TRACY K'MEYER: Just for the record, when and where were you born?
MERV AUBESPIN: I was born in Opelousas, Louisiana, June 30, 1937.
TK: And like I said, I like to get some background material and one question Iask is, as a child, how did you first become aware of racial prejudice?
MA: I didn't really until much later. Growing up in Opelousas, which is insouthern Louisiana down in Cajun and Creole country, we recognized that there was separation but as youngsters we were pretty well sheltered. We knew it 1:00existed but we were pretty well sheltered and folks were so mixed up down there until whites looked black and blacks looked white and everything in between. But it was obvious. Nobody did much about it because people in those little small towns, especially in southern Louisiana always reached a level of accommodating each other; and in reality, I imagine most of them were related to each other in some way, shape or form so there wasn't the viciousness. And because they lived rather close together -- that's a rural area, Opelousas is a little town, it's the town where people went to get supplies and what-have-you -- so there wasn't a harshness because it was just too small a town. Everybody knew everybody. But it was when I left to go to school . . . 2:00
I do recall that there was always NAACP meetings going on quietly and there wasa lot of activity but the adults never talked about it much around us. I found out later that there was an incident in Opelousas years ago where a man who was associated with the NAACP was killed in City Hall for attempting to get people registered and they just didn't talk about it much around us. I'm sure they talked about it a whole lot around others but the situation was such that my godmother's husband, for instance, was an attorney and the only black 3:00attorney, but he was so white until one of his clients that was falsely being charged of rape actually had a relationship with a woman down there and when the family found out about it, it became a rape thing. He went to the White Citizens Councils meetings and learned all their plans, what they were planning to do, because they didn't even recognize that he was black. And so you had that kind of mix-up down there. But that's neither here nor there, that has nothing to do with my growing up. When I grew up I knew there was some hidden things going on. I knew that folks were trying to make things better but our parents were very, very sheltering and put much of the emphasis on getting that education and getting a college degree because of their firm belief that education was the way out.
TK: What did they do?
MA: My father was a seaman who left home when I was eight and I didn't see him4:00for twenty-five years later, so my mother and grandmother, aunts and uncles in essence raised me and my sister. Times were pretty rough back there in those days, being a single parent with two young people and living with her mother, no Social Security or welfare and that sort, so they did everything they could to make ends meet and the families got together and took care of each other. So we may have been very poor but we didn't really know it because they sheltered us pretty well. No, the goal for my parents was to get me in college and so by the time I graduated from high school, my mother had finally divorced my dad who 5:00left and had gotten married to a gentleman from here so it was possible for me to go to school.
When I got to Tuskegee it was quite a culture shock because I had come out of alittle Catholic, Creole town, so to speak, where French was spoken as a second language, and some cases as a first language, and everybody was Catholic and everybody was friends with everybody and it was all mixed up and you had about the same half a dozen family names in the whole town, you know, on both sides of the fence. But when I got to Tuskegee which was in the middle of the Bible belt, middle of the black belt, it was a totally different situation. Quite an interesting experience. I was rather young when I went to school; I was fifteen 6:00when I started college and that was young in those days. In small towns they would skip you if you were a little, if they wanted to challenge you they'd skip you in the first or second grade so that had happened to me so I found myself graduating and here I am fifteen years old on my way to college. I got to Tuskegee and everybody had heard of Tuskegee because it's located in Alabama and it was the school that Booker T. Washington had founded and the school where George Washington Carver did much of his work so people knew about it; it was a school that had a long reputation for educating blacks, especially blacks from the South.
But I got there and it was quite a culture shock because it was the first time Ihad been away from home, it was the first time I had met so many people from other places, and here I could see role models, college professors who were 7:00African-American and what-have-you. I had fun going to a different church every Sunday; although I was reared Catholic, I would go to the Baptist church and sing in the choir at the university because they made us go to chapel services every Sunday and I got a chance to listen to some of the leading orators of the time who came to that campus because of its reputation and what-have-you.
It was about my second or third year, I don't recall exactly, that my roommateand I used to go to Montgomery, which was only a few miles away, about sixty miles away, and visit his aunt; and there were three of us who would go all the time and we visited his aunt because, as is traditional when you're living on a 8:00campus, it's a great opportunity to get away and get a great home-cooked meal. There was another historical black college in the area, Alabama State, and we could check out the girls at Alabama State. My roommate at the time had a car and oh, that was big stuff in those days. He didn't even have a driver's license but anyway, to cut a long story short, she worked for this church that had this new minister and suggested that every time we came all we did was eat and run the streets and this time she wanted us to go and listen to this new minister. And his name was Martin Luther King. And we went and we listened and it was at that time that they were beginning the bus boycott. I hadn't paid that much 9:00attention to it but they quickly drafted us because we were college kids and he had a car so when we would return on weekends he would drive the car to pick up workers when they were refusing to ride on the bus; my other roommate would drive and, because I didn't have a license, I got the clipboards and I would have to match the driver with the person they would pick up. And we wouldn't do it for that long but it was my first real involvement with civil rights. And that's when I first met King. So I was in Montgomery when they tried to bomb his house and when things got a little ugly the trips we would be making there, either for football games or to help around or just to visit his aunt or just to go and get away from Tuskegee. It got real, real touchy because the police 10:00officers recognized the fact that a lot of college students from historical black colleges in that area were in fact participating in this protest movement and so they kind of waited for us and so the big game was, "How do we get back to Tuskegee and not get arrested?" And sometimes that meant going on back roads and just . . . and to me, I never really thought about it; it was just an adventure for a young person. Here I was fifteen, sixteen, seventeen years old, under those circumstances you don't really think about it, because it's all a big blur because we had to get back because we had the big football game the next day. And you never really recognized the impact of going. I was by no means a leader or anything, I was just another little soldier who liked it, and they were glad to get us because at least we knew how to carry a clipboard and keep 11:00the names straight. But it was no big thing. We did it during the year. We would go, we wouldn't go every week like it was a big thing because we were young folks, we had other agendas, so we went when we could and we had to keep everybody happy so we'd go.
The other thing was we met great girls. So we went and I never really recognizedthe importance of it because at the time you just did it and went on about your business. And that whole revolution began to develop around this. It was when I graduated from school and came to Louisville, my mother had then moved here, she had moved here just before I went to college and she was here so I had no need to go back to Louisiana and I came here because I was going to work in my stepfather's trade school, he had a trade school where the YMCA building is on Chestnut. 12:00
TK: What was his name?
MA: His name was Edward Davis, Jr. And he had a place called Davis's Trade School.
TK: And I did forget to ask before what your mother's name was?
MA: Her name was Blanche. And so after she divorced my father, she came up hereand she married him and we were settling up here and so when I got out of college, then obviously I was going to come up here and probably teach, but by the time I got here his trade school had closed and so I was up here, eighteen years old, looking for a school teaching job. But that's pretty young to be teaching school and so I got, Lyman T. Johnson, who was an icon here and Wilson 13:00Edwards, let's see, Mr. Edwards, I don't remember what his first name was, but he was also a schoolteacher here who taught shop and they vouched for me and I subbed the first year just to show that I could control the classroom because some of the young people I was teaching were my age, quite frankly. So that worked out pretty well.
That first year I subbed all over the place and got to know a lot of people.When I first visited Louisville on vacation -- I'm backtracking a little bit if you don't mind -- which was around 1956, I met Frank Stanley, Jr., and Elmer 14:00Woods and a group of people my age, who were all away to college and would come home for the holidays, for special holidays and what-have-you and we all became a lively set here and we threw parties together and we were all in college. Frank was at the University of Illinois, Elmer was at Lincoln, other friends were at various colleges, Central State and mostly historical black colleges, and when we came in for the holidays we'd all get together so we knew each other.
When I graduated and came here, the time was 1958 and I spent that first yearsubbing and just being a typical man out of college trying to see what's going on. It was the next year, '60, I think it was, when there had always been a movement here trying to get things better for African-Americans and the leaders 15:00in this movement were very well known. Frank's father, Frank Stanley, Sr., was the owner of the black newspaper [Louisville Defender] here and so I spent a lot of time at the newspaper and we knew about the efforts that his father and other black leadership were making.
