The Civil Rights Ally Who Cheated Death
Life contains defining moments that transform us. But we don’t control when those moments occur. As sure as the sun rises each morning, they will come. How you respond reveals the inner you.
While driving in a motorcade during a campaign stop in Dallas on November 22, 1963, at 12:30 p.m., President John F. Kennedy was shot in his open-air limousine by a sniper from a six-story building. First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy was next to him in the back seat as the force of the bullets pressed his body against hers. Pronounced dead at 1:00 p.m., Kennedy was 46 years old.
Kent P. Ashworth, then a twelve-year-old, remembers where he was when the President was assassinated. He was a seventh grader in Lake Charles, Louisiana, located 60 miles east of Beaumont, Texas. A somber message came on the intercom in school announcing the sad news.
He saw a couple of kids laugh. And heard one kid say, “Serves him right, the nigger lover.” This moment would bend his life toward civil rights.
When Kent arrived home from school, his parents were crying in front of the television. “I had an awareness of how different my parents' sensibilities were from some of the worst racist stuff around me,” he says.
Kent characterizes his parents as “open-minded and not racist.” His mother sheltered him from the worst of the racist ideology. He remembers when George Wallace (the four-term Governor of Alabama), Ross Barnett (the Governor of Mississippi from 1960 to 1964), or other racists who appeared on television, “she would turn off the television and tell us to go play outside.” These memories shaped young Kent.
Change would come to the south in 1968 when the high schools in New Orleans started to desegregate, fourteen years after it was required by law. Progress was excruciatingly slow, and many towns and cities resisted the changes. This resistance to desegregation was not exclusively a southern phenomenon. People resisted across the country.
Louisiana and other states passed dozens of resistance laws to continue segregation, such as illegally intimidating members of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) by attempting to have them submit membership lists—including home addresses. Those laws repeatedly were struck down. Interviewing lawyers and judges involved at that time, Kent wrote about the persistence of racism.
He took the best parts about the south, from chivalry to the work ethic, and made it his own.
A House Near the Ocean
I spoke to Kent for the first time by phone on Friday, July 8, after receiving an email with his resume attached that morning. The resume provided an overview of his work achievements—eliminating the need for me to conduct an internet search.
I had the impression that Kent didn’t leave anything to chance. He was precise. Everything he said had an air of fact to it.
Kent’s accent could be from anywhere, considering he has lived in California, Savannah, Georgia, Washington D.C., Missouri, New Orleans, Trenton, New Jersey and Connecticut. There is a southern familiarity to it but without a distinct drawl.
Kent’s son Sam, 37, describes his dad as having a “southern soul” and a “deep love for New Orleans." "He took the best parts about the south, from chivalry to the work ethic, and made it his own.”
Kent spent his formative high school years in New Orleans and nearly three years working in the late 1970s. The culture, the people, the food and the music were an instant draw. His brother Kirk and siblings lived in and around New Orleans; he would visit them over the years—he was never too far away.
These days, Kent is semi-retired but busier than ever with nonpaid projects. Most septuagenarians are content to leave the heavy lifting of civil rights to a younger generation. He feels a sense of duty to stay in the fight, which means volunteering for Hartford Communities That Care (HCTC), a nonprofit dedicated to creating drug-free and nonviolent communities in Hartford, Connecticut. I was the chairman of the HCTC Board of Directors about eight years ago.
Since November 2017, Kent has provided youth leaders with research, writing and mentorship. He and Edward Brown, the program director, have grown close.
On Sunday morning, July 10, Andrew Woods, the executive director of HCTC, picks me up, and we drive to Old Saybrook, Connecticut, 44 miles south of Hartford.
Our final destination was a house not far from the prime coastline of Connecticut, where the Connecticut River spills into Long Island Sound. It’s a view tourists drive hundreds of miles to see. The front of Kent’s traditional New England house is a profusion of lavender wisteria and purple and yellow iris, with a massive ancient boulder. The backyard is lush with shade trees sloping down to the serene water of Beamon Creek that meets South Cove, surrounded by tall reeds. He graciously offers the use of his kayaks the next time I visit.
On this day, I would meet Kent’s wife, Alison, whom Kent describes as his best friend. The couple will celebrate 42 years of marriage this year. They have two sons, Sam and Evan, 40. On the counter, Alison left us a sliced blueberry-lemon loaf—which was delicious.
A Way Out
Kent’s parents did the best they could with their five kids. Kent, who is the second oldest, considers himself a military brat. His dad, Kent T. Ashworth, who had been a minor league baseball player for the Tampa Smokers in the Florida State League, was a military man and his mother, Brigitte, was a bookkeeper and auditor.
Kent was born in Torrance, California, a city within 1.5 miles of Pacific Ocean beach that is part of the Los Angeles metropolitan area. He later moved to Monterey, California, where his brother Kirk was born.
They soon moved to Missouri, which Kent says his mother pronounced “misery” because of the scorching summer heat of over 100 degrees and “tornados and storms with hail the size of lemons.” He started school in a town called Rolla, with a current population of just under 20,000 people.
