjoying a view of the Great Smoky Mountains in the distance, he talked about King and his legacy.

In focusing on King’s work for racial justice, Horton said, many people ignore the fact that he was equally passionate about economic justice. “What does it profit a man to be able to eat at an integrated lunch counter,” Horton quoted King as saying, “if he doesn’t earn enough money to buy a hamburger and cup of coffee?

Economic justice was at the heart of King’s career as an activist, from the Montgomery bus boycott that thrust him into the national spotlight in 1955 to the Memphis sanitation workers’ strike where he was assassinated in 1968.

Conservative extremists last year called President Barack Obama a “socialist” for pushing through what had been a Republican plan for healthcare reform. But some of the things King advocated five decades ago, such as a government-guaranteed minimum income, really did approach socialism.

The public was scared of communism in King’s day, so his enemies often called him a “communist” for challenging America’s status quo. A photograph of King with Horton at Highlander was posted on billboards around the South with the headline, “Martin Luther King at Communist Training School.”

“I’m not talking about communism,” King later replied. “Communism forgets that life is individual. Capitalism forgets that life is social. And the kingdom of brotherhood is found neither in the thesis of communism nor the antithesis of capitalism, but in a higher synthesis.”

Many of King’s proposals for achieving economic justice seem quaint, even far-fetched, today. He was a minister, not an economist. A half-century of history since then has underscored the power of entrepreneurial capitalism to improve society. But it also has shown the pitfalls of corrupt, monopolistic capitalism and unchecked corporate power.

This is a good time to review some of King’s thoughts about economic justice. The King holiday Monday comes at a time when Wall Street has recovered from the Great Recession, but Main Street still has a long way to go. Meanwhile, politicians talk about making drastic cuts in America’s social safety net.

“The well-off and the secure have too often become indifferent and oblivious to the poverty and deprivation in their midst,” King said in accepting the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964. “The poor in our countries have been shut out of our minds, and driven from the mainstream of our societies, because we have allowed them to become invisible. … In the final analysis, the rich must not ignore the poor because both rich and poor are tied in a single garment of destiny. All life is interrelated, and all men are interdependent.”

In a 1967 speech, King said: “True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar; it is not haphazard and superficial. It comes to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring. A true revolution of values will soon look uneasily on the glaring contrast of poverty and wealth.”

Because King was a Christian minister, his words often echoed those of the Biblical savior worshipped by both liberals and conservatives. In a speech only days before he was murdered, King had this to say: “One day we will have to stand before the God of history and we will talk in terms of things we’ve done. Yes, we will be able to say we built gargantuan bridges to span the seas, we built gigantic buildings to kiss the skies. Yes, we made our submarines to penetrate oceanic depths. We brought into being many other things with our scientific and technological power.

“It seems that I can hear the God of history saying, ‘That was not enough! But I was hungry, and ye fed me not. I was naked, and ye clothed me not. I was devoid of a decent sanitary house to live in, and ye provided no shelter for me. And consequently, you cannot enter the kingdom of greatness. If ye do it unto the least of these, my brethren, ye do it unto me.’ That’s the question facing America today.”

While much has changed since King’s time, much else has not. That is why his words remain so powerful and relevant. King had a gift for bringing America’s strengths and weaknesses into sharp focus and inspiring us to do better than we have.


Oakwood reunion celebrates beloved ‘village’

May 26, 2010

A famous African proverb says, “It takes a village to raise a child.” For many African-Americans in Lexington, that village was the Oakwood subdivision.

Some Oakwood children are now in their 40s and 50s, and they will return this weekend to the subdivision off Georgetown Road that they credit with helping to shape their lives and success.

The reunion begins at 5:30 p.m. Friday with a tour of Bryan Station High School, where three years ago a new building replaced the one where many of them excelled in athletics and academics. On Saturday, a block party is planned from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. A memorial service, dinner and party begins at 7 p.m. Saturday at the Lexington Hilton Downtown.

“I always thought Oakwood was a special place,” said Angela Duerson Tuck, an editor at The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, who helped organize the reunion with a Facebook page. “All of the adults looked after all of the children. Everybody knew each other. Everybody helped each other.”

Oakwood was special from the beginning. When the 106-home subdivision opened in 1964, it was only the second development in Lexington where African-Americans could buy a new house. The first, St. Martins Village, had opened a few years earlier, about a mile down Georgetown Road.

Oakwood opened the same year that Congress passed landmark civil rights legislation that prohibited housing discrimination. Before that, such discrimination was not only legal but widely practiced.

The subdivision was carved from farmland near the factories of IBM, Square D and Trane. Those employers were willing to hire African-Americans and pay them enough so they could afford an Oakwood home, which then sold for about $20,000.

The 1960s were the heyday of suburbia, and Oakwood was a place where African-Americans could live the suburban dream. The neighborhood’s popularity led to the development five years later of the adjacent Oakwood Estates, with 139 homes.

Many Oakwood homeowners had grown up together in Lexington’s East End or were classmates at the old, all-black Dunbar High School. Some worked together and many went to church together.

“We became very good neighbors,” said Julian Jackson Jr., 78, the first black director of the Kentucky Cabinet for Human Resources.

“It always seemed like an extended family,” Tuck said of Oakwood, where her parents moved in 1965 from Winchester. “We used to joke that if you did something you weren’t supposed to and one of the parents saw you, they’d correct you and then call your parents, so more discipline would be waiting for you when you arrived home.”

The 1964 marketing brochure for Oakwood subdivision

The 1964 marketing brochure for Oakwood subdivision

The Jacksons were the third family to buy a home in Oakwood, in August 1964. Jackson and his late wife were in a hurry to enroll their son, Jarold — now supervisor of field operations for Kentucky American Water — in first grade at Linlee Elementary School.

