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  • Seeing Red in the Bluegrass:The Kentucky Un-American Activities Committee and Conservatism in the Late 1960s
  • Aaron D. Purcell (bio)

On June 5, 1968, just a few hours after the tragic assassination of Senator Robert F. Kennedy, Governor Louie B. Nunn addressed an audience at Eastern Kentucky University in Richmond. Like other Americans, Nunn was shocked by Kennedy's assassination. He took the opportunity to warn listeners that a "smog of moral cancer" had taken hold of the nation. Nunn attributed the violence of the late 1960s to anarchists and revolutionaries who aimed to destroy the American way of life. He charged that communists had direct responsibility for urban violence, the assassination of political leaders, a rising crime rate, and for the general decline of a nation that "lives by and promotes the principles of God and country."1

Such anti-communist statements were not unusual and appealed to many audiences. Blaming communists for the nation's woes was a centerpiece of the Cold War culture that started at the end of World War II and lasted until the late 1980s. The timing of Nunn's anti-communist rhetoric, however, was significant. Nunn, the state's first [End Page 57] Republican governor since the late 1940s, began his term in December 1967. Nunn won the election by appealing to voters who opposed the programs of the Great Society and feared growing racial tension. He also tapped into the growing conservative movement, spawned in the early 1960s by Arizona Senator Barry Goldwater. Nunn echoed many of Goldwater's warnings about the expanding welfare state, the reach of the federal government into people's lives, and the threat of communist ideology.2

During his first days in office, Nunn encouraged the General Assembly, which had a Democratic majority, to pass stronger legislation to allow for the investigation of suspected radicals. On March 11, 1968, the Kentucky General Assembly responded. House Resolution 84 created a ten-person committee designed to defend Kentuckians from "subversive groups and persons under the color of the protection afforded by the Bill of Rights and the United States Constitution [who] seek to destroy us and the ideals for which we fought to preserve." The resolution established a bi-partisan joint legislative committee to officially investigate the "grave public danger from enemies both within and without our boundaries."3

The Kentucky Un-American Activities Committee (KUAC) sought to investigate people or organizations who allegedly threatened democracy in the Bluegrass. More specifically, the committee wanted to pursue so-called anti-American groups that endorsed "the overthrow of the Commonwealth of Kentucky, or the United States by force, violence or other unlawful means."4 KUAC served as a replacement for and the enforcer of the state's sedition law, which a federal district court in Lexington ruled unconstitutional in the fall of 1967. Kentucky's sedition law was passed in 1920 during the first Red Scare and carried with it stiff penalties of up to twenty-one years [End Page 58] in prison, a $10,000 fine, or both. The U.S. District Court struck down the law in 1967 because it was vague and had been pre-empted by federal law. The House Resolution that established KUAC contained much of the same language from the sedition act. Cloaked in the Cold War culture of anti-communism and the connotation of an "Un-American" activities committee, KUAC possessed the resources, power, and public name recognition to be more powerful than the previous sedition law.5

Politicians from both major political parties used the perceived threat of communism as a convenient rallying cry against social activism and federal programs. The creation of KUAC occurred during a period when women, African Americans, other minorities, and laborers (including coal miners) demanded more social, economic, and political rights. At the same time, many Kentuckians from the two major political parties were frustrated with President Johnson's War on Poverty. They believed the programs were mismanaged and cast an unfair light on Appalachian culture.6 KUAC was a response to these changes and other perceived threats to entrenched local power structures. The committee held legislative authority to investigate individuals or groups, but more importantly, the...


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