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  • Direct-Action Protests in the Upper South:Kentucky Chapters of the Congress of Racial Equality

In January 2001, Don Edwards, a white columnist for the Lexington Herald-Leader, wrote an article in remembrance of Martin Luther King Jr.'s birthday. Edwards recalled a demonstration he witnessed on Main Street in Richmond, Kentucky, during the early 1960s:

Half a dozen people were carrying signs that protested no counter service for blacks. The chief of police and another officer walked by and looked. The noon whistle blew. The chief said to some white college men who were watching: "We're going down the street and have lunch. If you boys want to break this up, that's fine with us." Then the police left. One of the students climbed to the top of the hotel building and rained bricks down on the marchers. No one was killed. The marchers dodged the bricks and kept on with what they were doing.

Then they left. "We were there out of curiosity," continued Edwards. "We had never seen a civil rights demonstration. It was something we thought happened only in the Deep South or in large cities."1

Edwards's memory of the civil rights years of Kentucky provides ample reason for a deeper look into the protests against racial inequality [End Page 351] in the Bluegrass State during the 1950s and 1960s. His memory of the incident that took shape that day provides an opportunity for a closer examination of the events which took place in Richmond and other Kentucky cities as result of direct-action protests against segregation in public accommodations.

To be sure, demonstrations in Kentucky were not as eventful as those in the Deep South. There were no bus boycotts, racial lynchings, or mass protests which captured national attention. Unlike governors in Arkansas, Mississippi, and Alabama, the leading statesmen of Kentucky did not challenge the federal government in opposition to integration. Governor A. B. Chandler ordered the Kentucky National Guard to restore order in Sturgis, Kentucky, during a school desegregation crisis in 1956; Bert Combs wrote letters to seven thousand Kentucky business managers appealing to them to integrate their establishments in the early 1960s, and Edward T. Breathitt signed a state civil rights bill in 1966, making Kentucky the first state south of the Ohio River to pass this kind of legislation.2

Local officials in some communities took precautions to minimize violent racial conflicts. F. E. Whitney recalled that the mayor of Hopkinsville "made a declaration that he wasn't going to let any riots happen." He insisted that store managers cooperate with abolishing segregation in the community. Audrey Grevious, president of the Lexington chapter of the NAACP, remembered being in a "fortunate" situation:

Chief [E. C.] Hale was the police chief at the time. We met with him and talked to him about what were going to do, and that we were going to try to remain as peaceful as possible. That we were not going to try to start any riots or anything, and that we wanted to see how we could work together. After we had talked for a long, long time . . . he agreed with us that they would not arrest anyone unless the owner of the [End Page 352] building took out a warrant for our arrest.

George Esters of Bowling Green recalled: "The reason why Bowling Green changed was the city fathers heard that Freedom Riders were coming to Bowling Green to sit-in. That's when restaurants began to open up and when things began to change a little bit."3

On the surface, it seemed that civil rights demonstrations had bypassed Kentucky. Minimal press coverage, the small size of the African American population, and the distance white Kentuckians were alleged to maintain from the Deep South states regarding racial issues, gave those persons living in Kentucky a distorted impression of what was actually taking place in the Bluegrass State. With the exception of the Louisville Defender, a weekly African American newspaper, Kentucky newspapers extended limited coverage to local civil rights activities. Although the Louisville Courier-Journal offered good coverage on school desegregation, it was selective with the news it...


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