In Louisville, Looking to Life-Changing Past Civil Rights Protests to Move ForwardHistorians in the News
tags: civil rights, police brutality, Protest, Louisville
“Louisville has always responded to get justice,” said Raoul Cunningham, 77, president of the city’s branch of the NAACP, who participated in sit-ins in 1961 that helped lead to the integration of commercial businesses. “I think today’s demonstrations are a continuation or even an advancement of that quest,” he said.
As activists work to chart a path forward after prosecutors announced that the two Louisville police officers who fatally shot Breonna Taylor would not be charged, some are drawing on the city’s past to help guide them. Louisville has a robust, if overlooked, history of civil rights struggle that has spanned generations. Many see what is happening today as a continuation of that legacy.
During the civil rights movement, Louisville was a regular stop for Martin Luther King Jr., whose brother served as a pastor in the city. There were sit-ins, pickets and marches that led to landmark victories: It was the first major city in the South to pass local civil rights and fair housing ordinances, and it was the rare Southern city to peacefully integrate its schools after the Brown v. Board of Education ruling.
The 1970s brought a violent clash over the use of busing to integrate schools. In the ’80s there was so much labor unrest that Louisville became known as Strike City.
In the mid-20th century, Louisville was the stop for trains coming from the North where Black passengers had to move to the “colored cars” before continuing their southward journey, said Tracy E. K’Meyer, a historian at the University of Louisville and the author of “Civil Rights in the Gateway to the South.” But it also was the place where organized labor as well as liberal churches helped to produce a civil rights movement that was relatively interracial for its time.
“One of the things the ’60s era sort of bequeathed to us is a sort of playbook for activism,” K’Meyer said. “Some of my younger students, especially some of my more radical younger students, will say, ‘We’re not like them. We’re different from what they did back in the ’60s,’ while doing pretty much exactly what they did back in the ’60s.”
Some older movement leaders say that the younger generation has shown less patience at times, and that the current activist efforts can seem chaotic.
Shameka Parrish-Wright, a co-chair of the Kentucky Alliance Against Racist and Political Repression, has been helping to guide some of the younger activists.
“They’re still reacting,” Parrish-Wright, 43, said. “They’re still processing and they’re doing it out loud.”