We were stretching our wings a little bit at the time and doing a lot of thingsthat he asked us to do but as time evolved and I finally did get a permanent job at Duvalle Junior High School, which is in the Parkland area -- I found a job teaching shop, that was the only thing they had available. I had never had a real shop course like that in my life. At Tuskegee you were always trained to take a trade, regardless of what your subject was and bricklaying was mine, 16:00although I never intended to use it. So here was a shop job and so what I would do is I would go to school and I would keep the class together and come home and I'd make the project at home and then I'd go the next day and teach them how to make the project I'd learned until I was able that following summer to get at school at Indiana State, which had a metal working class that I could take and I took that and learned some more things. And by the time the next year came I was ready, so to speak. But you find you can be very innovative because teaching in the Cotter Homes was pretty rough, you know; the kids were great kids to work with but there were problems there and it was segregated housing. But you can be quite innovative so instead of teaching the traditional metal shop where they wanted you to make waste paper baskets and dust pans and what-have-you, I would 17:00go to Nussbaum's which was a salvage yard here and other places and I would get copper pipe and stainless steel and things of that sort and I would take it and we would make jewelry. Well, this would give them something that they could wear and show off or they could make presents for their families or their girlfriends, so it had more meaning than building a trash can for your room and you don't have a room. Or a mailbox and you don't have a mailbox. [interruption]
TK: Hello. Should we stop for just a second to say hi?
Deborah Spearing Aubespin: No. I'm just going upstairs to the Internet.
TK: Okay. Have fun! I did want to ask you because you had talked about the firsttime you had come to Louisville and getting to know these other people, one question I did have, could you describe Louisville when you got here? What were 18:00race relations like, what was segregation like, what was going on?
MA: It was almost complete. There were two worlds in Louisville at the time Igot here. I got here, my mother was living on Thirty-second and Virginia Avenue, she and Ed, and right across the street was Ed's father and right next door to them was Ed's brother, so he had his whole family kind of in the thing. But there's the most interesting thing had happened before I got here. It appears that my stepdad had seen a house right down the street -- right at the entrance to where Chickasaw Park is, is a stone house, a Bedford stone house facing the parkway -- and he decided he wanted to buy that house for mother and so my mother went, he sent mother and his sister-in-law, who was also quite fair with 19:00straight hair and so was my mother, and he sent them and they bought the house. And the neighbors did not realize that blacks lived next door until one day he was cutting the grass and the neighbor asked him what did he charge to cut the grass? And he says, "I get the opportunity to sleep with the lady of the house." And it was then that they realized that the home had been sold to blacks. Do you know what happened? The entire neighborhood rallied and put together enough money to buy the house from them at a reasonable profit. He was a businessman 20:00enough that he took it and he told them, "It doesn't matter because one day we're going to be here."
And he went right up to Thirty-fourth and Virginia Avenue, which was then allwhite, and bought another house. And that's where they were living when I came out of college. And the house still stands and I took a group of Courier-Journal editors on a tour of western Louisville recently, Lynn Raymond wrote about it in her column, to show them what western Louisville was like. So when I got here blacks were on Walnut Street, from one end to the other. And especially downtown Walnut Street, it started around Sixth Street down to about Sixteenth Street and that was the heart of the black community. Walnut Street had taverns and night 21:00clubs, barber shops, mom and pop stores, cleaners. It was where black businessmen, doctors' offices and dentists' offices . . . and Chestnut Street, that same amount of blocks. So that was kind of the hub of the black community. And much of your life took place there; the churches were there and what-have-you. It was so separate until when you got to Twenty-eighth Street, if you were going down Walnut Street, they even changed the name; it became Michigan Avenue then.
TK: Oh really? I never knew that.
MA: And Chestnut Street which went east was River Park Drive until they got toTwenty-eighth. I mean, it was even structured by the city fathers so that it was clear, this is where they were, this is where we were. The problem, of course, 22:00was -- then, of course, you had Smoketown which is closer to downtown -- but the problem was that everything was there. So when I got to Louisville for entertainment -- the Louisville Defender was there in that area -- for entertainment we went to the Top Hat, which brought in the biggest names from Nat King Cole to Ella Fitzgerald, you name it, the stars were all there. The biggest thing was trying to get into Top Hat. You went to Joe's Palm Room, which was another one of the night clubs; and you had a whole social circle that was kind of confined in it but it was separate.
There were no movie theaters on Fourth Street that we could go to. The onlymovie theaters that were open to us at the time was the Lyric Theater and the Grand and both of those were on Walnut Street and then there was another movie 23:00theater a little farther down that was closed by the time I got here. So if you wanted to see a first-run movie, at best you could go to the Twin drive-in across the bridge in Indiana and that was it. There was no restaurant downtown that served you but, I mean, as simple as it was, you couldn't even sit down to eat a White Castle; you had to buy the White Castle from the window in the back, a take-out window. White Castles. The Orange Bar, which was nothing but a little place that sold hot dogs and orange drink, you couldn't even eat there; you couldn't eat in Walgreen's or any of those places at all.
Now, a lot of the stores, like Kaufman's and Stewart's and what-have-you hadrestaurants in the stores -- these were clothing stores -- and they called them the tea rooms, you know, you wouldn't dare think of eating there. As a matter of 24:00fact, that was one of the places we focused. So, getting a bite to eat downtown, finding a place to go to the bathroom. . . . The thing that struck me about Louisville when I got here was even in Louisiana and in Alabama, I could see the movies even if I had to go to the Crow's Nest, which we called the Crow's Nest laughingly because they would build a balcony and you could come in through the back but you could at least see the movie. Louisville didn't even have balconies.
TK: Didn't do that? Oh okay. I didn't know that. So not at all.
MA: No. Because it wouldn't have been difficult if you could already go in them,but you couldn't even go in them so that was really. . . . Hotels, it was non-existent. So that whole Fourth Street which was the business area, the 25:00thriving business area, most of the stores when I got here in the '50s, if you were black you could not try on clothes. And maybe one exception and that was Levy's and Levy's is where the Spaghetti Factory is. It was one of the few stores that allowed blacks to try on and even, heaven forbid, gave them credit. So it was pretty isolated. So our whole little world was in western Louisville. However, there was some stretching being done because by the time I got here in 1958 on a permanent basis -- I started coming here for the vacations and what-have-you in '56 or '55 -- by the time when I got here there was Mother's, 26:00she had a black neighbor and then there was a white on the other side so the blocks were changing over and people were running, beginning to run. . . . What had happened was that that area that was the main thing from about Sixth Street down -- Chestnut, Magazine, Walnut, Madison -- had for years been where white folks lived as well as you had a little pocket in Smoketown and then you had a little pocket back here that was called Little Africa -- that was just a little enclave which is where Duvalle Junior High, that's the Parkland area -- there was no place to go.
And so with the pressure you'd get, one or two people would start buying houses27:00and then, of course, it wouldn't be unusual to see a whole block with for sale signs on it. That was not unusual at all. It actually happened to me because, well, I'm regressing, but I broke the block going north of Market and -- oh, that was thirty-two years ago -- and two weeks after I was there I woke up one morning and every house on the block had a for sale sign.
So it just shows you that it lasts for a long time. So the housing patterns weresuch that . . . but if you were black in Louisville, when I came, your whole social life, you went to Central if you were in high school; you drove to 28:00Kentucky State if you wanted to socialize with other college students and you had a few going to University of Louisville; but you all socialized at each other's houses or you went out to the night clubs or you went to church in these neighborhoods. So everything was right there and you were rather isolated and you worked downtown and you came home.
So it was, by the time I got here, it was just before they integrated theschools and it was okay. The Louisville story is well known because that was 1956; that was just after they integrated schools. So you didn't have many because the volunteer integration thing, you didn't have many at Central -- you had one or two -- and you didn't have many at Duvalle where I was teaching, you know, three or four or five and basically they were white kids who lived in the projects so they came to Duvalle, too. So it was just beginning but for the most 29:00part Louisville was a very, very segregated city. It still is but it was a very segregated city.
So by this time Frank and others with the Martin Luther King's thing going, Iremember him saying, "We've got to get some people to vote." Well, Frank was young and brash; his father had the unique position of running a newspaper which made it a good voice. And at the time people really bought the Louisville Defender because like most African-American newspapers it was the paper that carried news that mattered to black people because the Courier-Journal and the Louisville Times, I assure you, didn't and the few blacks you saw in those papers were either athletes, entertainers or criminals. And so it was easy to 30:00editorialize and to get people together because you had the newspaper as the forum and people would check to see where this meeting would be and everybody would come. So at this time it was obvious that they were getting ready to do a serious push and so the first effort . . .
