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'Continuing triumphs and inspiring contributions': Black history celebrated in Capitol rotunda

Senator Gerald Neal and Representative Derrick Graham spoke at the Capitol's Black History Celebration.
Josh James
Senator Gerald Neal and Representative Derrick Graham spoke at the Capitol's Black History Celebration.

Though separated by over half a century, speakers at the Capitol’s Black History Celebration filled the rotunda with parallels between the civil rights movement and present day DEI efforts.

Speakers included Representative Pamela Stevenson, who spoke to the theme of the event - the national movement for Civil Rights - which she traced from the civil war through the 1954 ruling declaring “separate but equal” unconstitutional. She credits Carter Woodson, an early 20th century historian, as the Father of Black History.

"Mainstream historians oftentimes left out African Americans from the American history that they were teaching," explained Stevenson. "Woodson worked his entire life to make sure that we were included in the history books. The legacy of racism is manifested in this country every day. It's just a fact, don't get mad. When we know it, we can fix it."

Several local Black leaders were remembered at the event, including Representative Lamin Swann, whose mother was recognized and presented with a certificate. Governor Beshear also tearfully honored his Deputy Attorney General J. Michael Brown, the first Black Secretary of the Kentucky Justice and Public Safety Cabinet, who passed away earlier this month.

Beshear described Brown as a “dear friend and colleague,” before turning his focus toward recent efforts to create a more equitable Commonwealth - including through the new hospital in West Louisville, bipartisan legislation supporting HBCUs, and the removal of the Jefferson Davis statue formerly in the rotunda. He also outlined plans to expand access to clean water, high speed internet, and education.

"Now is the time when we have to make sure we don't move backwards," said Beshear. "There are some who try to suggest that DEI is a four-letter word. It is a three-letter acronym for important values for every single Kentuckian.

The event’s keynote, too, connected the past with the present. Dr. John A. Hardin, professor emeritus of History at Western Kentucky University gave an overview of Kentucky’s role in the civil rights movement, and emphasized the current-day need to preserve the rights won.

The celebration included the viewing of a brief documentary highlighting the 1964 March on Frankfort, in which Dr. Martin Luther King Junior called on then-Governor Breathitt to stand firm in his support of civil rights legislation.

At the close of the event, the Kentucky Black Caucus presented its living legacy award to Raoul Cunningham, who recalled the first time he stood in the rotunda in 1958. Then, though he was invited to tour the Capitol, he was not permitted to stay in the local hotel. In Frankfort, I’m Clay Wallace.