50 years later, Berea alumni say Selma march changed their lives

February 15, 2015

150215Berea-Selma0008Berea College student Mike Clark took these photos as one of 58 students and faculty to join the Selma-to-Montgomery civil rights march in 1965.  The students carried a banner and signs with the college’s mottos. At left of the banner is freshman Ann Grundy, shown below in detail and today with her husband, Chester Grundy. Photos by Mike Clark and Tom Eblen


When the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. put out a call in the spring of 1965 for people to come to Alabama and march for civil rights, college students across the country jumped at the chance. College presidents shuddered.

Alabama cops and racist thugs had beaten previous marchers, killing two. University administrators worried about the safety of students, the fears of parents and the anger of conservative donors and community members.

Officials at Berea College, the South’s oldest interracial school, had an additional complication as campus opinion split over the civil rights movement and its tactics.

“Berea’s motto is ‘God hath made of one blood all nations of men’,” recalled Ann Grundy, who was then a freshman and one of 35 blacks among Berea’s 1,400 students. “Why did they ever tell us that? It became our weapon. We hammered them across the head to let us go.”

Berea President Francis Hutchins refused to sanction the trip, even after students marched on his house. But his heart was with them.

“They realized that morally we were correct,” Grundy said. “They just had to find a way to do it.”

Clark031Hutchins quietly loaned them his car and helped rent a Greyhound bus so 58 students and teachers could join the triumphant final day of the march from Selma to Montgomery, which led to passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

The 50th anniversary is attracting a lot of attention this year, in part because of Ava DuVernay’s acclaimed film, Selma, a contender for the best-picture Oscar at the Academy Awards on Sunday.

A two-month commemoration began last week in Selma. Among the participants March 7-8 will be a busload of Berea students, faculty and alumni that will include Grundy and 10 others who made the first trip. Of the original 58, 43 are still alive.

This time, Berea’s participation is official, organized by Alicestyne Turley, an African and African American studies professor who directs the Carter G. Woodson Center for Interracial Education.

Among other things, the group plans to attend festivities at the Edmund Pettus Bridge, where the first two of King’s three marches ended almost as soon as they began.

The first one, on March 7, 1965, became known as “Bloody Sunday” after police beat the peaceful marchers as they tried to cross the bridge. A second attempt two days later came to be called Turnaround Tuesday” because, when confronted by police, King led the marchers back to a church in Selma.

150202Grundys0005AKing then sought a federal court order to protect marchers on their journey to the state Capitol in Montgomery, as well as federal legislation protecting black people’s right to register and vote. On March 15, President Lyndon B. Johnson asked Congress for that legislation in a nationally televised speech.

The third and final march began March 21 under the protection of 4,000 federalized troops and law-enforcement officers. Limited by the court order to 300 marchers on narrow parts of the road to Montgomery, the protest swelled to more than 25,000 as they reached the Capitol on March 25.

The Berea group spent all night driving through Kentucky, Tennessee and Alabama to join that final day of marching. They carefully planned their route to include rest and refueling stops at places where it would be safe for blacks and whites to be seen traveling together.

“There were many white people at Berea who stepped outside their comfort zone to help us,” Grundy said. “Without their support, it would not have happened.”

She remembers an electric atmosphere, with students singing civil rights songs and talking about issues all night.

“On the bus we talked a lot about why we were doing it,” she said. “I remember being nervous, but when you’re 18 years old, what do you know about fear?”

Grundy led much of the singing. A piano major, her father had been pastor of Birmingham’s 16th Street Baptist Church, where, three years after his death, Klansmen placed a bomb that killed four girls attending Sunday school on Sept. 15, 1963.

When they arrived at a Catholic school complex outside Montgomery where thousands were waiting to join the marchers coming from Selma, the Bereans organized behind a banner painted with their school’s motto. They carried signs with another school motto, in Latin, which means “victory through suffering.”

“I felt sort of a oneness with all of the people there from all over the United States,” said John Fleming, another black Berea student who had participated in lunch counter sit-ins as a teenager in Morganton, N.C.

Fleming’s most vivid memories from that day are of watching people on the sidewalks as the march passed through Montgomery — the icy stares and slurs of whites and the joyful faces and cheers of blacks who had been warned not to join the protest.

“I wondered what they were all thinking,” he said. “And I realized that the only way change is going to happen is for individuals to make a decision that they are going to take a stand.”