END OF TAPE 1, SIDE A
START OF TAPE 1, SIDE B
MA: So as I recall one of the first efforts was really aimed at getting morevoters registered. And voter registration drives. I remember the funniest story, Frank and the leaders of the various organizations like CORE [Congress of Racial Equality] and SNCC [Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee] and NAACP [National Association for the Advancement of Colored People], you know, 31:00leadership in any situation like that there's a lot of egos and what they did is they formed a coalition, an integration coalition, and then they chose folks from that coalition and that coalition was made up of people who were influential among church groups like -- Bishop C. Eubank Tucker was a bishop; the NAACP, which was much more traditional than CORE, which was a little more forceful and confrontative; and the Urban League. So you had all of these groups together and they would decide on who was going to be spokesman at a certain time. Well, that kept the egos in check and because Frank didn't belong to any they would meet sometimes, most of the times and a lot of the times at the newspaper office because that was neutral ground. [knocking sound] That dog, he just drives me crazy! [chuckle] But they would meet and they would discuss their strategies and what-have-you. 32:00
About this time it was obvious that African-Americans were going to do a majorpush and so the emphasis was, "Let's get as many people registered to vote." I recall this time it was so funny [knocking sound] . . . excuse me. So, as I was saying, they were thinking about really doing it seriously so this particular time they decided to have a voter registration rally at the Armory Building -- that's at Sixth and Muhammad Ali -- and the key speaker was going to be the Reverend Martin Luther King and it was going to be great because they were going to bring him in -- and I had met King when I was down in Alabama so I was helping Frank -- they decided they were going to have a parade down Fourth Street and it was going to end at the Convention Center. Frank got this 33:00wonderful idea: his brother was a member of the band at Male High School and Male High School was just recently integrated, a few years, and his brother was at band camp so Frank called the band camp and told the band director that they were having a parade to encourage people to vote -- he did not mention that it was African-Americans -- and would he like to bring his band in and let them march in the parade because it would be a good exercise for them, good practice. And lo and behold, when we got ready and we went to the airport and picked up Dr. King and brought him there and all the so-called leaders were there and were ready to go and all of a sudden the buses arrived and these kids got out of these buses and they didn't understand what in the world was going on. It was 34:00only then it became obvious, after they lined up in the street, it became obvious that they were participating in an African-American voter registration drive. And they marched, they marched right on down and people on Fourth Street were really hateful because I recall people . . . I was in the front car and I recall people in the hotels threw ashtrays out the window and it was ugly. But they went and they had the rally and King spoke and he was just coming up. He had local ties; his father was related to some people here and his brother hadn't gotten here yet.
TK: Yeah, that's later.
MA: But he had some local ties and you know he gave a good speech and everybody35:00got riled up and went to register to vote. So people were beginning to feel their muscle a little bit. It was about that time that, shortly after that as it evolves, that they decided to take it a little closer to home. Let's attack Fourth Street, let's go right to the source. The idea was . . . it was just awful; you couldn't even buy a Coke and drink it in the place and you couldn't go to a movie in the place and you had a feeling with the voter registration drive and the publicity that was happening in Alabama and in other places, Virginia and other places, where the sit-ins were working, why not start trying 36:00them here? And so I said, "Oh, Frank, are you sure?" He said, "We're ready, we're going to go." I said, "Well, I've got this job, I'm going to have to be careful." And he said, "Well, you don't have to go if you don't want to." And I said, "Oh, no, I've got to go." And so I remember I wrote an essay once and I'll give you a copy of it, that ran in the paper on how I used to, the first time I parked my car in front of Quinn Chapel and they were having the rally inside before they were going to march and I was sitting there thinking my teaching career has just started and I know I'm going to get in trouble. But it struck me, how could I teach these kids that this is the greatest country in the world and yet justify why they couldn't go downtown, number one; number two, there's some of those same students who had been in my class earlier were in that church getting ready to go march and if I didn't march with them I wouldn't be able to look myself in the mirror. And so with my mother worrying to death and all of 37:00that I sat outside, I'd never forget this, I sat outside Quinn Chapel in my old car and I finally got out and went inside and said, "Let's go, let's go, we're ready." And that's when I started being very active with the local movement. And again, I was a soldier because it just didn't make much sense at all, number one, because I was new in town, to assume any leadership role -- just be a good soldier -- but I was quite helpful because that group was mostly students and being a teacher, and there were other teachers, Lyman T. Johnson was one of them, he didn't give a damn because he had made his point for years but I was a newcomer; and they would break us up into little groups and they would put somebody who was responsible for this six kids and you're going to go to the 38:00White Swan and this group was going to go to the Blue Boar and this group was going to go to this hamburger stand and this group was going to go to Kaufman's.
So I would always end up with a group of students and our student leaders werepeople like Beverly Neal who was Jerry Neal's, the senator's sister, and Raoul Cunningham and Arthur Smith, I remember clearly. And they would send the groups with them and we would go out and confront the system. The first time I walked I said, "This is really cool." Just coming out of an environment in the Senate 39:00where they made it okay because nobody wanted to create any waves -- this is down in Louisiana -- they weren't going to confront the system that they felt comfortable with; and then coming to Alabama where they were confrontational about a system that could have gotten them killed and did before it was over, a lot of them; and coming to Louisville it was just so different. And you were reading about the movement everywhere at the time so Louisville always has been about a year or so behind and it was the same with this one. But, the unique thing was usually the demonstrations across the South involved college students but here the majority of the demonstrators, as pictures will show, was high school students, junior high school students and their parents and that made the uniqueness because the parents supported them and came out and marched with them. A lot of mothers, especially mothers because fathers had jobs and whenever 40:00you have jobs, people can use things to squeeze you.
But you find your leaders were ministers and their churches were supported bytheir constituency and Frank worked with the newspaper. They had to sell their ads but they still had a constituency out there. It was cool, frustrating but cool because people were determined, from the mayor on down, that they were not going to do this. And you would really get frustrated and the more you did it the more it got to get really ironic. Great stories, I know you've heard so many but there are a number of stories. I remember one time the Blue Boar was the focus because a man named Johnson was president of the Restaurant Owners' 41:00Association and they figured if they got him to break then the others would follow. I remember we were demonstrating there and sitting there and I looked up and my supervisor from the board of education had to step over me to go through to get to the Blue Boar and I did have some problems with the board after that. It was difficult to say why but I did have some problems with them after that -- it looked like nothing you could do was right after that -- but he crossed the picket line and came in. But it was a really interesting time because we would leave school and then we would go to Quinn Chapel or to some other holding area and they were singing the songs -- you'd have to get charged up emotionally 42:00because you never knew what was going to happen -- and they'd sing the songs and the leaders would give us a rallying call and then we would come out of Quinn Chapel and we just marched straight up to Fourth Street and you just didn't know what would happen. And people got cruel; they called you names, you know . . .
TK: I was going to ask what the reaction was like.
MA: They were cruel. They shoved you, called you names but for the most part . .. the police were there but my folks have always recognized that the police are not there to protect them. But it was so interesting because sometimes when they would put me in the car, the black police, and I think, I always thought that the police department did that on purpose because it just made it that much more ironic and it was like, you know, how dare them do that? Well, we're going to 43:00make your own arrest you. Kind of like the old slave mentality where the master whipped the slave, that was one thing, but when you got your biggest slave to whip the slave, that had another whole impact and that was what this was like. But even with all of that the police officers would recognize, and you knew the ( ) would recognize, "Mervin, you're going to get in trouble," because they knew I was a new teacher and they would get down the street and open the door and make me get out and sometimes I'd go right back.
I did keep myself out of pictures because I recognized that that could hurt. Sowhen I would see the photographers, then I would just walk the other way because most times I was around where the older folks were talking and planning and so when I saw the cameras, I just walked the other way. But we were there. And it 44:00formed a bond with a lot of people. We'd come back, especially Frank and I and Elmer and a few of the other younger folks, we'd come back in the evenings after the march and we'd have to unwind, we'd come over to my mother's house or we'd go over to his house and talk. I'm sure the ministers and the older people had the same routine but we were younger folks, we were fresh out of college, we were people who entertained and socialized so we would get together and we'd just talk about how ridiculous it was; and we read everything we could get our hands on about segregation and what was going on; and when somebody picked up a news story about a new event happening, whether it were in Virginia or North 45:00Carolina or Louisiana, what-have-you, and they shared it.
So we kept ourselves quite informed and we picked up the Ebony magazines and theother stories that came on the national scene and it was interesting following King and the others who were in the middle of their movement. It was just so interesting to see older women when we would sit in the church and they would just keep their backs so stiff and they would just step out there with their head up high and you'd think after all those years they finally are going to say, "Enough." And you went out there -- and I think that was the wonder of it all was to be able to be a part of that, to just be a part of that feeling. After awhile when you marched down you had a real self-confidence and a real feeling of self-worth and you said, "I'm as good as anybody else and this is 46:00ridiculous." And you'd go out and you have to psyche yourself because you didn't know, sometimes on the way back from the marches is where you had problems. Cars wouldn't stop when you were crossing the street and if they saw a small group of you, you know, somebody could throw something at you and did and people harassed you and heckled you and you just didn't know what you'd find. As you have found in the whole civil rights movement, folks took this separation really seriously but it was an interesting time. You watched young people bloom in high school.
