The Governor who got it

October 8, 2010 in 1950s-1960s, 1960s-1970s, Military history, Oral history, Political history

History is replete with ironies and this report on Edward T. Breathitt highlights it. A former governor of Kentucky (1963-1967) Breathitt oral history is house in the Louie B. Nunn Center for Oral History at the University of Kentucky. Breathitt defeated Nunn for the governorship in a race that could be considered a referendum on the civil rights movement.

Breathitt was born in Hopkinsville, Ky., into a family with a long history in politics. Breathitt County in south eastern Kentucky was named after the 11th governor who was a distant relative. His grand-father James Breathitt sr., was attorney general and one of his uncles James Breathitt jr, was a lieutenant governor.

Breathitt states that he was first consciously aware of segregation when he joined the military. He remembers talking about it with his roommate during his training to be a pilot. His roommate was from Purdue University and grew up in Evansville, IN. across the Ohio River from Henderson, Ky.  They, along with the other whites, were separate from the black cadets. It was happening in his home town but it never dawned on him to before that it was segregation. Years later he would play an important role in helping the civil rights movement in Kentucky.

Breathitt was endorsed for by then governor Bert T. Combs. Combs had signed an executive order desegregating accommodations in Kentucky and Breathitt campaign supported it. Nunn, promised to rescind the order if elected governor. As a governor Breathitt did not support George Wallace’s proposed constitutional amendment to give states and state courts sole jurisdiction over their public schools, preventing a federal law to integrate them. Without His opposition segregated schooling would no doubt have continued in Kentucky for many years

5 responses to The Governor who got it

  1. I am intrigued by why Breathitt never saw his home town, previous to joining the military, as segregated. First thing that comes to mind simply would be his naivety as a younger person, but I also wonder about subtle, unspoken, unseen barriers that build social and cultural divides.

  2. Hm… interesting! I wonder what role women activists played in Breathitt’s life and impacted his way of thinking? It was while Governor Breathitt was in office (1964) that the state first commissioned a committee “to study and report on the status of Kentucky women” (

  3. aplatonic3, I wondered that as well. It would have been pretty hard to notice during his time growing up that blacks and whites were segregated. In addition to the things you mentioned, we also have to be aware that the southern media did not normally cover in great detail situations where African-Americans were being denied rights. Any instances that could have drawn attention to the dilemma of segregation in his hometown were probably hushed quickly.

  4. Its always hard to see problems in ones hometown, we always think that the problems that face the world are hundreds of miles from the area we live. I have to agree with Logan Hargis that its very feasible that there was a lack of coverage in the local media on the issue. But I think that I have to side with Aplatonic3, that it is likely naivety and a belief of home being a perfect place.

    The fact that he was able to not only see the error in this viewpoint, but then took the initiative to actively seek to fix the problem is inspiring however.

  5. To some outsiders, Kentucky is not often seen as being a “southern state”, possibly because it was a border state during the Civil War. But for me growing up in southeastern Kentucky, we have always been a “southern state” so I commend former Governor Ned Breathitt for taking the lead in becoming the first southern state to enact strong civil rights laws when it might have been easier to go along with the other southern states.He never got the full credit he should have in my opinion for his strong stand against segregated schools and for civil rights, not only in Kentucky but in the entire U.S South.

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