The Gateway to the South: Regional Identity and the Louisville Civil Rights Movement
- Ohio Valley History
- The Filson Historical Society and Cincinnati Museum Center
- Volume 4, Number 1, Spring 2004
- pp. 43-60
- Additional Information
The Gateway to the South": Regional Identity and tbe Louisville Civil Rights Movement TRACY E. K'MEYER A ccording to a survey conducted for the Louisville Urban I. eague in 1948, " Most of the traditions of the deep South which appl>' to race relations are observed in Louisville. On the other hand, man> relations between the two races in Louisville are similar to those found in northern cities . White commentators considered Louisville " exceptional among southern cities in its community efforts to solve racial prciblenis.' In conti . ist, black editorialists argued that Louisville lagged behind Cincinnati and Springfield, Ohio;Cairo,Illinois;and Washington, D.C., and argued that the " selfstyled gateway to the South' is morally obligated to make even greater progress to justify its leadership claims." ' In both cases, Louisvillians employed regional symbols that were codes for the state of race relations. For most of the civil rights era, references to the deep South or specific cities such as Birmingham served as code for extreme segregation and degraded race relations, while references to midwestern or northern cities represented less rigid racial rules and relative progress in civil rights. Through the use of such geographic references I. ouisvillians constructed a regional identity that reflected different, and changing,assessments of the nature of race relations in the city. This essay will demonstrate first how civil rights advocates and those who resisted, black and white,used rhetoric about Louisville' s regional identity to make their case iii battles over change in the racial status quo. This rhetorical struggle informed the tone of the movement and helped to create the possibility of progress. Second, this essay wil] argue that,over the course of the civil rights era, the reconstruction of Louisville' s identity reflected changing national Louisville waterfront and Clark Memorial Bridge depicted in " Gateway to tbe Sc, uth" by William Kent Hagernian,ca. 1 956. Tbe Filson Historical Society SPRING 2004 43 4 t* THE GATEWAY TO THE SOUTH" Charles Farnstey,mayor of L) uisville 19481 98. Tbc Filson Historical Society perceptions of regional race relations,suggesting a new way of understanding the north/ south dichotomy depicted in movement scholarship. At the end of World War II,Louisville remained a segregated border city,but one that had begun to experience the economic, political,and social changes that would r: shape its race relations. According to the 1950 census, since the start of the war,the city' s population had grown by nearly sixteen percent to 369,000,of whom 15.7 percent had been classified by census officials as " nonwhite ." That population was becoming increasingly segregated following white flight to the suburbs that began in the 1930sandaccelerated inthe 1950s. Asa result,African Americans became concentrated in the oldest and most crowded sections of tlie city's west end. The population growth resulted in part from an expansiozi of wartime defense industries that drew workers to the city,a resurrection in the local economy that began in Louisville' s chemical,plastics, and munitions factories. This expansion continued after the war so that,by 1950, thirtyone percent of the population 1 ' worked in manufacturing. African Americans, however, 1 , did not share equitably in the new jobs. A study by two I social scientists at the University of Louisville showed that in 1950 sixtytwo percent of white men worked in white collar, skilled or supervisory positions while the same percentage of black men labored in service jobs or unskilled positions.1 Hence,these manufacturing plants helped shape not only the city's economic growth but, indirectly,its racial climate. in Louisville changed dramatically as well. As in most romthe1930sthroughthe1950s,thepoliticalclimate southern cities,the Democratic party had dominated 41 Louisville politics since the turn of the century. Unlike its southern neighbors, however,the city had an active Republican party that could muster enough votes to actually elect candidates on occasion and thereby challenge the status quo. Moreover,in the war years and afterward,Louisville received national media attention for its forwardthinking , progressive Democratic mayors, particularly Wilson Wyatt and Charles Farnsley. Most important, Louisville's African Americans had, since the 1870s, had access to the vote and in the wake of World War II,a number of factors...