Civil Rights in the Gateway to the South

Civil Rights in the Gateway to the South: Louisville, Kentucky, 1945-1980

Tracy E. K’Meyer
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    Civil Rights in the Gateway to the South
    Book Description:

    Situated on the banks of the Ohio River, Louisville, Kentucky, represents a cultural and geographical intersection of North and South. Throughout its history, Louisville has simultaneously displayed northern and southern characteristics in its race relations. In their struggles against racial injustice in the mid-twentieth century, activists in Louisville crossed racial, economic, and political dividing lines to form a wide array of alliances not seen in other cities of its size. In Civil Rights in the Gateway to the South: Louisville, Kentucky, 1945--1980, noted historian Tracy E. K'Meyer provides the first comprehensive look at the distinctive elements of Louisville's civil rights movement. K'Meyer frames her groundbreaking analysis by defining a border as a space where historical patterns and social concerns overlap. From this vantage point, she argues that broad coalitions of Louisvillians waged long-term, interconnected battles during the city's civil rights movement. K'Meyer shows that Louisville's border city dynamics influenced both its racial tensions and its citizens' approaches to change. Unlike African Americans in southern cities, Louisville's black citizens did not face entrenched restrictions against voting and other forms of civic engagement. Louisville schools were integrated relatively peacefully in 1956, long before their counterparts in the Deep South. However, the city bore the marks of Jim Crow segregation in public accommodations until the 1960s. Louisville joined other southern cities that were feeling the heat of racial tensions, primarily during open housing and busing conflicts (more commonly seen in the North) in the late 1960s and 1970s. In response to Louisville's unique blend of racial problems, activists employed northern models of voter mobilization and lobbying, as well as methods of civil disobedience usually seen in the South. They crossed traditional barriers between the movements for racial and economic justice to unite in common action. Borrowing tactics from their neighbors to the north and south, Louisville citizens merged their concerns and consolidated their efforts to increase justice and fairness in their border city. By examining this unique convergence of activist methods, Civil Rights in the Gateway to the South provides a better understanding of the circumstances that unified the movement across regional boundaries.

    eISBN: 978-0-8131-7335-1
    Subjects: History, Political Science

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. List of Abbreviations
    (pp. ix-x)
  4. Acknowledgments
    (pp. xi-xii)
  5. Introduction: Gateway to the South
    (pp. 1-16)

    In the era of the civil rights movement and in retrospective accounts, white and black Louisvillians have often described their hometown as a “middle ground” between the North and South. In this border city, locals maintained, race relations were a “mélange of northern and southern attitudes,” southern in the “approach to the Negro” but with a political culture and “relations between the two races” “similar to those found in northern communities.”¹ To many observers, northern influences rendered Louisville, although still a southern city, a unique one. For example, Mark Ethridge, general manager of theLouisville Courier-JournalandLouisville Timesfrom...

  6. 1 Postwar Campaigns for Citizens’ Rights
    (pp. 17-44)

    One night in September 1950, three African Americans, Leroy Foley and Jessie Wallace of Louisville and John H. Smith of Lexington, went to Breckinridge County Hospital in Hardinsburg, Kentucky, after being in a car accident. There, they lay on the floor of the emergency room for three hours with no treatment except shots of morphine to ease their pain. Hospital officials called a black ambulance company in Louisville, seventy miles away, because, as one doctor explained, “We never admit a colored person.” When Jessie Lawrence of Louisville arrived on the scene, he found that “they were lying on the hard...

  7. 2 Confronting School and Residential Segregation during the Cold War
    (pp. 45-76)

    On Thursday, May 20, 1954, theLouisville Defenderfront page carried dramatic headlines about two seemingly unrelated events that triggered the decade’s biggest stories about Louisville race relations: “We Intend to Live Here or Die Here” and “Public School Bias Ruled Out.” On Monday, May 17, the U.S. Supreme Court had issued theBrown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansasruling, declaring segregation in public education unconstitutional. Most Louisvillians and other Kentuckians responded to the decision with moderation and even sympathy, but in the newly developed suburb of Shively, a violent confrontation over residential segregation brewed. A black family,...