150215Berea-Selma0002Berea student Mike Clark watched much of the day through the viewfinder of the school newspaper’s camera. He was the sports editor, but he learned to use the camera when the newspaper’s conservative photographer refused to make the trip.

“What I was looking at was pretty dramatic; all I needed to do was focus,” said Clark, who recently sent some of those old pictures to Berea.

Clark was a white boy from the North Carolina mountains. The first black people he ever met were chain-gang convicts who worked on the road outside his house. As a teenage restaurant cook, he worked for a black man he respected. Clark’s mother was a Christian who taught him that everyone deserved equal treatment.

He remembers running ahead of the march to take photographs as it approached the Capitol. There he encountered King and his lieutenants standing by the flatbed truck that would serve as the speakers’ platform for their rally.

“There was no security, so I just went up and chatted with them,” Clark recalled. “We were all just looking out at the crowd that stretched out in front of us for blocks. It was an inspiring moment. He had been a hero of mine for quite awhile, so to meet him personally was pretty cool.”

At the march’s dramatic conclusion, King and others spoke and Harry Belafonte and Peter, Paul and Mary sang. A line of police with billy clubs watched them from the Capitol steps.

“I can remember looking up at the state Capitol,” Grundy said, “and seeing (Gov.) George Wallace pulling back the curtain to peek and see what was going on.”

But Grundy’s most vivid memory was of a rest stop in Collinsville, Ala., on the way back that night. Zodia Belle Johnson Vaughn, the mother of black Berea freshman Robert Johnson, opened her home to the students and fed them delicious fried chicken, biscuits and collard greens.

“You know how they talk about Jesus and the miracle of the loaves and fishes? Well, he didn’t have anything on Mrs. Vaughan and her friends and neighbors,” Grundy said. “That to me was the highlight of the trip, because it demonstrated the many ways that people can support a struggle.”

After their return to campus, black students felt especially energized, and they focused that energy on Berea College.

Abolitionist John G. Fee founded the school in 1855 to educate freed blacks in an atmosphere of equality among the races and sexes. But in 1904, Kentucky legislators outlawed interracial education, and Berea refocused its mission on educating Appalachian white students of modest means.

Black students were once again admitted after the segregation law was repealed in 1950, but there were few of them — and no black faculty.

“Coming back from that trip we were definitely fired up,” Grundy said. “We really kicked in with the organization of the Black Student Union and started pressing Berea for black faculty, black staff, more students, more black course work.

Today, Berea’s student body of nearly 1,600 is 19 percent black, 4 percent Latino, 4 percent other minorities and 10 percent international. But the faculty remains 86 percent white — a sore point with some black alumni.

The Selma-to-Montgomery marches marked an historic watershed for the nation, and it shaped many of those Berea students for the rest of their lives.

“It perhaps set the tone for what I was going to do in the future, said Fleming, who would earn a doctorate at Howard University and become the founding director of the National Afro-American Museum and Cultural Center and director of the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center.

Clark became a journalist, working for fearless publishers Tom and Pat Gish at the Mountain Eagle in Whitesburg. But he soon left journalism for a career in social justice and environmental activism, leading such organizations as Greenpeace and Tennessee’s legendary Highlander Research and Education Center.

Grundy and her husband, Chester, became lifelong civil rights activists who for more than four decades have organized the annual Martin Luther King Day festivities in Lexington that have included such speakers as Muhammad Ali, Maya Angelou and Archbishop Desmond Tutu.

“I think most of us look back on the march with a great deal of honor and pride,” Grundy said. “I could almost feel myself growing up. I sometimes say I never got over it.”


Click on each image to see larger photo and read caption:


Labor Day a reminder of how working people are falling behind

August 31, 2014

Each year on Labor Day, I think of Myles Horton and something he once told me.

Horton started Tennessee’s Highlander Center in 1932 and spent most of his 84 years crusading for racial, environmental and economic justice. Rosa Parks called him, “the first white man I ever trusted.” He was a mentor to the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.

During an interview in the 1980s, I asked Horton about his focus. “Working people,” he replied. “People who work for a living rather than own for a living.”

Labor Day celebrates Americans who work for a living, which is most of us. But each year there seems to be less to celebrate. Stock markets, corporate profits and executive compensation are hitting record highs. But at the other end of the spectrum, there aren’t enough good jobs for people who want to work.

There has been a lot of political talk about job creation, but a more important issue is the quality of jobs. More and more people are working hard at full-time or several part-time jobs and still can’t earn a decent living.

