A large group of Louisvillians walked down West Broadway today for the annual Martin Luther King Jr. Day march, which featured elected leaders joining arms with former state senator and civil rights leader Georgia Powers, among many others. While King is now one of the most popular and revered figures in American history, a look back to his visit to Louisville in 1967 shows not only how far we’ve come, but how much we’ve forgotten from the era when King was a detested national figure among many white Americans.
King traveled to Louisville on May 10, 1967, to speak out for changes to the city’s segregated housing policies that allowed landlords to discriminate based on race. According to a UPI story printed in the Chicago Tribune the next day, King exited his car in the city’s South End and spoke to a large crowd of white people, who screamed at him and almost hit him with a rock. From the article:
The car pulled to a curb and Martin Luther King told an estimated 75 whites: “We’re all brothers, we want a neighborhood where everyone can live together as brothers.” His remarks drew shouts and screams. “God has given us an opportunity…” he began before he was cut short with a reply. “God has put a curse on the Negroes.” The car was pelted with a rock and it was driven away. There were no arrests or injuries.
Photojournalist Ken Rowland provided more context to the encounter in “Freedom on the Border: An Oral History of the Civil Rights Movement in Kentucky,” a collection by Catherine Fosl and Tracy E. K’Meyer. Rowland was at the corner of Central and Taylor, waiting for King to arrive, when King’s car pulled up and he began speaking to two little white girls.
“And all of a sudden, one of the kids spit at King. Little white girl. Neighborhood kids. And one little girl said, “I hate you.” And I heard King say, “I love you.”
Rowland also recounted the rock thrown at King after his speech, which was “bigger than my fist, was thrown at horrible speed toward King. It was meant to kill him.” The rock fell into the car, and King took it with him to the podium, where he addressed a West End church later that night, saying “Upon this rock, we are going to build an open city.”
He was prophetic — at least on the surface. By the end of 1967, Louisville had passed an open housing ordinance, and Frankfort followed early the next year. But as this year’s Metropolitan Housing Authority report shows, Louisville is still terribly segregated, as many of the institutional structures that were in place at the time of King’s visit remain in place.
But gone is the vitriolic hatred toward King. In 2011, Gallup recreated a poll gauging King’s popularity identical to one it had previously conducted at several points during the 1960s. While King was viewed favorably by slightly more Americans than viewed him unfavorably in 1963 and 1964, those numbers evened in 1965, and then swung heavily the other way in 1966. In August of that year — as the white backlash against the Civil Rights Movement escalated — only 33 percent viewed King favorably, while 63 percent viewed him unfavorably (and 44 percent highly unfavorable).
After King was assassinated in 1968, even Ronald Reagan — a fierce critic of King — referred to the killing as “the sort of great tragedy that began when we began compromising with law and order and people started choosing which laws they would break.” In other words, that’s what you get when you attempt civil disobedience.
When the Ku Klux Klan held a rally and protest in Louisville to oppose busing in 1975, it received a large and appreciative audience. Even as recently as 1983, Kentucky couldn’t shake this dark history: Rep. Hal Rogers (R-5th) voted against making Martin Luther King, Jr. Day a federal holiday.
But King’s popularity has steadily increased over time. In Gallup’s 2011 poll, it found that his favorables were a staggering 94 percent, while only 4 percent viewed him unfavorably. Digging deeper, 69 percent held a highly favorable view of him, while a lonely 1 percent had a highly unfavorable view.