Tracy K'Meyer's "Civil Rights in the Gateway to the South: Louisville, KY, 1945-1980"
I gave a quick read to Tracy K'Meyer's Civil Rights in the Gateway to the South: Louisville, KY, 1945-1980. (Full disclosure: I've met Tracy a few times, back in the day, through her husband Glenn
Crothers, who used to be a colleague of mine at IU Southeast.) There are tons of detail that I didn't immerse myself into, but I got the gist of the book and want to write a review.
Back and Forth
If I had to pick the most prominent theme of the book, it'd be the "back and forth" that characterized much of the Civil Rights Movement in general, particularly in Louisville. Two steps forward; one step back. Yes and no. Trade-offs. Clear gains at times, but other times, not so much. It's sobering to read about gains that "should have been" so much easier-- but were instead, contingent, fleeting, or not-so-simple.
This theme and the book's details also reminded me of Charles Murray's excellent policy book, In Pursuit of Happiness and Good Government. Murray describes frequent trade-offs between policy goals-- in particular, between obvious social goods like material progress (e.g., enough to eat; safety) and less obvious goals (e.g., self-esteem and self-actualization). In K'Meyer's account of Louisville during this period, some gains were quick and obvious, while others were far more complex.
K'Meyer opens with the idea of Louisville as a border city between the North and the South. From this lens, the reader wonders whether Louisville would be "North" or "South" in its approach to Civil Rights? (More accurately, would Louisville be more North or more South in its approach. Of course, North/South can be a gross simplification-- as if things were really good for Blacks in the North!)
K'Meyer's first provocative claim is that being a border city probably led to a relatively good record (in Southern terms). But being a border city also gave Louisville a greater opportunity to rationalize lesser gains and cover for whatever civil rights sins it had. For example, K'Meyer notes that a border city's residents are more likely to be capricious in their approach-- a mixture of glory and nasty. At some level, it's easier to know that everyone dislikes you-- than to be surprised by its less-frequent occasion (78).
Another trade-off common to the Civil Rights Era and the desire/demand for reform: whether to go slow or to go fast. This is a perennial problem whenever one strives for change. For example, the pro-life movement debated whether to aim for a constitutional amendment or incremental gains. The school choice justice movement has had to wrestle with whether the pursuit of charters and vouchers are an undesirable compromise. Those who aim for larger reforms are always tempted to see a more moderate approach as inappropriate (and even highly-unethical) compromise. The same happened in the context of Civil Rights: when progressives want a radically different outcome, should they go slow and make progress or just (try to) get "it" done?
Another concern: when people advocate for a position-- whether moderation or something more aggressive-- is this a function of true concern or merely an angle that helps one strive for power. One sees this sprinkled throughout K'Meyer's book, as personal and social agendas overlap in interesting ways. Ironically, the same thing holds, in reverse, today. When people complain about rampant (vs. anecdotal) racism, is this a true concern, a lens colored by history and worldview, or a convenient opportunity to accumulate power and influence? When people point to some aspects of institutional racism-- but not others that are larger-- is this a flawed worldview or an agenda that just happens to line up with crony capitalism and self-aggrandizement?
Or consider another example discussed at length in K'Meyer's book: the supposed connections between communism and many black orgs. Were the connections real-- and significant? And even if so, where the concerns about the connections real-- or just a convenient argument for opponents of civil rights? Sure, communism and the Ruskies were a profound problem that is difficult for contemporary minds to imagine. But in our times of ignorant and cheap partisanship for the sake of power, it's also difficult not to be cynical about those making such accusations.
---K'Meyer describes the imminent role of a local newspaper, The Defender, in the struggle. Meanwhile, the Courier-Journal was riven by ambivalence-- before converting to the cause relatively late. (To what extent does this explain the C-J's approach to race for the last four decades?)
---Politically, K'Meyer notes that Blacks were split between the two major political parties, before leading the GOP to victory in 1956 (99).
---Religiously, churches failed miserably at times (65), but stepped up beautifully at other times (120-123).
---Economically, K'Meyer details the early disgust with social welfare programs-- from recipients (164-167)-- arguments that would resurrect over the coming decades as the War on Poverty proved to be somewhere between ineffective and a very mixed bag.
---In terms of patronage, Louisville offer abundant jobs in city govt, but then, didn't extend promotions to black workers (148-149), leading to a form of "Affirmative Action" (149ff).
---Even local communities got into the "back and forth"-- with back-to-back stories from K'Meyer in Fairdale-- one where white football players protected black students, but then the next day, 150 protestors got violent (262)
K'Meyer also describes a number of familiar names, people, laws, and concepts.
People: I'd heard of Meyzeek Middle School, but was unfamiliar with its namesake (48, 51). (Meyzeek was the lone African-American board member of the KY Board of Education-- and interestingly, advocated a slower approach to gaining civil rights.) Louisville Civil Rights heroes Anne and Carl Braden get a lot of ink in the earlier part of K'Meyer's time frame. Louis Coleman gets a lot of ink in the later part of her time frame. She mentions MLK Jr a number of times, but ironically, he's missing from the index, so I can't give you any page numbers!
I benefited from K'Meyer's discussion of "Buy Where You Can Work" (148). The idea is that African-Americans would boycott certain companies-- not buying from places that would not hire them (for reasons other than their direct productivity). From an economist's way of modeling things, this is one type of discrimination (not buying goods one would otherwise buy, except for a characteristic other than the trade itself) in retaliation for discrimination against oneself or members of a group to which I belong. The initial discrimination imposed costs on the discriminatees and discriminators. The reasonable retaliation imposed more costs on both. (And of course, all of this is reminiscent of the discrimination within "Buy Local" and "Buy American" campaigns.)
