Gov. Edward Breathitt

By KET Staff | 02/12/15 9:55 AM

Note: This original one-on-one interview, part of the Civil Rights Movement in Kentucky Oral History Project, was produced by the Kentucky Oral History Commission and Historical Society.

Born in Hopkinsville in 1924, Edward Thompson Breathitt, Jr., became aware of racial inequities as a young attorney working in the criminal justice system. Those experiences, plus an opportunity to draft a plan to help integrate Christian County schools, placed him in a unique position to contribute to the civil rights movement at the state and national levels.

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Breathitt served three terms in the Kentucky House of Representatives, worked on the presidential campaign of Adlai Stevenson, and served in the administration of Governor Bert Combs.

Breathitt was elected governor of Kentucky in 1963. He cooperated with efforts to pass a state public accommodations law in 1964, but that attempt failed. Breathitt then rallied support from governors throughout the United States for passage of the national Civil Rights Act in 1964.

After the federal law was enacted, Breathitt again worked to gain approval of a state law, which was passed in the first month of the 1966 legislative session. The Kentucky Civil Rights Act was the first significant civil rights law passed by a southern state, and was in some ways stronger than the federal law that preceded it.

Breathitt returned to private law practice after his gubernatorial term and continued to serve the causes of justice and education through leadership in several community organizations (including KET). He died on October 14, 2003.