TK: When you say young, I keep thinking when I'm hearing these stories . . .
MA: And we always encouraged, you dressed like if the door opened you were47:00appropriately dressed to go in and if you look at the old pictures you'll see them with ties on and their Sunday go-to-meeting clothes and that was cool. That was really cool. And the other thing was it attracted whites like Susie Post, whom you're going to have to interview and Anne Braden and stuff, they would get there and they would throw their head up but I mean, and Tachau and others, they were right in there with us and Wallace, when the other movement was. So you had some whites in the community who just felt, well, this was ridiculous.
On the other hand, you had some interesting things, too, that would happen; youhad whites who had businesses that had a large minority constituency and they oftentimes were quite supportive financially and otherwise. Quietly and without 48:00any fanfare. There was a drug store here, Zegart's Drugs that was located on Cecil and I think it's Greenwood. Mr. Zegart had been in this community for a long time and if you really needed to get some extra money, Mr. Zegart would get the cash register and came through; and there were others who never wanted their name used but they were just there when you needed them. And then there were others who simply thought what you were doing was the right thing to do and others joined you. It was a while . . . you couldn't just do this every day. You would do it and then you would take a break because emotionally it was quite draining.
TK: Yeah. I was wondering, what happens to it. Well, one question I had is howand when did it spread?
MA: Well, you had a lot of prongs going on, you see. You had the actual49:00demonstrations, you had others who were trying to work within the system and sometimes it was the same people who were involved in the demonstrations and the leadership, or working with the mayor to try to get the mayor to sign on to an ordinance or to try to get him to form the type of committees where there would be some kind of dialogue and discussions between both sides; you had others who tried to meet with the owners and the operators of the major stores downtown figuring if a Kaufman or a Spellman or Bacon -- that's why Mrs. Byck was a saint because she was one of those who supported you -- and you tried to get people like that. Also, when you weren't marching, people were trying to get dialogue going and trying to strategize and what-have-you. So it never really stopped, 50:00you just had some emotional breaks. But for the leadership, when you weren't doing one thing you were doing the other thing. Then you were always strategizing. And then, of course, you had all of these groups, you had the minister's group and you had the NAACP and this, that and the other; then you would begin to look at the political ramifications. Let's see what will happen if we can get another person on the Board of Alderman. A great example was Mayor [Bruce] Hoblitzell was the mayor during the time when we were doing public accommodation. Black folks were so angry at him because he took the obvious worst scenario and was not going to do anything until I saw the strangest thing happen; we got involved in politics. That's why we were doing voter registration and everybody decided we were going to vote Republican.
Historically, and through the line, blacks have always voted Democrat. But this51:00time I saw people come to the poll and they had their -- there were poll workers -- and they had their Democratic buttons on and they'd tell you, "You know what we're going to do." And they got in [William] Cowger. And Cowger didn't say he wouldn't sign an ordinance, he said if it passed, he would sign it. And so they cleaned house and it's the first time it's happened. And it shows the power that the black community coming together could in fact be a swing vote. It actually happened and that was a great day; I saw this and I'll never forget it when we went to the polls we rode around and we went to the polls and the word was, "You know what we're supposed to do." It went out to the churches, it went out the 52:00network, the clubs, the network was, "We're going to clean house." And they did. They even brought in two black Republicans and Louise Reynolds was one of them.
TK: Who was the other one?
MA: A guy named Lee.
TK: Russell Lee?
MA: Russell Lee.
TK: Okay. I see his name occasionally. I haven't been able to find him.
MA: Lee was the other one. But that was an interesting time. And then there wereother things: we decided Fontaine Ferry . . .
TK: Yeah, I'm curious how that happened because I've only seen references to it.
MA: Because it sat right there and the neighborhood was changing, so here wassomething we could see but we couldn't go to. And at night you could hear the people on the -- they had a wonderful wooden roller coaster and they had all of these bangs and bells and things -- you could hear it and you could see it but 53:00you couldn't go in it. And they decided let's go, let's make Fontaine Ferry their goal. See, what you had to do was as this is working itself out then go to the next one. One other real interesting thing happened while we were downtown on the public accommodation, and I'll get back to Fontaine Ferry, was there was a restaurant owner and I don't remember what Leo's last name was but he had a place called Leo's Hideaway. It was on Market or Main and it was a fish place and real swanky and he decided that this was ridiculous and so he invited people from both sides, the leadership from both sides to come to his restaurant and sit down and talk this thing out. And he decided also that he was going to open 54:00up to blacks. And he did. It took a lot of guts. And it was a nice place, I mean, it was a really nice place and he had to go downstairs and we had some fabulous meals there but he brought them together and he sat them across the table from each other and that started the conversations.
After that was over with and it began to look like at least we were working nowthrough the political process because there were two members of the Board of Aldermen and they were trying to shape an ordinance that would, of course, end it all. We didn't sit back, we said, "Now, let's see what else we need to take care of." And then it hit that Fontaine Ferry, which every child in this town, when it was here, got a chance to go but us. So we appeared; we met at the 55:00little Presbyterian Church right here on Greenwood.
TK: Okay, I've heard of the Greenwood Presbyterian Church, yeah.
MA: It's right around the corner. We met there. I remember this guy stood up oneday just before we went out there and I think his name was Kirk, and with tears in his eyes he talked about he had fought in the war and that this was wrong. Now, you understand, this was the very beginning he was here, he never asked for much, he never took a role on as a leader, he was just a marcher, but I remember that particular day and we went out there and the difference here was Fontaine 56:00Ferry was most active at night, so we were marching in the evenings. The other thing was it was in a neighborhood where there were a lot of young people and in order to get here, you had to go through the white neighborhood to get there because all of this was white then.
TK: This whole Northwestern/Southwestern Parkway area?
MA: From the other side was white. And you had Shawnee Park and you had a fewblacks that had moved down on the other end here but they weren't living there, they were living around the corner. And so you had just a sprinkling. You had one or two on Forty-seventh Street and what-have-you. So you had to go and they knew you were coming. Now, these people were, for the most part, the people who lived down here then were blue collar and they werent as, they weren't exactly 57:00well off either because this was the West End and most of them worked in industry and what-have-you with some exceptions. So we were the entertainment for the kids. And they waited for you and that made it really rough. Because at night you can throw a bottle or a brick and nobody knows where it came from. But not only that, you had to walk to Fontaine Ferry from the other side of Shawnee Park, you had to park in front of somebody's house. Sometimes you couldn't find a parking space, so you had to go into one of the secondary streets like Shawnee Terrace or Shawnee Drive, which means you have to walk through a mostly white or all white neighborhood at the time in order to just get to Fontaine Ferry. And so it wasn't really safe and police weren't exactly anxious to patrol that area. 58:00So Fontaine Ferry was pretty stubborn about it because they were under the opinion that if we let blacks in, it's over because the little swimming pool, a gorgeous, large, block long swimming pool that had lights that lit up at night and I mean, it was the place to go, it was huge. I mean, that swimming pool would have held three hundred people, we're talking about a huge swimming pool right on the corner of Market and Southwestern Parkway. And it had all these blinking lights because you had the Ferris wheels and the roller coasters but you also had this pool in the summer and you could ride by and see it and it was every kid's dream. Well, they couldn't possibly have that. 59:00
And I think that was one of the things that did it. And I mean, they fought uson that one, they fought us. And we finally got it. Ironically, when Fontaine Ferry finally opened up, it was kind of like the old Dick Gregory joke that I spent six months marching in front of a restaurant and when they let me in, they didn't have anything I wanted. It was almost like that. When I got there it was okay, but I had outgrown it and it was great for kids and it didn't last long, management changed and there were some problems there and whites were moving out of the neighborhood quickly about that time and the next thing you know, it just died.
TK: It was closed.60:00
MA: I sit down and I listen to my colleagues at work talk about how wonderfulFontaine Ferry was and I have to remind them it was a constant reminder of separate is not equal. Because I lived down there then and they didn't, they came all the way down there to go to it but it was right there in my back yard and you couldn't. . . . It was also kind of ironic that Chickasaw Park, which was made the one black park of this city, was put in the middle of a white neighborhood. [laughter]
TK: Yeah. I read a piece just recently . . .
END OF TAPE 1, SIDE B
START OF TAPE 2, SIDE A
MA: So to understand the psyche of the civil right movement, one needs to seethat it was never a big movement; it was always units working different things 61:00for different people. The first demonstrations that I recall were in front of the Brown Theater and J. Graham Brown was known that he would tear down before he let blacks in; or his hotel or his restaurants. And the movie was Porgy and Bess -- thank you -- but that movement started not with the older people but with the young youth chapter of the NAACP, who started that and they literally pulled the older folks along. And Sam Gillian, who has become a world class artist and lives in the Washington area, was one of the leaders. Porgy and Bess, 62:00but it was the young people who went after that one. Bob Carter was in that group, too, and Williams who became a minister and whose brother lives right down the street, Carl Williams.
