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Kentucky governor marks civil rights event by condemning limits on diversity, equity and inclusion

By BRUCE SCHREINER, Associated Press
Published: March 5, 2024, 1:08pm

FRANKFORT, Ky. (AP) — Democratic Gov. Andy Beshear condemned efforts to limit diversity, equity and inclusion practices at public universities after marching with other Kentuckians on Tuesday to commemorate the 60th anniversary of a landmark civil-rights rally that featured Martin Luther King Jr. in the state’s capital city.

“DEI is not a four-letter word,” Beshear said in his speech in front of the state Capitol. “DEI is a three-letter acronym for very important values that are found in our Bible. Diversity, equity and inclusion is about loving each other. It’s about living out the Golden Rule. … Diversity will always make us stronger. It is an asset and never a liability.”

Beshear walked at the head of the pack as throngs of people marched to Kentucky’s statehouse on a mild, overcast day. They retraced the steps of the civil rights icon and 10,000 others who joined the 1964 March on Frankfort to call for legislation to end discrimination and segregation in the Bluegrass State.

That march is credited with leading to passage of the Kentucky Civil Rights Act of 1966, which prohibited race-based discrimination in accommodations or employment.

Sixty years later, significant progress has been achieved in racial justice, but there’s more work to do and “a lot of harm to stop,” Beshear said, referring to legislation advancing in the state’s Republican-dominated legislature.

The governor drew cheers when he vowed to veto a measure, if it reaches his desk, that would limit diversity, equity and inclusion practices at Kentucky’s public universities. The legislation won Senate passage last month and is pending in the House. Debates revolving around similar rejections of DEI efforts are playing out in statehouses across the country.

Supporters of the Kentucky bill say it’s an effort to protect free speech and promote “intellectual diversity.” Its lead sponsor says it’s meant to counter a broader trend in higher education to deny campus jobs or promotions to faculty refusing to espouse “liberal ideologies fashionable in our public universities.”

Beshear vetoed a GOP-backed bill Tuesday that would prohibit local governments from enacting ordinances banning landlords from discriminating against renters who use federal housing vouchers or other forms of payment. He said the bill would make it harder for “people to have a roof over their heads.”

Such ordinances banning source-of-income discrimination in housing have been passed in Louisville and Lexington — the state’s two largest cities. Landlords have argued they don’t want to participate in a federal housing voucher program, saying it can be overly burdensome, causing delays in rent payments.

Beshear reinforced his national profile as a rising Democratic star with his resounding reelection victory last year in a state that otherwise has trended heavily in favor of Republicans.

But Kentucky Republicans hold supermajorities in both legislative chambers and have routinely overridden Beshear’s vetoes.

The governor vowed in his speech Tuesday to continue pushing for inclusive policies and fighting against racial injustice, proclaiming that “racism continues to this day and it is our job to stop it.”

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“Now I understand that I will never be able to truly feel the historic and ever-present weight of systematic racism, of inequity and of injustice,” said Beshear, who is white and the son of a former Kentucky governor. “But I am committed to listening … trying to learn and to take the actions that can move us all forward together.”

Beshear has included prominent Black people in his inner circle as governor and previously as state attorney general.

At the start of his governorship, Beshear signed an executive order to restore voting rights for nonviolent offenders who completed their sentences. That right has been restored to about 190,000 Kentuckians, he said Tuesday. He noted his support for the state’s historically black colleges and universities, and his efforts to expand health care and economic opportunities in minority neighborhoods. Beshear led the push to remove a statue of Confederate President Jefferson Davis, a Kentucky native, from the state Capitol.

Walter Taylor Jr., who attended the 1964 civil rights march in Frankfort, shook Beshear’s hand Tuesday and later referred to him as one of Kentucky’s best governors ever. Taylor, now in his early 70s, remembered how cold it was on that day back in 1964.

“It was a blessed day, and I thank God I’m still here today to celebrate it,” he said in an interview.

Taylor, who served two combat tours in Vietnam and retired as a hospital worker, said significant civil rights gains have been made, but he said “we’re just scratching the surface” and he’s worried about the progress stagnating. The key, he said, is getting young people committed to the cause.

“A bunch of us older people are dying off, and it’s good to see the youth out here,” Taylor said. “But there should be more.”