Lexington’s schools were being peacefully integrated, but Linlee’s principal made a point of calling several Oakwood parents to tell them their children would be welcome.

Those former Oakwood children remember how their parents emphasized education and hard work. “There was just no tolerance for not achieving,” Tuck, who began her career at the Herald-Leader, said with a laugh.

Others returning for the reunion include Randall Johnson, a Chicago attorney who graduated from Dartmouth College and Yale Law School, and Greg Fields, a former WKYT-TV meteorologist who works for WFAA-TV in Dallas.

But some of their friends won’t have to come far — they still live in Oakwood.

Most of the homes belong to their original owners or their heirs. Jarold Jackson and his brother, Jonathan, have homes in the neighborhood. And Jarold’s son, Brian, 27, lives in the Oakwood home that once belonged to his great-grandmother.

The neighborhood now includes several white families.

As I photographed Julian, Jarold and Brian Jackson at the Oakwood entrance Sunday evening, the occupants of every passing car waved to them. Julian Jackson’s dentist stopped and rolled down his window so he could tease him.

“This,” Julian Jackson said as his dentist drove away, “has been a pleasant place to live.”

Three generations of Oakwood subsidivision homeowners: Jarold, Brian and Julian Jackson.

Three generations of Oakwood homeowners: Jarold, Brian and Julian Jackson.


Film project hopes to teach Kentucky’s rich history

December 7, 2008
Former state Sen. Georgia Powers of Louisville was interviewed last week for the film Kentucky -- An American Story. Photo by Tom Eblen

Former state Sen. Georgia Powers of Louisville was interviewed last week. Photo by Tom Eblen

In a darkened former courtroom on ground where slaves were once bought and sold, Georgia Powers sat in front of a video camera and told her story.

Born in the “Jim Crow Town” section of Springfield, she grew up in Louisville. Powers first realized African Americans were being treated as second-class citizens when she and a white friend had to attend different schools.

Powers grew up to be a community organizer and civil rights activist. When a state senator she was trying to lobby blew smoke in her face, she decided she needed a seat beside him. Powers became the first woman and first African American elected to the Kentucky Senate. There, she sponsored and fought for passage of the South’s first laws guaranteeing blacks equal rights to home ownership and public accommodations.

“I saw a need for someone to speak out for women, for African Americans, for children,” said Powers, now 85. She described a time that seems so long ago, but wasn’t, and the skillful political maneuvering it took to secure rights and freedoms Kentuckians now take for granted.

Powers’ story says a lot about the Kentucky experience — and the American experience. It is one of many stories that will be featured in a documentary film being made by five University of Kentucky professors, Academy Award-winning director and producer Paul Wagner and composer Kinny Landrum. The film will be narrated by the Kentucky-born actress Ashley Judd.

Filming for Kentucky — An American Story began last week with Daniel Blake Smith, a UK historian and the film’s executive producer, taping several interviews on UK’s campus and at the Lexington History Museum in the former Fayette County courthouse.

In addition to Powers and fellow civil rights activist J. Blaine Hudson, Smith interviewed journalists Al Smith and Maryjean Wall and historians Ron Eller, Tracy Campbell, Stephen Aron and John Mack Faragher.

Full-scale filming will begin in the spring, and Smith expects the documentary to be finished by mid-2010. The film will be either one or two hours, depending on how much more money the filmmakers’ non-profit corporation can raise. And it will be only one piece of a project that will include a companion book and a Web site with supplemental content that schools can use to teach Kentucky history.

Smith said the filmmakers want Kentuckians to learn more about their history — and take pride in it.

“We think Kentucky’s history is very revealing of the American experience,” he said. “So many people think that American history only happened in places like Washington and Philadelphia and Boston. But a lot of it happened in Kentucky. We want viewers to be surprised about what has happened in Kentucky and feel connected to it.”

Kentucky — An American Story won’t cover everything, and it won’t be a dry history lesson. Both Smith and Wagner, also a Kentucky native, have significant filmmaking experience. Their collaborators include two historians and authors, Campbell and Eller, who know how to tell a good story.

The film will focus on Kentucky people, land and politics, telling stories both familiar and surprising. Those stories include Kentucky’s pioneer settlement and early prosperity; how racial and religious conflict gave way to pioneering civil rights progress; the blessing and curse of coal and tobacco; the planning and marketing that created the thoroughbred horse industry; and even the rich history of girls’ basketball.

In his interview for the film, journalist Al Smith, the founding host of KET’s weekly public affairs program Comment on Kentucky, discussed the state’s many contradictions and challenges.

Kentuckians have long been stereotyped by outsiders as feuding mountaineers and poor hillbillies. Yet, Kentucky has produced some of America’s most acclaimed authors and intellectuals, people such as Robert Penn Warren, Harry Caudill, Harriett Arnow, Wendell Berry and Elizabeth Hardwick.

Many Kentuckians once rejected the science that shows tobacco causes cancer just as they now reject the science that shows burning coal causes global warming, Smith noted. And not far from one of the nation’s most remarkable collections of prehistoric fossils, fundamentalist Christians recently built the Creation Museum.

The Kentucky of 1784 was described by pioneer author John Filson as the “New Eden,” yet many parts of the state have since been despoiled by strip mining, excessive logging and overdevelopment.

For two and a half centuries, Kentucky has always seemed to be at the center of America — not only its geography, but its people’s successes and failures, challenges, hopes, dreams and cultural conflicts. Author Jesse Stuart described it this way: “If these United States can be called a body, Kentucky can be called its heart.”

For more information

For more information about Kentucky — An American Story and to see video clips of sample segments narrated by actress Ashley Judd, go to the film’s Web site: www.kentuckyanamericanstory.org