The Kentucky Center for Economic Policy, a non-profit think tank in Berea, issued a report last week that offers a gloomy assessment of recent trends. The full report is at Kypolicy.org, but here are some key findings:

Kentucky is experiencing job growth, but still needs 80,800 jobs to get back to the pre-recession 2007 level and accommodate population growth since then. Nearly one in four Kentucky part-time workers say they would rather have full-time jobs.

A lack of jobs has led to a decrease in the labor force as many Kentuckians have given up looking for work. One third of Kentucky’s unemployed people have been that way for a long time.

Wages are depressed by high unemployment levels. The late 1990s, when the unemployment rate was below 4 percent, was the only time in the past 35 years when Kentucky workers’ real wages actually grew.

The inflation-adjusted median wage has fallen 8 percent since 2001, and low-wage workers’ pay has fallen by 7 percent. Much of that is because higher-paying jobs that produce goods — especially in manufacturing — have been replaced by service jobs. Many service jobs pay low wages, which have been further depressed by a $7.25 hourly minimum wage that hasn’t been raised since 2009.

What are some solutions? First, the center recommends long-needed reform in Kentucky’s 1950s-era tax code to reflect the modern economy. That would provide more revenue for the state to invest in education and infrastructure, both of which would create jobs and spur economic development.

Another good idea the center recommends is raising the minimum wage. The value of the minimum wage has been eroded by inflation to the point that it is too little for an individual, much less a family, to live on.

What is especially obscene is huge, profitable corporations that pay workers so little they are eligible for public assistance. That leaves taxpayers subsidizing the profits of companies such as Wal-Mart and McDonald’s. Raising the minimum wage would save taxpayers money.

Opponents argue, as they always have, that increasing the minimum wage costs jobs and raises prices. But evidence shows those effects are minimal. A higher minimum wage, which also pushes up pay for workers just above it, puts more money in the pockets of people who will spend it, which boosts the economy.

Conservatives argue that Kentucky could spur economic growth by enacting anti-union laws and loosening environmental regulations. But that kind of growth does more harm than good. Pollution creates health problems and lowers the state’s quality of life. Anti-union laws boost business profits at the expense of workers.

Cynically named “right to work” laws make it harder for workers to organize for higher wages and better working conditions. States that enact those laws generally have lower average wages and more poor people than those that do not.

Similarly, repealing “prevailing wage” laws would make public construction projects cheaper, but only by taking money out of the pockets of the people doing the work.

It is no accident that the decline of the middle class since the 1970s has mirrored the decline of organized labor, which had a big role in creating the middle class in the first place. More and more of this nation’s wealth is rising to the top at the expense of everyone else.

Yes, we need to create more jobs. But we need to do it in ways that will improve the fortunes of people who work for a living and not just those who own for a living.


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.”



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


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


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.



Higher minimum wage would be a step toward economic justice

January 20, 2014

On this national holiday honoring the legacy of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., it is worth remembering that he focused on more than racial justice. The next big issue on his agenda was economic justice.

King was murdered in 1968 while in Memphis to help striking sanitation workers get better pay and treatment. At the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, where King delivered his “I have a Dream” speech, one of the key issues was raising the minimum wage enough to lift many workers out of poverty.

While America has made great strides in racial equality and opportunity, it finds itself in a similar economic situation to what those marchers faced 50 years ago. The income of the wealthiest Americans has soared over the past three decades, while middle-class wages have stagnated and many low-wage workers have fallen into poverty.

The gap between the rich and everyone else is wider than it has been for a century. There are many reasons for this, from manufacturers moving overseas for cheap labor to the decline of unions and tax code changes that favor non-wage income, most of which goes to wealthier people.

The minimum wage hasn’t risen in five years, and low-wage workers’ earnings have continually fallen behind inflation. The Economic Policy Institute estimates that 28 million workers — the bottom 20 percent by income — earn less than $10 an hour.

The minimum wage of $1 to $1.25 an hour that marchers in 1963 said was too little would now, with inflation, be worth more than today’s minimum wage of $7.25. The $2 minimum wage the marchers were seeking would now be worth more than $15.

President Obama favors a plan by Congressional Democrats to raise the minimum wage to $10.10 over three years, with future increases automatically tied to the rate of inflation.

At least seven Nobel Prize-winning economists and eight former presidents of the American Economic Association have endorsed the move. But the idea has met opposition from Congressional Republicans, whose economic agenda can best be described as Robin Hood in reverse.