TK: Was the open accommodation one, was that started by the teenagers or wasthat started by people like Frank Stanley and stuff like that?
MA: Now, the teenagers were the first because they wanted to see that movie.They were very focused. They wanted to see Porgy and Bess. Then the others came along. I mean, you didn't do it without the other knowing but the teenagers were a small group and were focused. And the reality was it was the youth chapter of the NAACP that focused the first demonstrations that I recall; there were other 63:00demonstrations at the bus station earlier lead by Bishop Tucker and all but like I was saying, so it's hard to say the civil rights movement was just like a wave. It was like a wave in that somebody attacked this and somebody said, "Well, you know, if we attack this we ought to look at this." And after you got that to moving then you said, "Well, what else is wrong? Let's get this other nail out of our shoe over here."
So there was always something. And sometimes the leadership changed as you wentalong. Sometimes the most, you had the Reverend Hodges and the Frank, Jr.s and the Reverend Sampsons who were very elegant spokesmen; but you also had the 64:00Dearing who was an attorney; you had Charles Lunderman who was an attorney -- Dearing was president of the state NAACP and Lunderman was an official with the NAACP and later was president -- you had McAlpin who was another attorney; you had Crumlin who was another attorney; these people weren't just attorneys, they also were part of the strategies because it was all everybody's fight. So where Bishop Tucker may have been a spokesman today, Hodge may have been a spokesman, when it came to the court situation and the legal situation the spokesmen became the attorneys. When it came to the strategizing, the attorneys were right there at the table, so they were part of the leadership, too, and because of the type of community this was . . . I mean, for instance, Dr. Rabb, who was a medical 65:00doctor was involved with the NAACP and he was at the table, too, and Dr. Bell. They also represented finances, strategy and a name in the community because you can't put doctors out of business. It's difficult for the white establishment because they had a black hospital here. I mean, Dr. Rabb was the first black to work at one of the white hospitals. When I came here they had Red Cross Hospital for black folks. It was totally a segregated community, so in the civil rights movement you always had these different ways. There were things going on all the time. It was like a group of amoebas just moving.
TK: That's definitely my impression. One question is that you had some peopleworking through legal stuff, there's people in the streets doing demonstrations, 66:00working through politics; what about other strategies or other ways of bringing about change or other levels of activity?
MA: You had voter registration, the power to vote. By that time you're trying toget not only blacks in city government, you're getting them in state level; you had Jesse Waters, a black Republican who initiated the civil rights bill in the state; you had a couple of other blacks who were involved in state government at that time and as time goes by you had people like Hughes McGill and Charlotte McGill and Mae Street Kidd and Georgia Davis. It's interesting, the majority of these people, in the later years when people really got to be putting the screws on you, were women. And the reason was because their husbands kept the jobs and 67:00they could get out and do it because, you know, all across the South they found ways to shut you up.
TK: Norbert Blume, was he white or black?
MA: He was white. He lived right down the street, he lived on NorthwesternParkway right across from the golf course and was a representative from here. He was very liberal and he was a good man. I knew Norbert and they voted him out when they were able to get Carl Hines in. But Norbert had been associated with labor for years and he was a liberal and had done a very good job. There are those who thought that maybe he should have been left where he was but on the 68:00other hand, when children are growing, you give them a chance to fall down a couple of times so this was a new experience for us. And he had the seat that Porter Hatcher has now. Like I said, you had that going. Meanwhile, you had more African-Americans looking at the local universities so they went to the University of Louisville, they went to Bellarmine and they started getting involved there; the schools were now supposed to be integrated so you had blacks deciding they wanted to vie for principalships and things of that sort; so you had things going on all sorts of ways. On the other hand, you had, now that things were opening up on Fourth Street, people began to recognize that having 69:00blacks in their stores was good business because blacks spent thirty million dollars a year just in Louisville.
TK: When did open housing come along?
MA: That was a . . . as people began to move out of the West End there wasreally no where else to go. They were red-lining and, let me give you an example of how the housing thing came: when they ran out of places to buy and there's no place to build, then people start looking at other options and although blacks 70:00were down here, not necessarily by choice, a lot of blacks had gotten rather comfortable down here, especially in the leadership; black doctors were all up and down this parkway and in this area by now. People said, "Well, wait a minute, why should I have to stay here? I should be able to live wherever I want. I pay the same tax, et cetera, et cetera." And so it became obvious that real estate agents were not going to show you homes, banks were not going to lend you money to buy homes in white neighborhoods and they decided this was another thing we needed to fix. And so it just started and folks just came together and started going out.
TK: Were you not as involved in that one as you were in the open accommodation?
MA: No, I was in the service at the time.
TK: Oh, you were?
MA: Yes, I was in the service at the time and . . .
TK: What years were you gone?71:00
MA: '59, '60 and '61.
TK: So, what else besides . . .
MA: Wait a minute, no, no, no, that's not right. I'm not even thinking. Ooh, Iwas in service in '62 and '63.
TK: Yeah, I was going to say, I was writing down the dates and saying, "Wait aminute." '62 and '63 you're out of town, out of the state.
MA: Yeah, because I came home for furlough and that sort. When they had the bigmarch on Frankfort, I came home for that. But for the most part I stayed away and I was in another world. When I came back the open housing started and well, 72:00it started a little bit before but it wasn't that big. By this time, I had a new set of responsibilities: I was getting ready to get married, I was working in industry and it was time to start looking for a place to stay that would accommodate my new wife and so I had another set of priorities and I didn't involve myself. The other thing was my friend Frank had now gone to the Urban League, the national Urban League, he was working for the national Urban League; my friend Elmer had gotten married and had had a child by this time; and what happened is we had gone through a little evolution and so you had another group of leaders.
But the black community has always been like that; when one goes another onejust takes his place and it has never been at a constant and the leadership always changes and that is what made it successful because nobody could say, "Well, we'll just wipe this one off and it'll stop." Because it just doesn't 73:00work that way. And so there was always the same people and a lot of new ones but there was always the Mattie Joneses. You know, if you look around, you will see the soldiers, they had some new ones but some of the same old faces would be in there, too, and it wasn't an elitist thing, if you wanted to get out here and march you were perfectly welcome. When open housing came though, there was much more visibility of whites involved with it. Not a majority, but you had more whites standing up and taking a stand because the open housing got dangerous, unlike the public accommodation where you were in Fourth Street where you had 74:00businesses but you had a pretty clear thoroughfare and police could come in easy and arrest you or what-have-you. Open housing did the same thing that happened when we went to Fontaine Ferry. It took you into neighborhoods, neighborhoods that you weren't familiar with. In order to go and march in the East End, you had to park somewhere and then you had to gather somewhere and then you had to march and everybody knew where you parked. So when you came back . . . so it got ugly. That's when King got hit with the rock during the open housing march. The open housing march also was, first of all, they just wanted a separate society.
When you got the public accommodation thing, they said, "Okay, we can make moneyoff of it, everything is green." But now, keep in mind, while all that was going on, people were leaving the West End and, "This is my last shot, I have spent 75:00all my life trying to pay for this house but I'm going to sell it. I fixed the leaks and I changed those pipes but I'm going to sell it because I don't want to live next door to those Negroes." And so they left. When they got to their second place, "Now here they come and they want to stay next to me again and they're going to ruin my property values. The only thing I got left is I spent my life trying to have a good property value on my home and here they come going to ruin it." And that's when it got touchy because everybody saw it as a personal affront. Just the mere fact that you were African-American, your property values were going to go down. So they're back against the wall because you see, "When I sold that house I had been paying on that house down there in the West End for fifteen years, almost had it paid off but I had to sell it and 76:00go buy another one. But now, I'm close to retirement and I can't buy another one and my family is stuck now so I'm going to fight this one tooth and nail."
