"Even I Voted Republican": African American Voters and Public Accommodations in Louisville, Kentucky, 1960-1961
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"Even I Voted Republican":
African American Voters and Public Accommodations in Louisville, Kentucky, 1960-1961

Historically denied the right to vote, African Americans have always placed the ballot at the forefront in their struggle for freedom and equality. Since the publication of Nancy Weiss's Farewell to the Party of Lincoln in 1983, historians have interpreted presidential voting data and concluded that African Americans have been solidly Democratic since the New Deal. On the local level, where city, county, and state Democratic organizations may bear little resemblance to their national counterpart, however, this narrative of solid Democratic support among African Americans is problematic. The 1961 municipal elections in Louisville provide a clear example of African American willingness to vote for the Republican Party when the local Democratic establishment was unwilling to address their demands.

African Americans in Louisville during the mid-twentieth century recognized their power as voters and often oscillated between the two parties, enhancing competition between Republicans and Democrats for their crucial vote. This filter of black voters forced both parties to offer candidates with at least fairly moderate stances on civil rights. The "moderate" nature of the Democratic and Republican Parties of Louisville cannot simply be attributed to a higher proportion of "progressive" whites than in other cities, as suggested [End Page 395] by O. C. Dawkins in 1950 and implied in much of the historiography of Kentucky politics, but to black voters who forced both parties to offer moderate candidates or risk facing defeat on election day.1

Rather than being a primary goal of the civil rights movement in Louisville, as it was in much of the Deep South, the right to vote was an essential tool used by activists in the city. In 1961, after the Democratic board of alderman and mayor refused to support an ordinance that would integrate public accommodations, black voters in the city rallied behind a massive voter-registration drive that doubled the number of registered African Americans and successfully replaced the city government by electing the entire Republican slate of candidates the following year. Rather than being an objective of the movement in Louisville, voter registration was, in the words of one African American, "the key to freedom."2

The civil rights movement in Kentucky is often excluded from the major works on the civil rights movement and black voters.3 Steven Lawson, whose two-volume analysis of black voters in the South has dominated the historiography for decades, completely ignores the state.4 The example of Louisville provides a notable exception to one of Lawson's conclusions that "as southern blacks have acquired and used the ballot, they have been less inclined toward adopting disruptive tactics, such as mass demonstration, that were so crucial to the civil rights movement during the era of disfranchisement."5 While Lawson and others may argue that their exclusion of Louisville lay in its status as a "border" city, with the exception of voting, blacks in the city experienced similar forms of discrimination found [End Page 396] throughout the cities of the Deep South. Louisville provides a unique example of a segregated city that also had a powerful black voting bloc. Rather than lessening the tendency towards disruptive tactics and mass demonstrations, the ballot in Louisville was an additional tool used by blacks alongside sit-ins, stand-ins, pickets, and boycotts. As black leaders in the city increased their emphasis on voting in 1960 and 1961, the number of "disruptive tactics" also increased.

On the other hand, Louisville's black voters have not been altogether ignored by historians of the city. George Wright's Life Behind a Veil provides an overview of the extensive political participation of African Americans in the city from Reconstruction through the 1920s.6 More recent works by Luther Adams and Tracy K'Meyer have provided much-needed examination of black voters in Louisville during the civil rights era. Adams's focus on the African American immigrants provides an unparalleled account of black life in the city during the early-to-mid-twentieth century.7 His analysis of the pivotal elections of 1960 and 1961, as well as the nature of political affiliation within the...