Assuming political gridlock keeps Congress from acting, the General Assembly should adopt a similar proposal by House Speaker Greg Stumbo, D-Prestonsburg, to gradually raise Kentucky’s minimum wage to $10.10.

Opponents of raising the minimum wage argue that it causes many companies to hire fewer workers, but there is little evidence to prove that. A number of studies by respected economists show little job loss from minimum-wage increases.

Another argument is that higher minimum wages lead to higher consumer prices. But studies show price increases, when they occur at all, amount to only a fraction of the wage increase.

Another argument is that few people actually earn the minimum wage, and many of them are teenagers. After years of high unemployment, many workers at or slightly above the minimum wage are adults supporting families.

Increasing the minimum wage tends to have a ripple effect on slightly higher wage rates at the bottom of pay scales, and that also would be a good thing.

What I find most galling is that many low-wage workers at some of the nation’s biggest and most profitable corporations earn so little that they qualify for public assistance.

Bloomberg News estimated last month that Walmart employees get $2.66 billion in government assistance each year because of their low wages. University researchers in Illinois and California reported last year that Kentucky’s 32,000 frontline fast-food workers make such low wages that 46 percent qualify for public assistance that costs taxpayers $115 million.

Why should taxpayers be subsidizing profitable companies? Shifting some of the burden back onto employers in the form of a higher minimum wage only seems fair.

In addition to being good for low-wage workers, a higher minimum wage would help the whole economy. Low-income people spend a much greater share of what they earn than do wealthier people. So, when they have more money to spend, it helps the whole economy and generates more tax revenues.

The minimum wage is long overdue for an increase. If Congress won’t do it, Kentucky lawmakers should.

As King once said: “The time is always right to do what’s right.”


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.”

MLK Day speaker preview: Focus on what we have in common

January 16, 2013

In a coincidence of history, the national holiday honoring civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. falls on the same day this year as the second inauguration of Barack Obama, the first U.S. president of African descent.

That makes it a good day to talk about leadership, said Jeff Johnson, a journalist, commentator and social activist who is the featured speaker at Lexington’s holiday commemoration program, 11 a.m. Monday at Heritage Hall.

“I’m going to be talking a great deal about current-day leadership and what kind of leadership we need in the face of the daunting challenges in our community,” Johnson said during a telephone interview last week.

“In the face of trying to celebrate Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., do we do more of a disservice by being unwilling to do the things that he did to be able to bring about change?”

Johnson, 39, is a political commentator on the MSNBC cable network, the Tom Joyner Morning Show and TheGrio.com, an NBC News website that focuses on news and opinion tailored to black audiences. He also runs an Ohio-based organization trying to recruit and develop 80,000 black male teachers.

Previously, Johnson spent seven years as a commentator for Black Entertainment Television and was national director of the NAACP’s Youth and College Division.

Today’s social justice movements could learn a lot about leadership by studying the methods of King and his colleagues during the 1950s and 1960s, Johnson said. A key ingredient in the effectiveness of the civil rights movement was training in practical leadership skills and discipline.

“You weren’t allowed to be in the marches and the demonstrations if you were not trained, because the various agendas they had were so focused,” Johnson said. “Not just from a PR standpoint, but from a legislative one. They operated from the standpoint of being able to bring about systemic and pragmatic, legislative and policy changes.

“So often the movements of today are about ‘Can I get on the front page of the paper?’ or ‘Can our organization be on CNN?,'” he said.

Training and focus are just as necessary for achieving goals in today’s more complex social, political and economic environment, Johnson said.

“It’s not about antiquated civil disobedience tactics,” he said. “It’s about whatever tactics you choose to use in the process of creating change.”

That can include learning technical skills to organize an online get-out-the-vote campaign or developing human relations and business skills to form public-private partnerships to achieve neighborhood development projects.

Working with business and government is a key to modern progress, he said. So is tackling problems in a comprehensive way, involving players with a variety of perspectives and viewpoints.

“We each have a role to play,” he said. “If we did this in a nonantagonistic way, I think some of these nontraditional partnerships would create spaces where you’re really not asking people to go too far out of the way of what they already do, because everyone is stepping up.”

Today’s social justice issues are more subtle than during King’s era, and the nation’s demographic picture is more complex.

“For example, there are African-Americans who may be in the same family who may want drastically different things,” Johnson said. “I think we have to be sophisticated enough to do that.”

