Ken Hechler, a West Virginia icon who has served the state in a variety of ways, was awarded the 20th Annual Martin Luther King Jr. Achievement Award Monday (Jan. 18) by West Virginia University’s Center for Black Culture and Research.
The Achievement award is given annually at the Martin Luther King Jr. Unity Breakfast to a West Virginia resident who best exemplifies King’s legacy and commitment to the advancement of civil rights, human rights, humanitarianism, social action, advocacy, civility, improving the human condition, and acting as a change agent for an inclusive and equal society for all people.
Also, Honietia Morgan, a junior psychology major from Martinsburg, was awarded the 2010 Martin Luther King Jr. Scholarship, awarded annually to a WVU undergraduate student who has demonstrated an active interest and meaningful involvement in human rights, civil rights, social justice, world peace or other activities exemplary or reflective of King’s life and ideals.
In his keynote speech, Geoffrey Cousins, a native of McDowell County and the newest cardiothoracic surgeon to join the West Virginia University Heart Institute, described himself as a direct beneficiary of King’s efforts, and said, “it is up to those of us who have benefited the most to extend the dream to others.”
WVU President James P. Clements said King’s work remains “an important part of our life in the 21st Century” and reiterated his commitment to diversity, which he called a “strategic priority for our university.
Hechler was already a seasoned leader when he arrived at Marshall University in 1957. He had earned a doctorate in political science from Columbia University in 1940, and taught at Columbia and Barnard before being drafted into the U.S. Army in 1942.
He spent his World War II years training as an infantryman, graduating from Armored Force Officer Candidate School, serving as a combat historian in the European Theater of Operations , and, after combat operations ceased, interrogating Nazi war criminals, most notably Hermann Goering, prior to the Nuremberg Trials.
In 1949, Hechler began a four-year term as research director and speechwriter for President Harry Truman. He also served as research director for Adlai Stevenson’s unsuccessful 1956 run for the presidency. Then he came to West Virginia.
Hechler arrived in Huntington to teach political science, but, after just one year, began a life of public service and advocacy to the State of West Virginia that has lasted, formally and informally, to this day.
In 1958, West Virginians elected him to the U.S. House of Representatives, beginning an 18-year career as congressman that included drafting an early civil rights bill, primary sponsorship of the Federal Coal Mine Health and Safety Act of 1969, fighting corruption within the United Mine Workers of America, advocating for better health, safety, and environmental legislation and calling for an end to strip mining and mountaintop removal of coal.
Hechler was also the only congressman to march with King in Selma, Ala., in 1965 and he recounted those experiences Monday, calling the Selma march “the front lines of democracy.”
As West Virginia Secretary of State from 1985 to 2001, Hechler cracked down on political corruption. He was also vocal and instrumental in the push to reform campaign spending. In 1999, he even joined Doris “Granny D” Haddock for 530 miles of her trek across America in a rally against “soft” money in politics.
After “retirement,” Hechler has remained active by traveling the country to speak about his broad experience and knowledge, especially about Harry Truman and World War II. He is an active member of the Congress to Campus program, which brings a team of bipartisan former representatives to campuses across the country as a way to engage students in the civic process.
Hechler is still a prominent advocate for health, safety, and the environment. In the summer of 2009, at the age of 94, he was arrested at the Marsh Fork protest in Sundial, doing just that.
Hechler, who resides in Charleston, has written several books of American history, including “The Bridge at Remagen” and “Working with Truman,” a memoir of his time working in the White House.
The Unity Breakfast and awards are sponsored by the WVU Center for Black Culture & Research and the Martin Luther King Programs Committee.
CONTACT: Todd McFadden, Center for Black Culture & Research