Fifty years ago individuals of varied ages, races and religious affiliations converged at Kentucky’s state capitol in Frankfort for a peaceful demonstration against segregation.
Thousands were there on that Thursday, March 5, 1964, to put an end to discrimination in public accommodations such as theaters, restaurants and hotels.
Some were local activists from cities across the state, well-versed in the organization of rallies and sit-ins at lunch counters. A few were regarded as celebrities, including Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Jackie Robinson, who were among several to address the crowd. And some walked or caught rides to the Civil Rights March on Frankfort from just a few, short miles away at Kentucky State University, then Kentucky State College.
“I didn’t have any idea – not the slightest idea – how many people were going to be there,” said Dr. Gus Ridgel, who was an instructor and head of the college’s Department of Business and Finance. “I was pleasantly surprised.”
Ridgel, a Missouri native who arrived at Kentucky State in 1960 from a position at Wiley College, has retired in Frankfort and still owns the red and black band he wore around his arm that identified him as one of the event marshals.
His job as a marshal was to help steer the crowd. Buses arrived in Frankfort for the march, and it was later reported that 10,000 people had participated. Ridgel said he remembers the march passing without incident. People sang and talked quietly in reverence of the occasion.
Students and faculty at Kentucky State were often encouraged to participate in the sit-ins and marches of those days even though concern was sometimes voiced about classes being missed, Ridgel said.
Bill Wilson, currently the associate vice president of development and major gifts at KSU, was a freshman at Kentucky State when he and some friends started toward the march on foot. One of his instructors stopped and gave the group a ride to the festivities.
Before the day of the march, another instructor told his class they “had an opportunity to make history” by participating in the demonstration, Wilson said.
It was the first march Wilson ever attended. He said the event was festive, and he joined other young people in straining to catch a glimpse of the popular folk-singing group Peter, Paul and Mary.
KSU students are participating in the 50th Anniversary Civil Rights March on Frankfort to the capitol steps, which begins at 10 a.m. March 5, 2014.
Donald Lyons was a senior at the old Dunbar High School on North Upper Street in Lexington when he bought a Greyhound bus ticket for one dollar and some change to participate in the march. Lyons was rarely absent but skipped school that day.
Lyons later attended Kentucky State and graduated in 1968 with a bachelor’s degree in history and political science. He has held several positions at KSU, including librarian, instructor and athletics director. He is currently executive secretary of the KSU Foundation.
At the time of the march in 1964, Lyons had acquaintances that were already students at Kentucky State, including the brother of one of the friends with whom he traveled from Lexington.
Lyons said he marveled at the size of the crowd and he guesses that 80 percent of the student body attended the march.
“I can see it just like it was the day before yesterday,” Lyons said.
Just as Ridgel saved his marshal armband, Lyons has held tight to mementos. Lyons still has the souvenir program that was sold for 25 cents. And he has the bumper sticker that advertised the statewide demonstration.
According to both men, change in Kentucky came quickly after the Frankfort march.
“The spotlight of the march was all over the country,” Ridgel said. “I think it had a very significant effect.”
In 1964, Lyons couldn’t get a hotel room in Frankfort. Recalling a promotion by Gulf Oil, Lyons said he booked a room at the Holiday Inn when he was a senior at Kentucky State. And just a few years after that, Lyons bought a home in a predominantly white subdivision.
“That march really shook up the power structure as well as the blacks who had been complacent,” he said.
The Kentucky Civil Rights Act was passed in 1966, which prohibited discrimination in employment and public accommodations.
“It was a big change,” Lyons said. “There was a lot of change in those years.”
Lyons was no stranger to civil rights activities when he marched in 1964. He was always interested in politics and human rights, and his parents supported his endeavors even when he ended up in juvenile court.
So there was never any question about whether he would participate in the Civil Rights March on Frankfort. The march was bigger than any other he’d attended and would prove to be an event not soon forgotten.
“For the rest of my life I’ve thought about that march on Frankfort,” Lyons said.
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