He mentioned the recent controversy in which ESPN commentator Rob Parker lost his job because of remarks he made about Washington Redskins quarterback Robert Griffin III, including calling him a “cornball brother.”

“You do the entire race a disservice by saying he’s less black because his black experience is different than mine,” Johnson said. “The real issue is ‘Who believes what I believe, and can I work with them to push it?’ That’s what we’ve got to help people understand.”

Effective change agents focus on simple agendas, even single issues, that others can rally around, Johnson said.

“You should ask, who are the people I can work with? Who are the people who believe what I believe? How can we pragmatically work around a concise agenda to be able to bring about those realities?” he said. “What it also does is it removes so much personal foolishness from what should be about communal advancement.”


MLK’s spirit lives in Occupy Wall Street protests

January 16, 2012

If Martin Luther King Jr. were somehow able to attend Lexington’s annual celebration of his birth Monday, where would he spend his time?

He probably would get up early for the unity breakfast, then walk in the symbolic march around downtown, which attracts several thousand people. He probably would return to Heritage Hall at 11 a.m. for the inspirational program and guest speaker.

This year’s event includes music from Mahalia, a musical honoring the late gospel singer Mahalia Jackson that was first performed in Lexington in 1983. The guest speaker is Marc Lamont Hill, a Columbia University professor, host of the syndicated TV show Our World With Black Enterprise, and political commentator on CNN, MSNBC and Fox News.

After that, King could choose among many other activities, including a program at the Carnegie Center for Literacy and Learning and a screening of the documentary film Freedom Riders at the Kentucky Theatre.

But I suspect that King would be most interested in spending some time at the corner of Main Street and Esplanade, where local participants in the Occupy Wall Street protest have kept a steady vigil for 107 days, as of Friday, and counting.

Hill, this year’s guest speaker, thinks so, too. That is because the Occupy protesters in Lexington and cities across America echo many of the concerns about economic justice that King expressed, especially during the final year before an assassin’s bullet silenced him in 1968.

“We’ve always needed to talk about the have-nots and the have-gots,” Hill said in a telephone interview last week. “The Occupy movement kind of revives that conversation.”

Hill, who is best known to many TV viewers as a liberal foil to Fox talk-show host Bill O’Reilly, plans to discuss some of those issues during his Lexington speech.

“We live in a really, really dangerous moment, for a variety of reasons — politically, socially, culturally,” Hill said. “There has never been a moment where we more needed to draw on the insights of Dr. King’s legacy, not only to bring the nation together but to move the nation forward.”

Hill thinks America’s core problem is poverty, because it is a major cause of the crises in health care, education, crime, violence and high rates of incarceration.

“What we see is a gap between what we have and what’s possible,” he said. “And the gap isn’t an intelligence gap, an effort gap, it’s an opportunity gap.”

One reason for rising economic inequality, Hill said, has been a lack of effective regulation of big business since the 1980s.

“The point is not to demonize business, it’s not to demonize success, but to certainly challenge and critique excess,” he said. “There’s a way to have responsible corporations. There’s a way to have responsible markets.”

Hill said Americans can best honor King’s legacy by continuing to work toward the goals he pursued.

“I want to challenge us to go deeper,” he said. “To not just think about the man who wanted people holding hands and singing We Shall Overcome, but someone who really forced us to reimagine the relationship between the government and its citizens, between the rich and the vulnerable.”

That thought and work will be especially important during this election year, Hill said.

“Beyond the everyday political banter we hear on cable television and read in the newspapers, we have to pay attention to what’s going on in our communities,” he said. “One of the things Dr. King represented was mass action on a national level, but locally rooted. He said that when dogs bit us in Birmingham, we bled everywhere. That kind of mentality is what’s necessary.

“I want to challenge people to do something — to join organizations, to volunteer, to start organizations,” Hill said. “What can we do in our communities? What can we do in our schools? What can we do in our respective religious institutions? What can we do in our homes to bring about the world that is not yet?”

Bookends to a great week ahead in Lexington

January 16, 2011

Tired of cabin fever? Want to get out of the house, meet people and learn something new? There are some great opportunities to do that in Lexington at the beginning and end of this week.

The annual Martin Luther King Jr. celebration begins downtown Sunday with a nondenominational service  at 6 p.m. at Central Christian Church. There are a full morning of activities downtown Monday  — a breakfast, a program, a march and service opportunities. Click here for details.

