May 10, 2013 6:47 PM Written by Joseph Gerth The Courier-Journal
Raoul Cunningham recalls lunch counter sit-ins in Louisville: Raoul Cunningham, who participated in sit-ins in the early 1960s in Louisville, talks about the discrimination he and other African Americans faced.
Lawyer Benjamin Shobe recalls civil rights battles in Louisville: Former Jefferson Circuit Judge and civil rights lawyer Benjamin Shobe recalls battles as the 50th anniversary of Louisville public accommodations law nears.
Raoul Cunningham was a gangly 17-year-old high school junior when Louisville police came for him at the lunch counter of the old Stewart’s Department Store in February 1961. They handcuffed him, he says, and hauled him off to the old Children’s Center juvenile facility on East Chestnut Street.
Over the next two years, that scenario would be repeated hundreds of times as Cunningham and other African-American high school students — mainly from Central and Male — waged a battle of sit-ins, squat-ins and stand-ins against restaurants, movie houses and other businesses that wouldn’t serve them because of their race.
The discrimination not only angered him, “it made me want to change the situation,” said Cunningham, now president of the NAACP’s Louisville Chapter. “… I tried to harness that anger and do damage to the system and change it.”
Fifty years ago Tuesday, Louisville became the first city south of the Mason-Dixon Line to pass legislation requiring businesses to serve people no matter their race, country of origin or religion.
It came after more than 27 months of near-daily protests led primarily by the teens, along with larger boycotts of downtown businesses, and a successful effort to turn City Hall over to Republicans.
Demonstrators walking north on 4th street between Broadway and Chestnut. Mar 11 1961 Photo by Charles Fentress, Jr. THE COURIER-JOURNAL
“After school, we would meet, take the pledge for nonviolence, give or get marching orders and come back downtown,” Cunningham said.
Over the past five decades, Louisville largely has rid itself of such overt racism, said Carolyn Miller-Cooper, the executive director of the Louisville Human Rights Commission.
Businesses are now open to people of color. Other laws have banned discriminatory hiring practices and housing policies. And the law that required businesses to serve people of all colors and religions was amended to protect people from discrimination based on sex, disability and sexual orientation.
But Miller-Cooper said there is more work to be done as evidenced by more than a dozen complaints to her office each year alleging discrimination in public accommodations — about half involving race.
“We still get complaints, founded or unfounded,” she said. “The two areas where we see the highest percentage (of complaints) are race and disability.”
Law a first in South
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, 92, 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.
Teens forced to lead effort
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 non-stop. 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 Barrett 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 stepped 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.
These 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.”