On the other hand, there was another thing that happened because people like meare angry now when we think about what actually happened. When I was ready and I came back from service to buy a house, I couldn't buy a house but in the West End and so I didn't have the option of going to a nice, new subdivision with a considerable amount of different schools to look at, I had to buy a house on Thirty-ninth Street and Michigan -- it's Thirty-ninth and Muhammad Ali -- and I 77:00bought a duplex -- my mother lived downstairs and we lived upstairs -- and when I got ready to save a little more money to make the house that I want to settle in, they still wouldn't loan me any money or even show me houses in the East End. So I had an option: I could find me a place to build one but that would have to be out in the country, Newburg or something like that, which wasn't acceptable because I like being in an urban area; or I could buy another used house. See, there was no new construction going on so I said, "Well . . .". My realtor called me one day and she said, "I found you a house, it's at 132 South Shawnee Terrace. It's the first house on the other side of Market. Nice, nice 78:00little house. Real nice neighborhood. You'll be the only black in the neighborhood but they're willing to sell it to you." And so I went in and bought it. Well, as I indicated before, two weeks later I came out and every house had a for sale sign on it and I was then working at the Courier-Journal, I had a toddler at home and a new wife and it was very difficult to explain to myself why this was happening. Here I had changed jobs, was working at the Courier-Journal --was breaking a color line there being the first black artist they had ever hired and one of the first blacks they had ever had in the 79:00newsroom and here I am breaking the color line at my job -- trying to keep my . . . I'm going to be the perfect father and husband and professional and you come home and all you want to do is mow your front yard and your back yard and have your friends over every now and then and there are all these houses. And so blacks became indignant, too, because they said, "This is crazy. Am I going to be where all I can buy is somebody else's used houses?" It's like never being able to buy a new car, it's just like buying a used car. "So I'm going to go out where I have some other options, even if I have to buy a used house, at least I'll have a wider selection." And that pushed it.
The housing thing got really ugly, much the same way it did across the countryin Chicago when King went up to Chicago and went into those neighborhoods it got really bad because . . . and across the country whenever it got on housing 80:00because that's where people take their last stand. "You're messing with my family. I mean, Heaven forbid if my daughter has to associate or my children have to associate with people I don't want them to associate with." And it still goes. Neighborhoods across the country that are changing where Hispanics and Asians and people from Eastern Europe are moving in are getting the same problem. But back to my situation, so you had on both sides, you had African-Americans who said, "No, this has gone far enough." And you only get two chances in a lifetime, or three at best, to buy the house you dream of, your dream house and then live out your time in it and so they were going to push hard; and then, on the other hand, the people who lived in those neighborhoods were going to push back hard. And that got to be really ugly. I understand why. 81:00But as it stands now, when I take a group of editors to the West End and someone suggests to me, "Well, Mervin, but you can buy anywhere now." And I say, "Yes, but I'm sixty-two years old and why would I want to have a $200,000 mortgage? I can't. It's like starting again. I had my two opportunities." You have a period in your life where it's the perfect time to buy a house and this society wouldn't give me the option of buying where I deserve to buy or where I wanted to buy or could buy. And so I'm still angry because as much as we're right above the West End and it's not as bad as people say it is, the point is I should have had that option. And so it goes in take. I have my colleagues who tell me, "Man, 82:00you've got a fabulous house and you got your swimming pool and all that." And I said, "I will trade you" -- but they live in Anchorage, you see, these are my white, liberal colleagues -- and I say, "Well, let's trade." So it is still sticky and that housing thing really, really got ugly before it was over with. What else can I tell you?
TK: Well, that was definitely my impression because when I asked people when Ifirst moved to town about the civil rights movement here, everybody's immediate response is open housing was the problem.
MA: And you recognize why now. "Oh hell, if they want to go to that store there"-- I have the option of going to that store now -- "they're coming to my house and theyre gonna be next door. My God, there are going to be watermelon rinds all over the place and chicken fries every Saturday." I mean, they could think 83:00of the most negative connotation for anything. And you're getting close to home. "This is my investment; I'll fight for my family and my home." The other thing, too, a lot of the people who moved out of those houses here in this neighborhood and went out to Dixie Highway and Shively and those areas were really stretching themselves and the realtors were having a field day because they would tell you that the niggers are coming and get your house and then they come back and sell us your house so they would make twice on you.
TK: Right. They wouldn't give them much for the house when they were moving out. Right.
MA: Yeah, they'd sell your house to me and then sell you your new house. Andthen they would go, they were blockbusters; sometimes they were just anxious to 84:00get a black on the block because then we know we're going to get this whole line of houses. And the realtors were not operating, you know, they weren't sterling at all; it was a hustle and they played it for all it was worth.
TK: One thing that I know that we're getting up to because that's about '67 orso, is we're getting to when you started working for the Courier-Journal; I know you told me this off-tape before but could you tell me the story about how you started working for the Courier-Journal on tape?
MA: Okay. As I was saying there's always a situation. You know, being black inAmerica is being in a constant rage. Always trying to make adjustments. As soon as you get through with the demonstrations on Fourth Street, public accommodation, then you got to do open housing. As soon as you get through with that you got to find, you know, the Fontaine Ferry. Well, as happens, police 85:00relations in Louisville's black community are much like police relations in any other minority community and that is it's not good and Louisville had been complaining for years. There had been very few blacks put on the force; the ones they had were isolated, by themselves, not ever a real strong presence; a few blacks in leadership positions, promotions or what-have-you and people who ran the police force were basically all white and the mentality was "we keep them in their place." An over-reaction. And so it was not unusual for people to get hassled on the way home because you fit the profile, or them to assume that even if I had twenty degrees and put a pair of sneakers and jeans on that I'm a hood 86:00out here selling drugs.
So with that temperament -- which is across the country, it happens everywhere,we live with it -- right after King died and other cities were in flames and what-have-you, Louisville didn't. But the tension was as strong as Louisville --Louisville has always been a year, a year and a half behind everything else; any trend, whether it's a fashion or anything, and I think it's a conservativeness and I think it's the South. It's a little slower. We may be right on the border but we want to see if it works yet. And so when King was killed and Watts and Chicago and Detroit went up in flames and in Washington and everywhere else, we held memorial services and cried and wondered "What's next?" 87:00But the tensions were there, too, we just didn't have a spark to motivate it. In '68, right during the time when folks were complaining that black folks were really being hassled, one of our businessmen got stopped on Broadway, in the middle of Broadway and that's the busiest street we've got in the city, he was frisked and cuffed and man-handled, so to speak, and he was a businessman that everybody knew and it was the straw that broke the camel's back. So blacks began to rally behind Manfred Reids arrest and next thing you know they planned a 88:00rally at the corner of Twenty-eighth and Greenwood. And they planned it there because it was in a black neighborhood and Twenty-eighth Street was kind of a thoroughfare; Senator Davis had a restaurant right there called Senator's; Kenneth Clay, who is with the Center of Performing Arts, had an African shop with the dashikis and the latest records and it was a record shop that also sold Afro-centric artifacts, posters and things of that sort. And so I, at the time, had taken a job as an artist because there was a group of artists here -- which is another story -- and we formed our own workshop.
TK: Is this with Bob Douglas?89:00
MA: Hm-hm. And since we couldn't find any place to -- white galleries wouldn'thang our work -- we just would hang our work anywhere we could. And so we formed what we called the Louisville Artwork Shop and we would gather, we'd meet and we would gather . . . we ended up we would meet at Bob Douglas's basement and we'd show our work and we bought our old place on Riverview -- that was an old store and we made it the Louisville Artwork Shop -- and we would gather there and we would paint; we brought models in; we gave community shows; we had a gallery where we would show. And the Courier wrote about this and I had been very active in that and so I got a call from a friend saying that there was going to be a 90:00job opening at the Courier in the art department, why don't I check it out? At the time I was working at B.F. Goodrich in industry; I had never dreamed of being able to make my living as an artist but it sure was a nice idea. The idea of actually making a living doing something you enjoy doing creatively. And so I went up and I made them a deal that if they would let me work for two weeks for nothing, I would see if I could do the work that every artist there did and they would see if they liked it and I would see if I liked it and it wouldn't cost them a dime. They were taken aback by such an idea but they agreed to it. I worked for three days and they hired me and I've been there ever since. Well, I 91:00was the first black on that fourth floor, which was the news floor and so I knew the editors because, being the last guy on the totem pole I ended up with much of the night work and so when the editors would go to lunch at night I would go with them and I would talk about journalism and what they were doing and learn as much as I could about it. And I had heard about this rally and I suggested very strongly that what they needed to do was they needed to send somebody down to cover it because there were going to be some interesting issues. And the unusualness about it was that it was going to be an outside rally when rallies traditionally were held in church.
END OF TAPE 2, SIDE A
START OF TAPE 2, SIDE B
MA: The reason it was being held outside was because some of the people that92:00were going to be talking were "radicals" to the older leadership and they'd rather be in a situation where they could feel free to say what they wanted to say. So I suggested that the editor send somebody down to cover it and he said, fine.
TK: You do it! No?