Kent describes his growing-up years as 'very chaotic.'”
Kent’s father and mother split up when Kent was 17. Earlier, the family has been evicted from their home. His mother and the kids packed their personal belongings and moved to Lake Charles, Louisiana, to live with family members until his mother found a job to support the family.
Kent describes his growing-up years as “very chaotic.” He once told his dad that his life was like a driver-training film, “where they show you decapitated bodies.” As a military man, his dad battled his demons of alcoholism and could be physically abusive to the family. Kent and his family reconciled with their father in the late 1970s, as his mother was sick and passed away in 1980. He was on good terms with his dad when he died in 1993.
Kent made the hasty decision to get married at eighteen, to break free from home. During this time, Kent was running from his own demons. He still feels traumatized by those memories.
He would call off the wedding—something that he thought about for 50 years until he made things right at his high-school reunion in October 2019. He was rescued by his Aunt Marjorie, a journalist, author and magazine editor, who offered him a place to live for free. The only stipulation was that he had to be accepted by a college in the Washington, D.C. area.
Kent received a full scholarship to George Washington University (GWU), where he earned a degree in education and history. Leaving Louisiana changed his life. His aunt inspired his first job because of her love of writing.
His good fortune in Washington led to more luck. Kent was waiting with a GWU journalism professor at a crosswalk light. While they waited for the light to turn, the professor told him about a job opening at the Savannah Morning News in Savannah, Georgia. He applied and got the job. Journalism would be a foundational job, with everything he did in his future work life being built on writing, researching, investigating and interviewing. It stuck with him.
In his book Mind is the Master, James Allen defines purpose as “highly concentrated thought.” He states that all “men are men of purpose.” Kent’s purpose was civil rights—and he held on tight like a dog with a bone.
Allen writes, “They hold fast to an idea, a project, a plan, and will not let it go; they cherish it, brood upon it, tend and develop it; and when assailed by difficulties, they refuse to be beguiled into surrender; indeed, the intensity of the purpose increases with the growing magnitude of the obstacles encountered.”
At the Savannah Morning News, Kent covered the state legislature, city council, county commission and the NAACP. At this time, interest was increasing in civil rights issues. He says one of the most profound people he ever met was Wesley W. Law, a local NAACP president and mail carrier. Wesley helped him to understand inequalities, structural racism that led to mass incarceration and other issues of the day.
If you were Black, you couldn’t sit in front of it; you had to go behind it,
He traces his interest in civil rights back to his childhood when he saw a metal placard that read “colored” on a city bus. “If you were Black, you couldn’t sit in front of it; you had to go behind it,” he says. This was long after Rosa Parks.
After being a reporter, he took a job at the Orleans Parish Prison to help inmates who had committed property crimes get jobs. It was a way for them to earn money and get out of prison. After a year, he became a group leader at Rivers Oak Hospital as part of a psychotherapeutic team.
While there, he saw wealthy young people undergoing residential psychiatric treatment. He saw that young people who committed crimes like stealing food had similar issues to the rich kids. Both groups had some form of neglect, including child abuse. The only difference was that one group had money and the other didn’t. One group received treatment, and the other went to prison.
“So that’s always been my interest that there is a population that is sort of bereft, and only because of poverty,” Kent says. The advantaged group was going off to college despite the fact they had severe mental health illnesses, similar to the prison population.
He had many subsequent jobs: a reporter at The Journal in Virginia; the editor of the School Law News and civil rights reporter, Education Daily; Communications and Dissemination Director, National Assessment of Education Progress in Princeton, New Jersey; Director of Public Outreach, American Institutes of Research, Washington, D.C.; Aide to the Mayor, Public Information Officer; City of Trenton, New Jersey; Communications Manager, Achieve Hartford; and a freelance writer, editor and policy researcher at Hartford Communities That Care.
Ken’s policy side is comfortable talking about Angela Davis, the Black Panther Party and their social initiatives, the Supreme Court, school finance equity, Civil Rights, and The National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders, later known as the Kerner Commission, led by Governor Otto Kerner Jr. of Illinois.
President Lyndon B. Johnson assembled a task force to examine the roots of the unrest in the mid to late 1960s and to search for solutions. The report found that white racism was a key factor that led to the civil unrest in Black neighborhoods in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn, Harlem, Cleveland, Detroit and Los Angeles’s Watts, beginning in 1964 and culminating in 1967, when things came to a full boil in over 160 cities and towns, ending with 43 deaths in Detroit and 26 in Newark.
The Kerner Report came after the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, a time of great promise. The report was released in February 1968; it concluded that “Our nation is moving toward two societies, one black, one white, separate and unequal.” That warning went unheeded, Kent believes.
From 2010 to 2017, Kent worked at Achieve Hartford, performing his unique blend of writing, producing op-eds, developing state legislative testimony, attending Board of Education meetings and research-based writing.
Nyesha McCauley worked with Kent at Achieve Hartford. I reached her on the telephone in the afternoon of July 15. They had become “fast friends,” according to her. They laughed and joked. And she says, “He cursed like a sailor.”
I found him to be the realest, most refreshing person.
