Unlike some cities in the South, Louisville didn’t have laws prohibiting blacks from sharing restaurants with whites, nor were they prohibited by law from drinking from water fountains used by whites. Rather, Louisville was segregated by tradition.
White people shopped and saw the latest movies on Fourth Street while African Americans bought their clothes and saw second-run movies in a business district along Walnut Street — now Muhammad Ali Boulevard — between Sixth and 13th streets.
Surveys just before the law was passed found that about half of all downtown eateries were segregated.
But by the late 1950s, African Americans across the country had had enough.
In Kentucky, Blacks had already fought successfully to integrate the University of Kentucky and overturn the old Day Law, which prohibited Blacks from being educated alongside whites.
And in Louisville, they had succeeded in integrating the park system — no longer would Blacks have to drive past “White” parks on the way to Chickasaw Park, where they had to compete for limited space with others on holiday weekends.
And in the four years after the public accommodations law passed, Louisville passed legislation to prohibit racial discrimination in hiring and housing.
But the public accommodation law was the cornerstone because of the symbolism of Blacks shopping and eating alongside Whites and because it was the first time that private businesses in the South were forced to give up their racist practices, said Benjamin Shobe, 92, who defended the arrested teens as an NAACP lawyer.
“It was the most important of all,” said Shobe, who went on to become a Jefferson Circuit Court judge. “Now, we’d been successful in the courts as far as city-, state- and county-supported institutions were concerned — that’s how we got into colleges and that’s how we got into the public parks. … The difficult part was the things that the kids took care of, and that was the integration of privately owned businesses.”
Louisville wasn’t the first city to see African Americans stage sit-ins in hopes of ending segregation.
There were sit-ins at Kansas drug stores as early as 1958, and in 1960 four college students at North Carolina A&T started the nation’s most famous sit-in when they went into a Greensboro, N.C., Woolworth and ordered coffee. Within six months, the entire Woolworth chain announced it would desegregate.
What was different about the Louisville protests was the age of those who were shutting down businesses.