K'Meyer discusses the 1917 SCOTUS decision, Buchanan v. Worley (6, 34, 61). Later this year, I'll probably write an op-ed about this, celebrating its centennial. For now, it suffices to note that laws often prohibited people from living on property as a minority within a majority neighborhood. Until Buchanan, racial segregation in housing was permissible.
K'Meyer also discusses the "Day Law"-- and its impact on the markets for labor and services in health care (5, 26, 33-36, 46-48, 54). The Day Law stood in Kentucky from 1904 until Brown in 1954, prohibiting racial mixing in educational institutions. This had a dramatic impact on the training of African-American doctors and nurses-- and then, indirectly, given the prevalence of racial discrimination, on the health care services received by African-Americans.
Both of these examples reminded me of Walter Williams' terrific point about apartheid in South Africa. If you have modest/anecdotal discrimination, it's annoying, but you'll end up with modest/anecdotal segregation, as each side largely avoids the other. When you have moderate/severe discrimination, matters are more complicated. But it's common for separate (and often thriving) markets to arise-- here, for blacks to work with blacks and white with whites. But unless discrimination is complete, you'll find some mixing, from people who don't care about race all that much (or at all). And that's the role of the law here-- to enforce the majority (racist) view on people who don't hold racist views-- to prevent them from engaging in trade and other activities with those of other races. For example, Berea College was the only integrated college at the time of the Day Law. If you had complete racism, no colleges would have been integrated. If you have people who don't share those values, how do you get them to comply? The force of law. Thanks government!
As one would imagine, K'Meyer writes at length about efforts to desegregate K-12 schools in Louisville. The earliest post-Brown efforts were based on residential geography. Of course, in many cases, given housing segregation, this plan resulted in educational segregation as well. In cases, where white and black neighborhoods might naturally combine into one school, the map was broadened to allow for two schools and then people could "choose"-- often, by race. In all cases, parents would not be forced to have their kid in a majority-X school and could petition to choose a majority-Z school. Of course, in practice, this resulted in little change (49-50).
As an aside, it's interesting to note that the limited educational choice allowed by JCPS today has a racial angle within its origins. Perhaps that's reason for concern today. But many popular policies have been motivated by race in the past-- e.g., the minimum wage, prevailing wages, abortion. So, it's probably better to not worry so much about origins-- and simply debate the merits of the particular policy proposals.
(A tangent for some auto-biographical info that relates to the topic at hand: Yesterday, I talked with Mom about their schooling decisions for me in Louisville. I started kindergarten in Fall 1970, but Mom remembers it being at a Christian school and connected to pre-K. Mom and Dad were trying to figure out "what to do with me" for first grade, given my advanced skills. Sometime in that time "frame", I got my first glasses. My pediatrician (Richard Greathouse-- later, the long-time coroner in Jefferson County) and my optometrist (David McClure-- who had children in the Suzuki program at U of L) persuaded my parents to put me into private school and the Suzuki Violin School. [Those decisions were utterly life-changing for me, both in terms of academics, music, and what all those have impacted in my life!] My parents chose to put me into Kentucky Country Day and then we left early in my 2nd grade year for Sacred Heart. [My memory was that there was a fire on-campus and that was the catalyst for the switch. Mom said yesterday that it was trouble with a second-grade teacher. I've posted on FB looking for some help with the fire details.] In any case, Mom didn't remember any of the racial (or anti-Catholic) stuff of that time-- and said these had nothing to do with their decisions. From K'Meyer's account, a lot of racial stuff was happening. But living in St. Matthews, it probably didn't impact daily life until busing got rolling in 1975. By then, we had moved to Pittsburgh and Malone.)
In 1975, matters were brought to a head in Louisville by "busing" (257-258). People could still choose schools to some extent, but students would be bused from one area to another, so that all schools had 12-35% African-American representation. (Later, the target was amended to 15-50%.) With racism, turmoil, a relatively large focus on integration over education (in budget and non-budget terms), and later, decreasing quality of schools (for a variety of reasons), public schools experienced a significant exodus. In recent years, the trend has continued for a variety of non-racial reasons, particularly with the increasingly popularity of homeschooling. But at the time, 77 families moved to Southern Indiana and private schools increased by 700 (a 22% increase), even with the Catholics refusing to accept transfers in many cases (268).
Whatever its costs and benefits at the time, busing was eventually sacked by the SCOTUS-- as society changed (improving on racial matters) and as the costs of busing became increasingly painful, obvious, and ironic. At Central HS-- a high-quality, magnet, neighborhood school that was historically important-- black students were being turned away because they were black (to keep the proportion of black students under 50%)! It took a lot of work by whites and African-Americans, but something so absurd had to be sacked eventually. (This is reminiscent of California's Affirmative Action quotas in higher ed, where Asian-Americans were required to have higher standardized test scores than whites-- an obvious but obviously-absurd implication of a racial quota approach!)
At the end, K'Meyer closes with an interesting thought. In a semi-lament at the end of her study, she notes the somewhat arbitrary nature of her study's end date in 1980. It is common to study (or build efforts to write history about) key moments (e.g., Brown)-- describing the before/after of those moments. But pre-1980 is not one period and post-1980, another. When to cut off the "after" analysis? When does history "end"?
Well, of course, it doesn't end. It only moves along. Aside from the tremendous gains within civil rights, public policy (often well-intentioned) has done a ton of damage to African-Americans-- from the cradle to the classroom, from the workplace to the grave. Hopefully, in the future, we can do better for African-Americans and all people-- not settling for good intentions or good stories, but finding good policy.