- Mid-Twentieth Century Social Movements in Kentucky
When asked to describe domestic protest in the United States in the 1950s and 1960s, people often invoke images of men and women carrying placards or burning draft cards. These well-known pictures create a story of social change that moves along a continuum from the Montgomery Bus Boycott in 1955–1956 to the Kent State protests in 1970. However, participants know that history is far more complicated. As an educator and an activist, Cleveland Sellers walked the front lines of the civil rights movement, but he rightly believes studies of the past have ignored the complexities of the history he lived. “By flattening timelines, intricacies, and details, the traditional narrative [1954–1968] distorts and oversimplifies the freedom struggle,” he argues. “There is no community-based view of how individual localities produced indigenous, homegrown action—with as much local flair as rice dishes or barbecue—that was able to merge with the larger movement taking shape across the South.”1 Some American [End Page 575] citizens challenged authorities to be more democratic and accepting, and believed that citizen-led protests were a necessary and important way to push their agendas forward. The struggles of these grassroots activists to seize an equal place in American life have too often been ignored in favor of more sweeping accounts that focus on leaders rather than those on the front lines of these momentous events. Although Kentuckians were not as active in direct-action protests as their more-celebrated (and studied) brothers and sisters, they participated in a variety of movements to change local, state, and national policies and practices. Kentuckians organized for civil rights, Black Power, against and for the Vietnam War, for women’s rights, for gay and lesbian rights, and for expanded economic justice.
Investigations of the intersections of movements will provide fruitful results and help us to understand how individuals and groups worked together (or against one another) for social change around Kentucky, the nation, and the world. Because no individual or organization is truly single-issue motivated (even when they say they are) exploring how civil rights groups interacted with feminist organizations, for example, in the Bluegrass State, or the South more generally, will highlight movement cultures, shared identities, and the struggles of individuals to find places for activism. Moreover, it will shed light on the discursive and dialectic nature of activism in the twentieth century and place Kentuckians and their activism within historiographical narratives.
The civil rights struggle in Kentucky has been explored by scholars. Yet, most studies of the civil rights movement in Kentucky have fallen into the familiar and unsatisfying pattern of hagiography of specific leaders. Although biographies of Whitney Young Jr., Georgia Powers, and Anne Braden, for example, highlight the contributions of individual citizens, they also leave local, grassroots activism in Kentucky understudied, oversimplified, and largely undiscovered.2 [End Page 576]
Unlike the Deep South, Kentucky did not experience mass protest or overwhelming violence toward civil rights activists. Nonetheless, the civil rights movement existed in Kentucky and deserves to be explored. Much of the historiography on the civil rights movement in Kentucky centers on the African American experience in Louisville or on the interactions between whites and blacks around direct-action events, such as sit-ins and marches. Tracy K’Meyer’s Civil Rights in the Gateway to the South offers important insights into the organizing tradition in Louisville and could be a model for research into other communities around the state. In particular, K’Meyer’s excellent oral histories highlight the unique position of Louisville during the civil rights movement.3
The integration of schools in Kentucky provides another avenue for distinguishing the state from the Deep South, as Governor Albert B. “Happy” Chandler used the Kentucky National Guard to ensure order in Sturgis, one of the few towns where white protest erupted. In that small town in the western part of the state, an integration battle in 1956 demonstrated the somewhat accomodationist principles on the part of the white political leadership in the commonwealth. The events in Sturgis and school integration outside of Louisville remain largely unexplored.
Local branches of national civil...