Edward T. Breathitt, 78; Pushed Historic Civil Rights Law as Kentucky Governor
Former Kentucky Gov. Edward T. “Ned” Breathitt, a liberal Democrat who oversaw the enactment of the South’s first state civil rights law in the 1960s, has died, a spokesman said. He was 78.
Breathitt died late Tuesday at the University of Kentucky Hospital, where he had been admitted Friday after collapsing from an abnormal heart rhythm during a dinner speech at the university. He had been in a coma since.
Breathitt was governor from 1963 to 1967, but he continued to stay near centers of political power in the succeeding decades.
He became general counsel for Southern Railway System after leaving the governorship, and moved to Washington, D.C., as a company vice president in 1972. He was the firm’s top lobbyist for 20 years.
Breathitt retired in 1992 and returned to Lexington to join Wyatt Tarrant and Combs, the state’s largest law firm.
Racial harmony was a theme of Breathitt’s inaugural speech on Dec. 10, 1963. But Congress was debating a civil rights bill at the time, and state lawmakers were unwilling to take the lead in enacting a state civil rights law. The Breathitt administration’s bill was later killed in committee.
Finally, in 1966, Kentucky became the first Southern state to enact a civil rights law, which went further than the federal law in prohibiting racial discrimination in hiring.
“This is only a beginning,” Breathitt said at the bill-signing ceremony. “Only in the human heart can justice win the final victory.”
Later governors appointed Breathitt to the Council on Higher Education and the governing boards of Morehead State University, Kentucky State University and the University of Kentucky, where he spent seven more years as trustees chairman.
“Gov. Breathitt not only was a person who cared deeply about his state and his people; he was kind beyond words,” said his former press secretary Don Mills. “He was a bit like a bottle of wine; the older he got, the better the contents.”
Breathitt was born in Hopkinsville, Ky. After high school graduation in 1942, he spent three years in the Army Air Forces. He graduated from the University of Kentucky in 1948 and from its law school in 1950 and returned to Hopkinsville to practice law.
Breathitt was elected to the Kentucky House in 1951, and served from 1952 to 1958. He worked for Democratic presidential nominee Adlai Stevenson in 1952 and was on the campaign staff that returned former Vice President Alben Barkley to the U.S. Senate in 1954.
Breathitt met his first wife, the former Francis Holleman, at the University of Kentucky, and they had four children. She died of cancer in 1985.
He later married the former Lucy Winchester, who had been White House social secretary for President Richard M. Nixon.
She and his children from his first marriage survive.