On Friday evening, Debra’s Social Stimulus kicks off 2011 with a gathering on Delaware Avenue to highlight an east Lexington neighborhood many people don’t even know is there. The festivities, which are free and open to the public, are from 5:30 p.m. to 9 p.m. at Barnhill Chimney Co., 1123 Delaware Ave. The street runs between Winchester Road and Henry Clay Boulevard. Here’s a map.

Debra Hensley, an insurance agent and former Urban County Council member, started these gatherings in 2009 to help people in Lexington get to know each other and become more involved in their city. If you haven’t been to one, you are really missing something. I try never to miss. Click here for information.

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.

Will we choose to live as brothers or perish as fools?

September 15, 2010

Pastor Nancy Jo Kemper, right, greets Dan Rosenberg, left, State Auditor Crit Luallen and Mehmet Saracoglu after an interfaith service Sunday at New Union Christian Church in Woodford County. Photo by Tom Eblen

If a tiny church in Florida could inflame religious strife around the world, the Rev. Nancy Jo Kemper figured that her tiny church in Woodford County could help heal it.

So the pastor of the 176-year-old New Union Christian Church held a special service Sunday to promote interfaith understanding. She invited a Muslim to read from the Quran and a Jew to read from the Torah.

“This church is unashamedly Christian, but we try to be good listeners,” Kemper told her two dozen parishioners. “We shall overcome hate and bigotry and narrow-mindedness.”

The Disciples of Christ congregation is one of several Kentucky groups that have spoken out against the Rev. Terry Jones of Gainesville, Fla. His threats to burn the Quran on the anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks by Muslim extremists sparked deadly protests in Afghanistan and international condemnation.

Georgetown College, a Baptist-affiliated school, sponsored several well- attended events last week to promote understanding between Christians and Muslims. “I saw students from many backgrounds open themselves to learn from members of a faith community that differs from their own,” said Emily Brandon, who helped organize the events.

Lexington’s Christian-Muslim Dialogue, which meets monthly, will have a special speaker Saturday. Monica Marks, who grew up as a Jehovah’s Witness in Carter County, is a Fulbright scholar and a Rhodes scholar who studies Islamic law and reform movements in modern Middle Eastern culture. Her free lecture, “The Interfaith Issue in America and Abroad,” is at 10 a.m. in Lexington Theological Seminary’s Fellowship Hall. The public is encouraged to attend.

Kemper, retired executive director of the Kentucky Council of Churches, began her Sunday morning service by telling the congregation, “A church not much larger than our own sent shock waves around the world with its threat to burn the Quran. We decided to read from it and learn more about it.”

She then introduced Mehmet Saracoglu — a Muslim from Turkey, a graduate student in mining engineering and founder of the University of Kentucky’s Interfaith Dialogue Organization. He told the congregation that the Quran clearly forbids killing innocent people, as terrorists have done.

Among the Quran passages he read was this one: “O mankind! We created you from a male and a female and made you into nations and tribes that you may know and honor each other (not that you should despise one another).”

Saracoglu was followed by Dan Rosenberg, a Thoroughbred industry consultant and retired president of Three Chimneys Farm. He read from the Torah’s book of Leviticus, including this passage: “When a stranger resides with you in your land, you shall not wrong him. The stranger who resides with you shall be to you as one of your citizens; you shall love him as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.”

Afterward, Rosenberg said he was pleased to participate in the service. “I think it is always important for people to speak out against intolerance and injustice,” he said.

The service emphasized beliefs that Christianity, Judaism and Islam have in common as the three religious traditions that trace their origins to a covenant between God and Abraham, described in the Hebrew Bible. In all three religions, love of God and of neighbor are inseparable.

In her sermon, Kemper asked God’s forgiveness for having called the headline-seeking Florida minister an idiot. “I think it is not for us to judge, but it is for us to act on our own values,” she said. “Too often we all let our prejudices get hold of us and lead us in ways that are not helpful.”

Jones’ stunt followed well-publicized protests over plans to build an Islamic center in New York, a few blocks from the former World Trade Center site, and mosques in towns including Mayfield and Murfreesboro, Tenn.

Kemper noted that Christianity, as well as Islam, has been perverted throughout history by zealots. People can honor their own religion and still respect others’ beliefs, she said. “All across America, people are saying ‘no’ to the Terry Joneses of the world, and for the most part they are doing it gently and kindly,” she said.

In addition to scripture, Kemper read several quotes from the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. But she left out the one that keeps popping into my head each time I see another news story about religious intolerance.

“We must learn to live together as brothers,” King said, “or perish together as fools.”