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  • Disorder at the DerbyRace, Reputation, and Louisville’s 1967 Open Housing Crisis
  • Samuel Abramson (bio)

“Iain’t going to lay down in front of a horse myself, but there’s a lot of cats that will,” Dick Gregory told the protesters sitting in the street. “If it comes to closing the [Kentucky] Derby, we’ll just have to close it up.” Gregory made his living as a comedian, but he had also allied himself with African American civil rights causes throughout the 1960s. Now, on April 11, 1967, he spoke to protesters in Louisville, Kentucky, following a rally demanding the city adopt a comprehensive, enforceable open housing ordinance. “We’re going to march and march until the people of this town learn they’re not dealing with animals,” Gregory said, adding that a disruption could “keep those out-of-town folks from enjoying a city we can’t even enjoy ourselves.”1

All through an unseasonably cool April, civil rights protesters would threaten to disrupt the Kentucky Derby if the city did not adopt an open housing ordinance. “No Housing, No Derby” became the slogan. Washington Post columnist Shirley Povich described a “clear and present fear” around town that the “fair housing demonstrations that have raged in the city for weeks will spill over onto the Derby scene.” Few cities were as associated with a single event as Louisville with the Derby; it was the city’s annual bourbon-soaked weekend in the national spotlight. If housing supporters wanted attention, they had certainly targeted the right weekend.2

Louisville’s 1967 open housing crisis contained familiar elements from other southern civil rights sagas in the 1960s: African American student protesters; downtown business boycotts; a white citizens’ council and claims of outside agitators; backroom negotiations at the eleventh hour; marches that devolved into name-calling, violence, and arrests; even an appearance and rousing speech by Martin Luther King Jr. Few such crises, however, involved a city’s signature event like the Derby. By early May, many Louisvillians were less concerned with residential segregation than they were with the national embarrassment that might stem from the accompanying protests. They simply wished to sip their juleps and place their bets in peace. Out-of-towners had not flocked to renowned hotels like the Seelbach and the Brown to watch civil rights demonstrations on Saturday. A Derby disruption would jeopardize the image the city had crafted for itself. “To Kentuckians,” New York Times columnist Arthur Daley wrote, “that would [be] akin to profaning the temple.”3 [End Page 28]

While scholars have since unpacked how civil rights narratives and institutionalized racism were not exclusive to the American South in the mid-twentieth century, a widely held regional myth was the reference point for Louisvillians at the time. For decades, Louisville, a city caught between regional reputations, had fancied itself an “All-American city,” a progressive haven in the Upper South impervious to the civil rights debacles that haunted places like Little Rock and Birmingham. Its residents thought of their hometown as culturally southern yet free of the racial stigma that plagued many southern cities. During the open housing crisis of 1967, activists would challenge the myth of Louisville as an exceptional city with an already concluded civil rights narrative. Ultimately, Louisville’s successful effort to preserve its reputation on its most important weekend exposed broader racial and social issues that had existed all along.4

When open housing supporters threatened to “close up” the Kentucky Derby, they threatened Louisville’s sporting, cultural, and economic centerpiece. First contested in 1875, the Derby was more than just the “greatest two minutes in sports” for Louisvillians. Prior to the famed horse race, the city hosted the Kentucky Derby Festival, a two-week slate of events that included a steamboat race on the Ohio River and a downtown parade featuring themed floats and marching bands. Race day itself blended glamour and grit, the once-a-year jauntiness of wearing seersucker and oversized hats with a free-for-all, open-bar picnic. From its inception, the Derby marketed itself as a tribute to a bygone era, embracing both the debonair and the plain-clothed. Historian James Nicholson notes...


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