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Leaders reflect on civil rights anniversary 

BY LAUREN P. DUNCAN lduncan@paducahsun.com

While great strides have been made in granting people equal rights in the half-century since Congress passed the Civil Rights Act in 1964, local leaders say there's still progress to be made.

On July 2, 1964, President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the act into law, banning discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex or national original.

While the act's protections encompassed individuals' identities beyond race and color, President John F. Kennedy pushed it primarily to give black Americans the same opportunities as white citizens. Following Kennedy's assassination on Nov. 22, 1963, Lyndon B. Johnson pushed the bill through Congress in 1964.

J.W. Cleary, president of Paducah's NAACP chapter, calls the act "one of the greatest things that has ever happened."

He can remember going into a movie theater and having to go upstairs, as black people were not allowed downstairs.

"I believe it was good for not only the African Americans, but the white Americans. We were right out of slavery, and there was so much hiding ... when they said, look, it is not right to treat one race of people differently," he said.

Cleary pointed out the significance of Lyndon B. Johnson following through on Kennedy's work. In ways similar to how Johnson, with the help of Martin Luther King, Jr., was able to negotiate with Congress, Cleary said the Paducah community has been able to reach agreements.

"That's one of the good things we've got in this community," he said. "We know how to sit down at the table, as Dr. King said, the table of brotherhood, and try to come to some understanding." 

Things have changed in Paducah since before the act's passage. Former Mayor Albert Jones can remember attending Augusta Tilghman High School in the late 1940s, when black students were not allowed to participate in athletics. He can remember attending a track meet in Herrin, Ill., and seeing a black student participate for the first time, a time when the drinking fountains at the downtown Paducah Sears and Roebuck store were segregated.

But Jones was raised to see people as equal. His father, who immigrated to the United States from Greece, never refused an African American service at his downtown Paducah restaurant.

While Jones can attest to what life was like before the Civil Rights Act, he also has some memories of change. When he was in the U.S. Army, his military police unit had the first black man join it. As a U.S. attorney, Jones hired the first black assistant U.S. attorney in western Kentucky, and as mayor he appointed Redell Benton as fire chief.

"What people don't really understand, as far as I'm concerned, I never really hired and placed those people in positions of responsibility because of their color. I did it because they were the best people, and I felt fit that job," he said. "To me, yes ... I knew the color of their skin, but (that) never entered into those appointments."

Robert Coleman, who served on the Paducah City Commission for 31 years, said he thinks more needs to be done to achieve equality.

"The civil rights act was a big movement since 50 years ago when it happened ... but today, as we watch the actions of the current U.S. Congress, and the things that are being passed, it still appears that we need civil rights, and I think that's rather discouraging."

Coleman said he thinks Paducah has had few problems regarding civil rights, but nationally, he pointed to growth in groups such as the tea party as to why he thinks equality is being undermined.

"Paducah is seemingly a different type of small town. We really did not have a lot of problems during the civil rights movement. The citizens of Paducah took it in stride, and we got along as a community, and we're still getting along," he said.

Rev. Bernice Belt is the chairwoman of the Paducah Human Rights Commission, which formed the year the Civil Rights Act passed. At the time of the law's passage, Belt said, there was a mix of how people felt about it; some accepted the change, others were weary of it. Since then, she said, people have become more tolerant of others.

"I believe overall there is more tolerance, but what is lacking is a higher level of compassion, and compassion is an ongoing trial all the time," she said.

What can be done to help prepare the next generation for a more equal society, Belt said, is getting kids involved in helping others around them. She said adults should help get children involved in communities activities.

"The next generation must be better than the present generation ... education won't do it, socioeconomic status won't do it, but entering into the process of becoming more compassionate, along with civil tolerance, that's what improves a community."

Contact Lauren Duncan, Paducah Sun staff writer, at 270-575-8692 or follow @laurenpduncan on Twitter.

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