Teens spearheaded Louisville desegregation effort

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In Greensboro and most cities where the sit-ins took place, college students carried out the protests. But in Louisville, the job fell to high school students who wanted a chance to go to see a first-run movie and then have a malt at the five and dime.

“We didn’t have a Black college here,” said former Deputy Mayor William Summers, who took part in the early sit-ins.

“We were involved with NAACP through the youth chapter, and the NAACP had asked that we start demonstrations here,” he said. “And a number of us wanted to do that because we wanted to be part of changing something that we thought was totally unfair and unjust.”

NAACP leaders at first urged the students to conduct more passive protests but were uncomfortable with the sit-ins because they feared police ire. They thought the teens were too young, and they had seen police dogs and fire hoses unleashed on protesters throughout the South.

“That didn’t happen around here, and we’re grateful for that,” said Shobe, who was most concerned about his oldest daughter, Deanna, who took part in the sit-ins. Shobe recalls his feelings at the time: “Absolutely proud and afraid.”

Cunningham said NAACP leaders also were concerned because they didn’t have the money to bail the students out of jail.

Between February 1961 and May 1963, when the law passed, Shobe said he represented more than 200 people, most of them high school students who often were charged with trespassing or being disorderly.

At one sit-in, more than 160 students were arrested.

But Shobe and other NAACP leaders learned that one benefit of high school students being arrested was that the teens were often released to their parents without having to post bail. By the next day, Shobe said, the students often were back protesting.

The protests went almost nonstop. The students would fill the seats of restaurants, stand in lines at movie theaters and refuse to move. They also would sit down in front of businesses that wouldn’t allow them to enter, Cunningham said.

Every day after school, the youths would meet at the YMCA on West Chestnut Street or at the nearby Quinn Chapel African Methodist Episcopal Church to strategize before marching to their target. They stopped only to give the adults a chance to negotiate with city officials and business owners, said Cunningham.

Cunningham said that when he asked his mother for permission she reluctantly gave her blessing. “If you get arrested, I will come and get you out because I support the cause,” he recalled her telling him.

He said he couldn’t recall how many times he was arrested. “I protested almost every day,” he said. “Now, I wasn’t arrested every day, but I was arrested a lot of them.”

According to a Courier-Journal story, a “merchant policeman” at one Louisville restaurant repeatedly kicked one protester. And at the old Hasenour’s restaurant on Barret and at Kupie’s Restaurant on Fifth Street, workers routinely doused protesters with dirty dishwater, Cunningham and Summers said.

Because of the way Kupie’s treated the protesters, Summers said he never ate there — even after it changed hands. The restaurant closed in the late 1990s.

Cunningham said he likewise never set foot in Hasenour’s, which also survived until the late 1990s.

Cunningham and Shobe said the public accommodation law eventually passed in part because Louisville’s leaders didn’t want a reputation like Birmingham, Ala., received when public safety commissioner Eugene “Bull” Connor used harsh tactics to put down protests.

In Louisville, Shobe said, officials figured out that “it was not the way to run a town to have kids create a disturbance every day.”

After the law passed, Republican Mayor Williams O. Cowger appeared on the “Today Show” and “Meet the Press” to talk about how the city had integrated without incurring the problems seen elsewhere.

Implementation went smoothly, with the NAACP reporting at the time that businesses were allowing blacks in and noting that then-County Judge-Executive Marlow Cook, who favored the new law, approached a Black man in a restaurant the first day the law was in place and shook his hand.

Concerns lingerThese days, Miller-Cooper said, complaints about the law not being followed generally have to do with slow service or poor seating.

Fourth Street Live! has been an ongoing source of concern because of dress codes that some have said are designed to keep young African Americans out. Those concerns were compounded recently when former University of Louisville basketball player Jason Osborne was arrested following a confrontation with security personnel at one bar.

City officials have been working with The Cordish Co. to change the dress codes, and Cordish has agreed to give training on race relations to employees and to try and bring in a wider range of musical acts to be more inclusive, Miller-Cooper said.

Shobe said the city has made great strides even though some still question whether government has any place in telling private businesses who they must serve.

“There was a great argument that is even carried on today,” he said, noting that U.S. Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., questioned the propriety of the public accommodation section of the 1964 federal Civil Rights Act while a candidate.

Paul later backtracked and said he supports the act and notes that he has made no attempt to repeal any portion of the law.

Louisville Metro Council member David Tandy, D-4th, said that while he has never felt the sting of racism in a Louisville business, he believes it still exists and the city must continue working to stop it.

“I think it would be naive of us to say that we are a utopia,” he said. “… And we do need to take a stern look in the mirror from time to time.”

Information from: The Courier-Journal, http://www.courier-journal.com

 

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