In Louisville, looking to protests of the past to move forward
By John Eligon and Will Wright
They gathered near the banks of the Ohio River last weekend, about 100 deep, and began marching toward downtown, belting out chants that have become part of the city’s soundtrack.
“Bre-on-na Tay-lor!” “I love being Black!”
When they reached Jefferson Square Park, where protesters have held vigil since late May, the demonstrators lit candles, laid flowers and offered words that were by turns meant to soothe and to rally.
“Louisville has always responded to get justice,” said Raoul Cunningham, 77, president of the city’s branch of the NAACP, who participated in sit-ins in 1961 that helped lead to the integration of commercial businesses. “I think today’s demonstrations are a continuation or even an advancement of that quest,” he said.
As activists work to chart a path forward after prosecutors announced that the two Louisville police officers who fatally shot Breonna Taylor would not be charged, some are drawing on the city’s past to help guide them. Louisville has a robust, if overlooked, history of civil rights struggle that has spanned generations. Many see what is happening today as a continuation of that legacy.
During the civil rights movement, Louisville was a regular stop for Martin Luther King Jr., whose brother served as a pastor in the city. There were sit-ins, pickets and marches that led to landmark victories: It was the first major city in the South to pass local civil rights and fair housing ordinances, and it was the rare Southern city to peacefully integrate its schools after the Brown v. Board of Education ruling.
The 1970s brought a violent clash over the use of busing to integrate schools. In the ’80s there was so much labor unrest that Louisville became known as Strike City.
In the nearly two weeks since the prosecution’s announcement, the street rallies have shrunk and the national news media has largely left. But marches are still happening nearly every night, as they have been for more than four months. An array of new activist organizations grew out of the response, created in part by many young people protesting for the first time. Together with legacy civil rights groups, they are pressing Taylor’s case on several fronts — advocating for legal consequences for the officers, public awareness, and state and local legislative changes.
The city is working to create a civilian oversight board that is stronger than the one currently overseeing the Police Department.
A local ordinance, known as “Breonna’s Law,” was passed banning no-knock warrants and expanding the requirements for the use of police body cameras. Attica Scott, a state representative, is sponsoring similar legislation at the state level that would also allow lawsuits against officials who violate a person’s civil rights, and would require drug and alcohol testing for officers after fatal encounters.
In the mid-20th century, Louisville was the stop for trains coming from the North where Black passengers had to move to the “colored cars” before continuing their southward journey, said Tracy E. K’Meyer, a historian at the University of Louisville and the author of “Civil Rights in the Gateway to the South.” But it also was the place where organized labor as well as liberal churches helped to produce a civil rights movement that was relatively interracial for its time.
“One of the things the ’60s era sort of bequeathed to us is a sort of playbook for activism,” K’Meyer said. “Some of my younger students, especially some of my more radical younger students, will say, ‘We’re not like them. We’re different from what they did back in the ’60s,’ while doing pretty much exactly what they did back in the ’60s.”
Some older movement leaders say that the younger generation has shown less patience at times, and that the current activist efforts can seem chaotic.
Shameka Parrish-Wright, a co-chair of the Kentucky Alliance Against Racist and Political Repression, has been helping to guide some of the younger activists.
“They’re still reacting,” Parrish-Wright, 43, said. “They’re still processing and they’re doing it out loud.”
Parrish-Wright helped to set up the encampment in the downtown square — which activists now call Injustice Square Park — in late May when protesters began flooding the streets of Louisville. Taylor was killed in March at age 26, but her case only started receiving national attention in May after the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis.
The 40-year-old Alliance runs its operations out of the two-story Craftsman home where one of its founders, Anne Braden, who was white and died in 2006, lived in Louisville’s predominantly Black West End. Inside the home there is a clutter of cases of water and other supplies donated to support the protesters. Large yellow sheets of paper propped on an easel have lists of protest “demands” and “wins,” such as the ban on no-knock warrants.
Protesters have said they want more to come out of this moment, but as they continue to push, activists are encountering resistant public officials and internal disagreements that threaten to thwart their efforts.