Civil Rights Struggles in Louisville

Parkland in the Larger Context of the Civil Rights Movement

Louisville provides an opportunity for a fresh examination of urban politics and the struggle for racial justice in mid-20th century America. In the immediate aftermath of Martin Luther King Jr.’s death, numerous cities across the country experienced a period of unrest, civil disobedience, and violent outpourings of frustration and collective grief. Louisville, however, did not. Known since the 19th century as the “Gateway to the South,” Louisville’s history of racial struggle reveals both the legacy of southern slavery and the conditions and attitudes of an industrialized urban context. Positioned on the banks of the Ohio River, the dividing line between slave and free states during the antebellum era, the city possesses both politics and culture characterized by “an uncertain mixture of North and South,” as historian Clarence Lang has observed. Reflecting that context, the uprising of May 1968 in Louisville’s west side, which was prompted by an incident of police violence, was born of both the history of Jim Crow practices and an emerging black power consciousness within a medium-sized American city.

Louisville’s place within the story of the larger Civil Rights Movement as a border city between the North and the South is an interesting and instructive one. The “peculiar institution” of slavery did not dominate the region as it did in the Deep South. Likewise, the civil rights struggles in Louisville confronted racial attitudes that were both more tolerant than other parts of Dixie but also more overtly racialized than other industrial cities in the north. Such beliefs about the progressive mood of the city also marked the contours of movement, as Louisvillians believed the city to be significantly more tolerant than other southern cities, a fact that was invoked by white political leadership as a defense for limited change. For example, Louisville never explicitly segregated streetcars nor disfranchised African Americans, which meant that not all public accommodations were under strict Jim Crow practices. Similarly, when lawmakers passed school integration laws in 1956, the act provoked little backlash, a gesture that marked the city as much more progressive than other southern cities. But too, this sense of progressivism worked against activists’ efforts, as this fostered an amount of defensiveness on the part of white leadership, who used this argument to quell demands for further social changes. Like Kevin Mumford’s recent scholarship on Newark, we will frame the story of Louisville’s uprising within the vibrant and significant tradition of black and interracial activism.

While Civil Rights struggles in places like Birmingham and Jackson were marked by brutal violence, Louisville’s systems of segregation were less codified in law. For example, with no public accommodations law in place, white business owners were left to set their own segregation policies. As post-World War II industrial growth provided Louisvillians with prospects for economic betterment, the presence of national corporations and unionization laid the groundwork for movement mobilization in the following years. This fact combined with the complex heritage as a border city during slavery produced a struggle for racial justice that borrowed tactics from both the North and the South. In fact, the story of Louisville supports recent historiographical work towards undoing the myth of southern exceptionalism, a myth which historians Matthew D. Lassiter and Joseph Crespino argue that mystifies how “regions are culturally constructed spaces of the collective imagination.” Louisville as a complicated border city also demonstrates how the construction of space utilizes geographic features like the Ohio River to activate local imagination and shape the cultural sense of place, a border city where northern attitudes and southern cultural practices comingle.

One of the more meaningful ways that the North/South divide is complicated is in the story of urban riots that peppered the U.S. in the 1960s as American racial tensions escalated nationwide. Despite legal and legislative gains for civil rights, many individuals remained frustrated at the pace of change after decades of struggle to improve the economic, political, and cultural conditions of black Americans. Urban uprisings emerged frequently during this period in reaction to this generalized discontent, reaching a zenith in the days and weeks following the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. Between 1964 and 1968, revolts occurred in places as diverse as Rochester, New York; Los Angeles; Cleveland; Omaha; Plainfield, New Jersey; Minneapolis; and Wadesboro, North Carolina. While scholarship on the Civil Rights Movement in the Deep South is voluminous, the stories of places like Louisville are largely unknown on a national scale. Louisville’s geographic position between the North and the South offers a unique perspective on this period in race relations. It also reflects the cultures and values of the Midwest and a medium-sized city, contextual elements that offer meaningful connections for a broad national audience.

Like many other neighborhoods that experienced violence during this era, the uprising figures significantly in present day Parkland’s understanding of itself as a still-segregated and under-resourced community. A 1973 report from the Kentucky Commission on Human Rights expressed concern that “Louisville and Jefferson County entered the decade of the 1970s with more housing segregation than ever,” a characteristic that is not markedly different even today. Lived memory of the event often locates the demise of the neighborhood in the events of May 1968. But historians have demonstrated that the policies and cultural forces that led to Louisville’s present segregation go back much further; indeed, a compelling argument can be made that the 1968 disturbance served as a coda to a long story of disinvestment, public policy, and cultural remnants from the Jim Crow era.

A persistent fear of youth of color also remains in contemporary Louisville, echoing the racialized responses of the summer of 1968. In March 2014, a rash of violence erupted on the city’s waterfront, a popular recreational space along the banks of the Ohio River. Although Louisville police said the 17 incidents of violence were an isolated outbreak, local white business owner Adam Bader recalled that, “it’s been going on for years.” The fear of seemingly capricious youthful violence evokes in some white Louisvillians the memories of blacks acting out their collective anger in 1968, yet the legacy of racial inequality that contributes to it is long forgotten.

Louisville’s position as a border city also adds relevance to this story in light of contemporary incidents of racial violence. For example, Ferguson and Baltimore, like Louisville, reflect border city qualities. St. Louis has long served as a place where southern racial practices and northern industrial urban structures clashed. The story of Ferguson is complete only if one understands the rapid transformation of racial residency, much like Louisville. Baltimore also carries the imprint of being a place that is both and neither of the South and the North. Although Louisville hasn’t experienced full-scale uprisings in the recent past, recent conflicts indicate that similar forces are at play, and the need for local and regional dialogue around the history of race relations, residential segregation, and neglectful urban policy is significant.

We hope that your visit to this important moment in Louisville’s history that engages has complicated your understanding of contemporary Louisville. The goal of this project is to assemble a more complete and complex account of the causes and impact of racialized poverty that West Louisville experiences today. Throughout this process we intend to promote civic engagement and community conversation about the influence of the past on present conditions in the neighborhood and how these issues affect the broader metropolitan community’s perceptions of race, youth, crime, and equality. Please give us your feedback or share your memories with us here!


Further Reading

Adams, Luther. Way Up North in Louisville: African American Migration in the Urban South, 1930-1970. University of North Carolina Press, 2010.

Aubespin, Mervin, Kenneth Clay, and J. Blaine Hudson. Two Centuries of Black Louisville: A Photographic History. Louisville: Butler Books, 2011.

Fosl, Catherine, Tracy E. K’Meyer, Terry Bird Whistell, Douglas A. Boyd, and James C. Kotter. Freedom on the Border: An Oral History of the Civil Rights Movement in Kentucky. Lexington: The University Press of Kentucky, 2010.

K’Meyer, Tracy E. Civil Rights in the Gateway to the South: Louisville, Kentucky, 1945-1980. Lexington: The University of Kentucky Press, 2011.

Lawson, Steven F. Running for Freedom: Civil Rights and Black Politics in America Since 1941. 3 edition. Chichester, West Sussex, U.K.; Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell, 2008.

Romano, Renee Christine, and Leigh Raiford. The Civil Rights Movement in American Memory. Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press, 2006.

Theoharis, Jeanne, and Komozi Woodard. Freedom North: Black Freedom Struggles Outside the South, 1940-1980. New York: Palsgrave Macmillan, 2003.