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Human rights panel turns 50

BY LAUREL BLACKlblack@paducahsun.com

The Paducah Human Rights Commission on Friday will celebrate local and national civil rights milestones.

Both the panel and the Civil Rights Act of 1964 turn 50 this year, a landmark the commission will recognize at its annual Evening of Performance event.

Over the past half century, "Paducah, I think, has come a long ways. I truly believe that. This is a community that tries to work together and I think that makes a difference," said J.W. Cleary, president of the Paducah chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.

The Civil Rights Act of 1964, originally proposed by President John F. Kennedy, was enacted on July 2 under President Lyndon B. Johnson. It outlawed discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex or national origin and paved the way for future civil rights legislation.

The Paducah commission was established May 26, 1964, under the leadership of then-Mayor Thomas W. Wilson with the mission to safeguard local residents from various forms of discrimination.

Fifty years later, the nine volunteers who make up the Paducah Human Rights Commission continue to work toward improved community relations by mediating and resolving complaints related to discrimination.

The commission aims "to be a bridge between citizens who don't believe they have a voice to becoming citizens who do," said the Rev. Bernice Belt, chairwoman of the commission.

The most common cases brought to the commission's attention have been related to housing, race, disability and employment, Belt said. The commission also addresses discrimination related to age, gender, religion, color and national origin. The mayor appoints the chairman for the commission and works with city commissioners to approve human rights commissioners, Belt said.

Belt said that since she took leadership of the board in 2012 - first as interim chairwoman, and then as chairwoman - she has tried to steer the commission toward mediation and reconciliation. Even when people don't have a valid legal complaint, Belt said, she attempts to help them mend relationships with the alleged respondents.

"We've had quite a few success stories on that," she said. "That proves that mediation can lead to reconciliation if both parties are willing to do that."

The board has also moved from being a mere oversight board to a working board, Belt added, and has expanded its outreach, offering internships to high school students.

Belt said that in the coming years she hopes to build stronger relationships with nonprofits and other rights organizations such as the NAACP.

The commission will celebrate its 50th anniversary at 6:30 p.m. Friday during its 8th annual Evening of Performance at the Robert Cherry Civic Center, 2701 Park Ave. The free event brings comedy and dance troupes, bands, poets and musicians to the stage with the goal of raising awareness of the human rights commission and its work.

The event will also recognize seven organizations that boast solid track records of compassionate service. The Award of Compassion will be given to Easter Seals West Kentucky, the Interracial Women's Group of Paducah, the Guess Anti-Bullying Foundation, the Paducah-McCracken County NAACP, the Paducah-McCracken County Senior Citizens Center, the Anti-Bullying Task Force and LIFE Community, Inc.

"They work hard, and they work long," Belt said of the organizations' members.

Contact Laurel Black, a Paducah Sun staff writer, at 270-575-8641, or follow @LaurelFBlack on Twitter.

Want to go?

What: The Paducah Human Rights Commission's 50th Anniversary and 8th Annual Evening of Performance.

When: Doors open at 5:45 p.m., event begins at 6:30 p.m. Friday.

Where: Robert Cherry Civic Center, 2701 Park Ave.

The free event features live entertainment, special awards, a buffet dinner and door prizes. Seating is limited. For more information, call 270-217-4623 or email hrsecretary@paducahky.gov.

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