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Civil Rights in the Gateway to the South

Louisville, Kentucky, 1945-1980

Tracy K'Meyer

Publication Year: 2009

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.

Published by: The University Press of Kentucky

Series: Civil Rights and the Struggle for Black Equality in the Twentieth Century

Front cover

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pp. vii


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pp. ix-x

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pp. xi

Over the years that I have been researching and writing this book, I have received financial, moral, and intellectual support from a number of institutions and individuals. The research could not have been completed without funding from the Louisville Institute, the Kentucky Oral History Commission, and the University of Louisville graduate school...

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Introduction: Gateway to the South

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pp. 1-15

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...

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1. Postwar Campaigns for Citizens' Rights

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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...

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2. Confronting School and Residential Segregation during the Cold War

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pp. 45-76

On Thursday, May 20, 1954, the Louisville Defender front 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 the...

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3. Open Accommodations in the All American City

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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...

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4. The Battle for Open Housing

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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...

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5. Building Bridges, Fighting Poverty, and Empowering Citizens

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pp. 145-177

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...

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6. Militancy, Repression, and Resistance in the Black Power Era

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pp. 195-231

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...

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7. Making Civil Rights Gains Real

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pp. 233-266

In 1969 the Louisville Courier-Journal and Louisville Times enlisted 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...

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8. The Busing Crisis

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pp. 267-300

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...

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Conclusion: Where Does the Story End?

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pp. 301-309

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...


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pp. 311-391


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pp. 393-406


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pp. 407-426

E-ISBN-13: 9780813173351
Print-ISBN-13: 9780813125398

Page Count: 438
Publication Year: 2009

Series Title: Civil Rights and the Struggle for Black Equality in the Twentieth Century