MA: No, no. He selected a guy named Bill Peterson, who was a fine journalist,later went to the Washington Post and died at a very young age of cancer but was good enough that he wrote a book on Appalachia and was offered a fine position at the Washington Post. So he was going to send Bill Peterson. And the editor called me and said, "Merv, can I get you to do me a favor? Would you go down with Bill?" I said, "You really want me to go down in case something happens." [chuckle] And he said, "Well, yeah." So I went down with Bill and we got there and the speakers started talking and they were standing on the car that was the stage; next thing I know -- some of these guys were young, the young Turks, you 93:00know, and they were very vehement about . . . and somebody had spread the word that Stokely Carmichael was coming and that they had stopped the plane and wouldn't let the plane land. And Hawkins who was one of the young Turks at the time, Sam Hawkins was speaking, and he and this strange guy who just appeared was also there. He had a beret and a leather jacket on and he said he was the guy who worked with Stokely out of Washington and he was talking to . . . well, to cut a long story short, they just got the crowd all riled up and the next thing I know a bus passed by and I heard a bottle and I don't know if it was thrown at the bus or thrown at the sidewalk but the police had secretly been all 94:00around the place and in minutes they were there, guns drawn; and then people just started throwing things and folks started running and the next thing I know we had us a full scale riot at our hands.
So I got in the phone booth and I told the -- he was in the phone booth and Isaid, "You know, I'm going to have problems protecting this man out here because these are real bullets they're shooting out here and black folks are awfully angry." And so I got a friend who I used to teach when I was teaching at Duvalle who had one of those little old low-riding Cadillacs, I pulled him over and I said, "Will you take this man back to the paper?" And so they took him back to the paper and he was glad to get out of there because when he looked out they were charging his telephone booth and my friend took him back to the paper and I 95:00called the paper and I said, "Look, I'm here." They said, "We're sending our photographer down." And so they were sending their photographer down, their photographer of the year who had got this big award, and when he came down they turned over the cab he was in and the next thing I know the photographer was jogging back Broadway back up to the Courier. So I'm down here on the phone talking to the paper and I tell them, I say, "Well, I can tell you what's happening." And so they say, "Merv, just relate to us what you're seeing and what's going on." And I said, "But I need a photographer." So I kept relating: "They're breaking in the so-and-so store and the police are doing this . . .", and I just gave them the whole thing. And they said, "We don't have a photographer." And I said, "Well, I'll tell you what" -- I saw a friend, Jay Thomas who made his living shooting pictures at nightclubs -- I said, "Let me hire him." And I saw my kid brother, Eddie Davis -- I had a brother who was in high school at Flaget at the time -- I said, "Let me hire him; they got 96:00cameras." So here I am, my crew of two photographers and I, and I stayed out there for two days covering the riots and I called in what I saw. And the ironic thing about it was, as I look back at the old coverage of it, I didn't even get a byline.
TK: I was just about to ask, were you even mentioned that it's from you in the article?
MA: Not one single thing. Everybody knows the story, though. It's all over thecounty. I didn't even get a byline. But that was okay because what I found out was, number one -- and it was difficult because black folks knew that there were no black reporters there and so they didn't trust me; I was standing in the phone booth, to give you an idea of how the other side was, calling and a cop kicked open the booth and put a shotgun in my chest and he said, "I told you to 97:00move." And I said, "I'm a reporter for the Courier-Journal." And he said, "There are no nigger reporters for the Courier-Journal." And he was absolutely right. And I thought he was going to blow me away. And all of this happened but I still stayed. But it gave me a good sense of how to be fair, gotta get both sides, and I called it in and the story was there and Louisville wasn't embarrassed. So when it was over with, they called me and they said, "Merv, we really want to thank you." Norman Isaac was the executive editor and he was a legend in this business and he said, "What can I do for you?" And I'm sure he thought I said, "Well, you know, give me a week off and a little piece of change and I will be fine." And I said, "Why don't you hire those two photographers? Why don't you hire Jay and why don't you train my brother?" And he said, "Is that all?" I 98:00said, "Yeah, and let me help you find some journalists that look like me I said, let me go on and find them." And he said, "Is that all?" And I said "Yeah." And he did, he hired Jay Thomas and he brought my kid brother in as a lab person and taught him and had him to work with them and that started it.
About two or three months afterwards I got a call from Bingham, who was thepublisher at the time, and he said, "There is this program at Columbia University that's for minorities and it's for people who have already got degrees and are training in another area to make them quick reporters." Because the Kerner Report had just come out and he said, "You would really be worth more 99:00to this company as a journalist than as an artist." I said, "Is my art that bad?" He said, "No, your art is fine but we need somebody who knows the community and you have shown that you can take the observation that you use for an artist with details, for details and what-have-you and do quite well as a journalist. We would appreciate it if you would allow us to send you to this program." And so I made an application -- it was competitive, I didn't even know what to take at the time -- and I made application and I got accepted.
TK: Did Bob Douglas get hired to replace you then as an artist?
TK: Okay, because he told me it was a couple of months after.
MA: And they found Bob Douglas to replace me and I went to Columbia. And here Iwas on my way to New York, totally intimidated. One of the most marvelous four 100:00months I've ever spent.
TK: Four months.
MA: It was quick.
TK: Yeah, intensive.
MA: It was a summer program, there were twelve of us in the program and it wasintensive. But the wonderful thing was we stayed on campus and some of the best journalistic minds in the country, because it was New York and because it was Columbia, came and they would work with us. The Pulitzer Prize winners that year that had covered Attica, they came and talked to us about what they did; the people like Walter Cronkite and Howard K. Smith and Roger Mudd came and talked to us and they gave us all the short cuts; and Gene Roberts who later became the executive editor for the Philadelphia Inquirer and the folks from the Washington 101:00Post and the New York Times were all there. And at the time I had colleagues like Charlayne Hunter-Gault who worked with us, she was working for the New York Times at the time; and Bob Maynard, who owned the Oakland Tribune; and Earl Caldwell, who was just a legend in his own time when he covered Angela Davis and what-have-you; and all of the few black journalists in the country converged, they would meet and we would sit and talk for hours. So I came back feeling really good.
I had -- that was my first plane ride, to show you how isolated I was and howisolated you can become in Louisville. I loved New York and I would leave in the evening and I went out every evening to the Village and jazz clubs and I just met fabulous, fabulous people and made a network that makes me special today 102:00because I know more people in this business than most people and a lot of them I met there. So when I came back he said, "You're going to be a writer now." It was marvelous; when I got ready to leave it was such a big thing, they had a big dinner and Father Pat was there and they sent me off, and Ron Mazzoli and the church and it was a big thing, big thing. A black from Louisville is going to go and get training to come back and be a journalist, we're going to have a voice. We're going to have somebody who understands and is one of us to bring our story out there. And so when I came back, by choice, you know, it was still difficult -- like I said, I still type with two fingers -- but I came back and I decided I would write about civil rights because I knew it, I had credibility, I had marched with the same people I would cover. So I covered the NAACP, the Urban 103:00League, the Human Relations Commission, the Commission on Human Rights, and I didn't have any problem because they knew who I was; they knew and they called me all the time. They still do, with story ideas and things to look at and inadequacies when the system doesn't work. I had people to call me when they wanted to give themselves up or had problems, shot a police officer, and people would call and tell me about housing problems and things that were going on in the project. It was a great run.
TK: When you come back as a writer and an observer, how would you characterizethe nature of civil rights activism in the '70s then when you get back?
MA: It has never stopped. Civil rights activity in Louisville and across America104:00is constantly evolving because we haven't gotten there yet. So it never stops. I came back and you still had somebody who was the spokesman; by this time you had the Reverend Hodge was now on the Board of Aldermen and things of that sort; you had a new group of people who were in City Hall; you had new leadership with the NAACP and the Urban League; you had ministers that had been absent before were now leading marches; and there was always something to march for.
TK: What were some of the issues that people were talking about?
MA: More black police, that's one. You know, better services. Then busing came,because first you had the city integrated its schools without any problem but then everybody left and went to the county and then the county and the city had 105:00to merge into two systems. It got ugly because I spent much of my time covering the anti-busing movement and if that wasn't bold. . . . They sent me out to cover the anti-busers when they were meeting all out in Okolona and Valley Station and sometimes I wondered when I walked to my car and when the guest speakers would get up and say, "Well, the moon is out and the Curious-Journal is here and you know what that means," and they would set the stage; these were the speakers. But it was a good ride. And the movement continues. It may be the inadequacies of integration; the need for more black entrepreneurship; Louis Coleman's thing about bigger piece of the pie for entrepreneurship; it's always 106:00something. It's just not even, the playing field isn't even. When I got to the paper, I was a fly in a bowl of milk.
TK: That's an interesting image.
