A Border City in Black and White explores the history of Parkland, a once thriving neighborhood of West Louisville, and the 1968 uprising that sealed the area’s fate as one of the poorest and most racially segregated sections of the city. The events surrounding the 1968 uprising in Louisville provide an opportunity to use a dramatic event as a prism into a century of struggle for racial justice on the local level. The experience of urban disorder also provides a relatable story within the context of the larger American struggle for freedom and justice. In the aftermath of the recent events in Ferguson, Missouri, and Baltimore, Maryland, public discourse on urban unrest and race relations is timely and needed.
As historians like Tracy K’Meyer, Luther Adams, Blaine Hudson, and Cate Fosl have noted, Louisville provides a rich example of the complexities of the Black Freedom Movement, as the border city reflects both the legacy of southern slavery while also resonating with racial relations in the urban industrial north. Like many other places, 1968 proved to be a pivotal year in the movement in Louisville. Efforts to desegregate public accommodations and to secure open housing had been waged for years, and some legislative victories were achieved. Yet other tensions remained palpable. In the West Louisville neighborhood of Parkland, increasingly strained police/community relations came to a head in late May 1968, when a rally to protest a contentious and violent arrest escalated into gunfire and thrown bottles, sparking four days of continued violence in West Louisville. In less than an hour, the mayor called in Kentucky National Guard troops, and soon hundreds of guardsmen and state police joined local law enforcement to try to contain the disturbance. Mass arrests followed as incidents of violence and looting spread into nearby neighborhoods and the downtown business district.
After a few days, the disturbance was quelled, but most of Parkland’s business district lay in ruins. The scars on the built environment, collective memory, and neighborhood commercial services remain today, a half-century later. This lingering trauma to Louisville’s urban landscape combined with the event’s origins in a police brutality case make this history an especially relevant backdrop for the uprisings seen in Ferguson and Baltimore, and indeed Louisville activists make that connection explicitly when organizing around contemporary #blacklivesmatter activism.