  8. 3 Open Accommodations in the All American City
    (pp. 77-110)

    On May 14, 1963, the Louisville Board of Aldermen passed an ordinance making it illegal to discriminate based on race in any place of business open to the general public, the first such law, according to Mayor William O. Cowger, “in any major city in the South.” Passage of the ordinance, like the peaceful school integration of 1956, won Louisville national acclaim as an “All American City” and marked the high point of its reputation as a regional leader in race relations. This historic legislation did not arise in a vacuum; rather, the Louisville open accommodations struggle coincided with a...

  9. 4 The Battle for Open Housing
    (pp. 111-144)

    In May 1963, in the heady atmosphere of optimism that accompanied the passage of Louisville’s open accommodations ordinance, both Mayor William Cowger and civil rights leaders predicted the next step would be the quick adoption of a similar law on open housing. United by the assumptions that housing was the linchpin for undoing segregation in all other parts of life and that if Louisville could accomplish this victory it could be a model for how to overcome what many considered northern racial problems, civil rights advocates set out to secure such a measure. Over the next four years, the open...

  10. 5 Building Bridges, Fighting Poverty, and Empowering Citizens
    (pp. 145-178)

    In the mid-1960s, while the members of WECC were marching in support of an ordinance banning discrimination in housing, they also were organizing residents of public housing projects to demand garbage pickup and a traffic signal; hosting weekend-long arts festivals where blacks and whites could have fellowship while enjoying music, theater, and dance; and coordinating the fight against poverty in one of the poorest sections of the city. And WECC was not alone in engaging in this broad spectrum of action. LACRR, while sponsoring vigils of laypeople and clergy for open housing, also attempted to bridge the gap between whites...

  11. Illustrations
    (pp. None)
  12. 6 Militancy, Repression, and Resistance in the Black Power Era
    (pp. 179-216)

    By the end of the summer of 1967, many residents in the west end felt increasingly frustrated and powerless. The open housing movement was stalled. Despite residents’ complaints, the urban renewal authority scheduled the building of more public housing units in an already overcrowded area. School officials refused to replace firetrap facilities. The CAC had shifted power away from community representatives. In the midst of this atmosphere of crisis, Hulbert James, WECC’s forceful executive director, resigned and left the city. In response, WECC hosted a workshop to consider his replacement and determine what new directions it might take in light...

  13. 7 Making Civil Rights Gains Real
    (pp. 217-250)

    In 1969 theLouisville Courier-JournalandLouisville Timesenlisted Roper Research Associates to conduct an in-depth study of the living conditions and attitudes about race relations of white and black residents of Louisville. The resulting report documented the stark differences in whites’ and blacks’ living conditions, the “dismal” state of the latter, and the “frightening” lack of awareness and concern of the white community about both. The divergence on particular points was striking. Close to half of African Americans reported a shortage of housing or problems with landlords, while only 3 percent of whites considered access to good housing a...

  14. 8 The Busing Crisis
    (pp. 251-384)

    For two decades, the question of equal educational opportunity in the public schools had become a back-burner issue in Louisville. The city prided itself on having resolved that problem when it integrated the schools to great national acclaim in 1956. Yet in the mid-1970s, conflict over school desegregation sparked Louisville’s worst race relations crisis of the postwar era. When, in September 1975, court-ordered busing began bringing black and white students together on a large scale in the newly merged city and county system, white opponents of integration launched a school boycott and mass demonstrations, the latter devolving into vandalism and...

  15. Conclusion: Where Does the Story End?
    (pp. 285-294)

    In pondering where to begin a story, Amos Oz raises a fundamental problem in any historical narrative, including histories of popular struggles such as the civil rights movement. Just as we can always push back the birthing moment by looking at deeper roots or links to earlier precedents, we can extend the story until it meets the present. Indeed, when I asked movement participants a modified version of Oz’s question—Where does the story of the local struggle end?—the majority of answers echoed Post’s assertion that it never did. Cheri Hamilton noted in 1999, “We’re coming to the end...

  16. Notes
    (pp. 295-376)
  17. Bibliography
    (pp. 377-390)
  18. Index
    (pp. 391-410)