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Louisville NAACP and CORE activists campaign for open accommodations, Kentucky, 1961
In the late 1950s, Louisville, Kentucky, became known as a regional leader in race relations due to the passage of peaceful school integration laws in 1956. Although laws targeting segregation had been passed, Louisville’s public accommodations continued to be segregated. This persistence of inequality between the African Americans and the European Americans spurred much protest in the black community, especially among youth.
The sense of being a part of the larger civil rights movement coupled with the criticism of “black complacency” by the Louis Defender created vision and drive for integration in the hearts of Louisville’s black youth. From the mid-1950s through 1960, the Louisville branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People Youth Council (NAACP, a civil rights organization for ethnic minorities in the United States), the Congress of Racial Equality(CORE, a civil rights organization in the United States dedicated to equality), and others organized and participated in sporadic nonviolent action campaigns directed towards the desegregation of Louisville’s public accommodations. In 1959 and 1960 activists came up against thick political walls. In 1959, members of the NAACP Youth Council confronted Mayor Hoblitzell on the subject of integration, but he refused to bend to their demands. In 1960, Charles W. Anderson of the NAACP drafted a bill mandating integration, which was quickly defeated by the board.
Inspired by 1960 region-wide sit-ins, especially Greensboro and Nashville (see “Greensboro, NC, students sit-in for U.S. Civil Rights, 1960” and “Nashville students sit-in for U.S. civil rights, 1960”), CORE, with some support from the NAACP, began to organize and participate in sit-ins, stand-ins, boycotts, and picketing targeting the desegregation of lunch counters in downtown stores. However, these demonstrations were disorganized and ineffective.
Yet, in January of 1961, Raoul Cunningham, president of the NAACP, united the NAACP Youth Council and CORE into a mass campaign. On February 9, campaigners began joint stand-ins at Kaufman-Strauss and Stewart’s department stores. On February 20, police arrested Cunningham and four teenagers. Within three days, the police had arrested fifty-eight as the campaigners began targeting the Blue Boar Cafeteria and theaters. By the end of the campaign, police had incarcerated over 700 people.
Simultaneously, adult members of the NAACP instituted Nothing New for Easter, a boycott of downtown businesses that continued until May and ended after the 1961 Kentucky Derby. This consumers’ boycott had the potential to keep 75,000 black Louisvillians from buying any items from the downtown businesses. This action also had the potential to deprive the downtown businesses of 18 million dollars a year. By the end of February, Kaufman-Strauss and Stewart’s opened negotiations. Hope for positive results from the demonstrations was high, but the inconclusive results caused the activists to launch further demonstrations, including a 250-person march through the downtown area.
In April 1961, the mayor announced a new proposition for integration in Louisville that was essentially a copy of St. Louis’s plan. This “new plan” only called for the desegregation of all downtown restaurants by May 1. Unfortunately, this measure also failed to be successfully enacted. According to a citywide test created and administered by black activists, 98% of Louisville restaurants and theaters remained segregated.
The failure to desegregate continued to anger the activists. On June 19, they picketed outside the gates of Fontaine Ferry amusement park. Between 50 and 100 whites pushed through the police lines to throw cups full of rocks and flash bulbs at the demonstrators. By the end of the demonstration, the police had arrested twenty-nine people total including twenty black youths, two black adults, and seven whites.
Two years later, on May 14, 1963 the Louisville Board of Aldermen passed an ordinance for open accommodations. Finally, Louisville had a policy of nondiscrimination for public places. Nondiscrimination by race was not only spoken through the transformation of the law, but also through a transformation of the culture of segregation to a culture where it was looked down upon to be publicly pro-segregation.