MA: Yeah, a fly in a bowl of milk. So what I did was I worked myself to theposition where I am the director of recruiting and I began to get other people in there who looked like me; I mean we've had about twelve percent, which is great considering the fact that there aren't that many out here and that the few they have, everybody is trying to get them and you don't want to get people who can't do the job. You do want to get good people and the good people you have to fight for but we've been lucky to bring in the Betty Bayes and the Rochelle Rileys and the Fletcher Clarks and the Larry Muhammads and what-have-you. But the problem remains now that we lose them.
TK: Academia is the same way, the university system.
MA: We lose them because as soon as we get them and get them all settled, thensomebody else gets them. But it's been interesting because black folks know now 107:00-- there are two columnists, there's the executive editor, who is African-American now, the person whose responsible, Bennie Ivory, who's responsible for the whole news operation, is now African-American. Bingham, Sr., would turn over in his grave if he knew it. Not only that, he's very good. He's extremely good.
TK: Well, you actually bring up a question, there's a couple sort of generaltype reflective questions I like to ask people and one of them is, it struck me with this question of if you were writing this book, when would you -- which is the story of the civil rights movement in Louisville -- when would you start it and when would you end it? 108:00
MA: I think I would start it in the '50s because that's the period of time I'mmore familiar with and because it's close enough to modern day, forty years ago, that most of the people that read it can have a semblance of identification. Sometimes when you write a book about so way back and you're going to bring it in to the future, it's almost like La-La land at a period of time, it's hard for people to imagine. I think when I'm able to tell a person, "And here I am in the kitchen of my house in western Louisville but I really would have liked the opportunity to look at some others," they can identify with that because I'm still here and it's all open but the ramifications of segregation, you're still paying the dues to it. They say, "Well, you can buy a house anywhere." "No, I can't."
So I would start in the '50s but I would focus it -- I think it's important that109:00people understand that the civil rights movement is not a constant; it's bursts here, here, here and here. And maybe different leaders and a different focus. It's impossible to change it all at one time with one movement so what you have to do is you have to find out where the tacks are and then you pull that one out and then you pull that one out and you pull that one out because it takes everything; you have to focus everything because people fought real hard to keep it like it was. And so you couldn't spread yourself thin. And then there has always been a limited number of soldiers, you see, and so you have to think of how you're going to best utilize those people who are going to get out there and stand up with you. There's always been a limited number of organizers. The reason that the public accommodation effort was successful is because the 110:00majority of the successful black attorneys decided, "We're going to be your legal minds. Not this one or that one, all of them." You had Neville Tucker, you had Dearing, you had Crumlin, you had McAlpin, you had all of them. These are people who also had to make a living. Also later, other organizations -- and not just civil rights organizations -- social organizations who were active in their church. Crumlin was a minister.
TK: Yeah, I just found that out.
MA: And who had other, who had families and children to send to school. But theydecided on public accommodation, we are going to be the legal brain. Ministers, 111:00head of the NAACP, and all of them got together and they decided they're going to form a coalition. "We're not going to fight and have you running over here and you running over here and I'm not knowing what you're doing; we're going to form a coalition. We're going to decide who's going to be spokesman for the day." So you had them to give up and to bring all of those resources so you didn't have CORE doing this and NAACP doing that.
Then you decided you got a limited pool of workers because you don't have acollege in town that has a significant African-American population, so you're going to use high school students. When you're working with high school students, you have to be careful; you can't keep them out too late, you can't jeopardize their health; if one of them gets hurt, you're going to have a real problem. So in order to get that to work, you've got to get mama aboard or daddy, and anybody will tell you there were a lot of mothers and aunts and uncles and cousins who joined this movement simply because their kids were there 112:00and they needed to be around to be the adults. So you got everybody focused on one thing: Public accommodation. When that's through, you come back and you rest and you go on a few picnics and you just cool out for awhile and let Christmas get by. I remember when they started the public accommodation, I don't know if anybody told you, one of the big impacts was we decided no new clothes for Easter.
TK: Right, yeah. Somebody told me they had a button that said, "Nothing new for Easter."
MA: Yeah. Now that hurt. That's when they started, that's when folks decidedthey wanted to start talking. But anyway, and then you came back and you take a little break -- you never really stop because by this time you got the political thing going -- and then everybody says, "Okay, we need to get this fool out of office and get the Republican in because we think he might give us what we 113:00need," -- and this is being really politically sophisticated -- but in order to clean house everybody, regardless of what they did, whether they were lawyers, whether they were Democrats, whether they were Republicans, whether they were teachers, all of them had to be involved in the voting process and getting others to vote. It wouldn't work because if you made your move to get the Republicans in and Democrats out and you missed because you didn't have a traditional relationship with the Republicans and you just made the Democrats mad, you don't have anybody. So it had to work.
So again, you've got all the resources together and you focused. And this iswhat has always happened with the civil rights movement; it's a matter of, they 114:00take a particular area and focus on it and then they just put all their resources behind it and that's why they succeed. But it takes longer because if you got all your resources here, this lags. And we found in the system that even when you fix it, when we turn our backs, they tinker with it and it doesn't work to our best advantage and then we're right back where we started from. So look at all of the efforts we're wasting on the Central High School situation and what-have-you. Now I've spent all this time trying to make the West End comfortable and now I've got to deal with the fact that they want to make it a separate city. Oh no, I didn't do all that marching to make a separate city, Uh-uh. It was a separate city. And having come out of a segregated school, I can assure you that I never found separate equal. And so, no, no, no. But again, it hasn't gone anywhere because it hasn't been sold where everybody . . . what 115:00ministers in the black community began to do with a lively black publication is they can define the issue so clearly that everybody understands what it's about. And so if you're going to write about it you take it to the '50s because all of these roles were played quite clearly. The Courier-Journal may have not told you in the '50s what was really going on but the Defender did.
TK: I'm reading the Defender for the '50s right now. I'm only up to '54. There'sa lot of stuff.
MA: You will find that there is a lot of stuff. Some may be inaccurate but itwas there and you didn't find it in the Courier-Journal. By they time they got on board -- and it's one thing to have your heart in the right place, but here you're known as the liberals all over the country and you don't have no black 116:00folks working for you until I came around. And I said that in their 125th anniversary issue. I have a copy of it.
TK: Is that the one you showed me once?
MA: No. That was Being Black in Louisville.
TK: Oh yeah, that's right. And you showed me that whole article.
MA: Where I showed you . . . The Black in Louisville was forty articles thatran seven days, won two awards and it was a look at housing, it was a look at education, it was a look at business, it was a look at police relations, healthcare and all of that. That's a big book. I've got that at work also.
MA: It has a lot of background information, but back to what we were talkingabout -- see, I'm running off and I forget.
TK: Yeah, I was going to say.
MA: If I'm going to write, I would write about the '50s because there are enoughpeople out here to be able to remember specifically, "I remember that." Our 117:00parents and grandparents.
TK: Yeah. And I've only been able to find two people to interview that can talkabout the '30s or '40s, two or three people.
MA: There isn't that much information out there and nobody was writing it downsometimes. You know, it's a shame because we were too busy fighting the battles to record the information.
TK: Well, I know. As we've been talking, you've been covering a lot of thegeneral questions I'd like to ask, so there's just one last one, especially since it's getting kind of late. One last question I'll ask you, which is what do you think makes Louisville's story different or interesting? If there was one thing to emphasize about Louisville as compared to other places, what would it be?
MA: I think Louisville as a city has taken a mentality that we are a Southerncity with a Northern outlook and because of its location has made Louisville and 118:00Kentucky interesting. Its role in the Civil War, you know it fought for the other side, for the North. So its location makes it interesting. The other thing that makes the Louisville civil rights movement interesting -- I mean, we were right on the Mason-Dixon line here -- the other thing that makes it interesting is we used students that were much younger than traditionally. Now, granted, in Montgomery and Birmingham and what-have-you, you had younger students but it was balanced significantly and those students did not march every day. But here for the period of time that we were doing it, you had an interesting mix where you had the biggest load being carried by fourteen, fifteen, sixteen, seventeen year olds and the leadership was younger. So I think that makes a difference. The 119:00other thing that makes the difference is it worked and it's still working and you're still fixing but when they went out for public accommodations it worked; and when they went out for housing, it worked; and when they went out for Fontaine Ferry, it worked; and when they went out for police brutality, it initiated a number of programs and a federal suit and court order to get more African-Americans in the Louisville police force. So it was successful in many areas and although there are those, and part of them say that there is much more to do, the point is that in many areas they reached their goal of killing old Jim Crow and getting him out of the way, even at the Courier-Journal. So, I 120:00think collectively, one has to see Louisville as a city that has much more interaction within the races than its ever had. And even though there are good things and bad things about Louisville, I do think that our race relations generally with people are much better than theyve ever been.
TK: Interesting. I definitely think so. That, like I said, is my last questionand it is getting late . . .