She says, “I found him to be the realest, most refreshing person.” She adds, “It’s funny because the word ally is now commonly used. I think Kent was always an ally before it was the in thing to be.” She states he was far ahead when it came to racial justice and equity. “Kent was there,” she says, “long before other white people.”
“He has such great integrity,” says Nyesha. “He would never publish something or write something without having all the facts.” He is a “brilliant writer” who can synthesize information.
Somewhere in Maine, Andrew is driving on Saturday at 9:00 p.m. I can hear the GPS providing directions in the digital female voice: “Two miles ahead, on the route, slow traffic.”
Andrew first met Kent around the fall of 2017 when Kent offered to volunteer for HCTC. At the time, Kent was interested in the Greater Hartford Youth Leadership Academy program, where youth 13 to 18 define a problem, research the causes, and create solutions for positive change.
Andrew says, “Initially, I didn’t know how to take him, to tell you the truth. The joke between him and I was, I kept saying why the hell does he keep coming back here. What’s he up to?” He would find out later that Kent was “authentic in his interest to help and support the work that we were doing.”
As Andrew explains, Kent is the guy who “kept coming back; he just kept coming back and coming back, one year after the next.”
HCTC needed someone of Kent’s caliber to help capture what the organization was doing for the community. His work has comprised writing articles, policy briefs, reports, op-eds, and personal accounts of victims, staff and partners. Perhaps his biggest project to date has been writing the executive summary and editing the 500+ page report for the Commission on Violence Prevention and Intervention to address violence, treatment and recovery. The report was completed in December 2021.
When describing Kent, Andrew says, “I would describe him as a person who has come to a stage in this life where he recognizes that there is just so much that a person in his position can do to help. And that there are so many people that can really use that help, at zero cost.” He mentions that Kent has refused numerous times to take any compensation for his services.
“I count him as a confidant of mine,” says Andrew. I’ve gained a level of trust and respect for who he is as a person. And I count him as a friend—quite frankly, he has become every bit of a friend.”
A Major Scare
Kent’s life has been blessed with much good fortune; however, his luck was bound to run out. It did so on February 13, 2021, when tragedy struck. Kirk Thornton Ashworth, Kent’s brother, was outside chopping wood in northwest Arkansas, close to the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville, when he had a heart attack and died at 66.
Kent wrote “A Personal Remembrance,” a 6-page tribute to his brother, saying, “His outrageous humor was no more or less startling than his serious interpretations of humanity, concern for this country, and sometimes harsh words to the unwise.”
Heart issues ran in the family. Kent’s father had a quadruple bypass after his third heart attack. After what happened to Kirk, Sam demanded that Kent see a cardiologist—he says his dad gives him too much credit and eventually would have gone on his own. They both did.
To many, Kent would have appeared healthy. Not so. The doctor gave him the bad news that would lead to triple-bypass heart surgery. In late December 2021, he had surgery.
I reach Sam, the attorney and former FBI employee, on the telephone on Saturday, July 16. He is busy managing work issues and the usual stuff that can’t be done during the week.
When talking about his uncle Kirk’s death, Sam says, “Kirk gave us an incredible gift with his life, to get us all thinking about taking care of ourselves and making sure that we’re here for the people that we love.”
He was shocked when he saw the tubes, the monitors and the medical staff coming in and out of his father’s hospital room. Even when he was in a hospital bed, dealing with the most critical medical issue of his life, Kent was concerned about someone else.
As Sam tells it, a nurse’s grandson was thinking about law school. Somehow Kent found the energy to mention that Sam, his son, had gone to law school. “You got to help this kid to the extent you can,” he told Sam. In some ways, Sam was not surprised that his dad would take the focus off of himself.
Sam remembers the time he and Kent were playing football against another father-and-son team in Trenton, New Jersey. The game was hotly contested and close, as the sun set. Eventually, it was so dark that he couldn’t see his feet or anything. Kent, the quarterback, said one more play.
He ran the route, hoping he wouldn’t fall and twist his ankle. Reaching for the sky, he raised his hands. And on that dark night, with zero visibility, the ball landed gently in his hands. They won, according to Sam.
Sam has a message for Kent: “He is by nature a caring and giving soul; I would love at this stage of his life to see him be able to take a step back and focus on himself.” His short message for Kent is to “maximize his happiness.”
Kent continues to live a life of purpose when it comes to civil rights—it’s been ingrained in him since JFK was killed.
Whether Kent’s next move is to write his magnum opus (possibly a book or two), cook jambalaya, or listen to James Booker’s album “Spiders on the Keys” (Live At The Maple Leaf Bar, New Orleans, LA), it’s not time to close the curtain just yet on his long career.
Anthony Price is an entrepreneur, writer and publisher of Mini Books, concise adventures for people who are curious about the world.
7/20/2022 07:32:42 am
Anthony, This is such a great story! Thank you for capturing so much detail about a man I have come to respect, love and honor.
7/21/2022 09:33:46 am
I love you Kent not only for all the work you have done for HCTC but for the civil right movement THANK YOU
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Anthony Price is the publisher of Mini Books.