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    The print version of this story, “A Race About Race,” mischaracterized Blaine Hudson’s relationship with Kentucky Gov. Louie Nunn. It was U of L president Woodrow Strickler, not Nunn, who helped Hudson procure financial aid.

    By Emily Bingham

    Amid intensifying anti-Vietnam War sentiment and shifting political party alignments, the first (and still only) sitting president ever to attend the Run for the Roses provided an extra measure of pomp and circumstance for the 1969 Kentucky Derby. Churchill Downs welcomed Richard Nixon on his flying visit — about four hours from touchdown to takeoff. Supporters “mobbed” the commander in chief, according to the next day’s Courier-Journal. But Sunday’s paper also featured “Black Revolution” advocates protesting outside the main gate. One demonstrator carried a picket sign that read, “No. 1 pig Nixon set stage for others to brutalize black people.”

    Days before the race, the New York Times published a feature titled “Derby Week: When the South Rises,” which quoted Barry Bingham Sr., my grandfather, who was then publisher of the Courier-Journal and Louisville Times. He tried to sum up what made the Derby so special, calling it “a perfect blending of sentiment, suspense and superb spectacle.” Track president Lynn Stone was more specific: “It’s the South. It’s the horses, the gambling, the tobacco, the whiskey. It’s the river town, the farms, the mint juleps. It creates an antebellum image.”

    On the track, the unbeaten Majestic Prince, a dashing chestnut colt, had his work cut out for him to vanquish the seven other horses in the unusually small field. Turf writers predicted a blazing pace and weighed the possibility that Majestic Prince’s jockey, William Hartack, might win his fifth Derby, tying Eddie Arcaro for the record. But the ritual sporting event — and a national TV audience in the millions — made the Derby a natural target for protest. Two years earlier, in April 1967, Louisvillians fighting racial discrimination and segregation in residential housing boycotted downtown businesses. After the city’s Board of Aldermen failed to pass an open-housing ordinance, an organizer quoted in the C-J predicted “open hell” for the Kentucky Derby that year. Festival officials scratched the annual Pegasus Parade for fear of violent unrest as Martin Luther King Jr. planned to attend a protest that would block traffic to the racetrack. Then Ku Klux Klan members appeared at Churchill Downs offering to help “keep order.” According to the Louisville Times, a Klan leader said, “They either bar Negroes from Churchill Downs Saturday or find some other way to control them.” Tension rose to such a pitch that King stayed away and the open-housing group canceled the demonstration. In 1968, a doping scandal disqualified winner Dancer’s Image. By ’69, Churchill Downs had a lot riding on a smooth Derby Day.


    Joining President Richard Nixon and his wife Pat (to his left) at the 1969 Derby were several governors, including then Califorina Gov. Ronald Reagan (second from right) and his wife Nancy (third from right).
    Photo by Jon Webb,
    Courier-Journal

    “Derby Dick,” as famed New York Daily News turf writer Gene Ward dubbed the president, came to Louisville to fulfill a promise. While attending the most exciting two minutes in sports as a candidate during the 1968 Republican primary, Nixon told his friend and host, Gov. Louie Nunn, that he’d come back the following May if he won the White House. Nixon breezed to victory in the Bluegrass State in November and would probably have won even more commandingly if third-party segregationist George Wallace hadn’t been on the ballot. Democrat Hubert Humphrey, who had pledged a withdrawal from Vietnam, finished in the dust.

    Nixon was also shining a little extra limelight on Nunn, the state’s first Republican governor in a generation. On his side, Nunn piggybacked on the president’s promise, persuading the Republican Governors Association to convene at a Lexington resort before the Derby, with the perk that they and their wives could attend the big race with the president.

    Jim Host, known today for helping create Lexington’s Rupp Arena and Louisville’s KFC Yum! Center, was 29 at the time and Nunn’s chief of public information, tourism and commerce, and he organized the ’69 governors’ conference. Most everything went according to plan. Film producer Cornelius Vanderbilt Whitney and his wife Marylou hosted a glittering black-tie dinner at their Thoroughbred horse farm near Lexington. A group of funders presented to the governors group a $70,000 yearling sired by 1963 Derby winner Chateaugay. The same day, in a bit of political protest theater, an anti-poverty coalition arrived at the resort with what they described to the C-J as an “old and pretty sorry” mule that better represented the state of the economy in Kentucky, where, according to the U. S. Census, the poverty rate was 23 percent (compared with about 17 percent today).

    On the Wednesday before Derby, an updated Gallup Poll showed Nixon’s steady 61 percent approval rating, and the Derby horses breezed for a few furlongs at dawn. Less than a mile from the track, members of the University of Louisville’s Black Student Union were poised for action that put aside courtesy and flexed new muscles. For seven weeks, the BSU, which was founded two years earlier, had engaged in negotiations to increase black Louisvillians’ involvement at U of L and make the college’s offerings more relevant to African-American students. U of L’s student body of 8,000 included 187 African-Americans, fewer than in 1951, when the school absorbed the segregated Louisville Municipal College. U of L’s full-time black faculty could be counted on a single hand. The union called for developing a Pan-African studies program, additions to the library’s woefully inadequate holdings in black studies, opening an office of black affairs, hiring black professors, scholarship money specifically for African-American students, funding university outreach centers in the city’s poverty zones and appointing five African-Americans to the board of trustees. The estimated cost: some $250,000 (about $1.75 million today).

    U of L president Woodrow Strickler, a liberal former economics professor, said he accepted the students’ aspirations “in principle.” The library promised to bulk up its collection, and the university said it would establish 20 Martin Luther King Jr. scholarships for local students, though the BSU called for 200. Discussions ran aground on who should run the black-affairs office, and union members, in a press release, accused the university of “chicanery and equivocation.” The BSU went to Strickler with an ultimatum.

    In an interview for this story, Andrew Williams Sr., a former U of L football player from Gainesville, Florida, who in 1969 was pursuing a master’s degree in education, recalled how few black students he saw on campus. “Support programs were needed to create a significant community of black students,” Williams said. “(U of L officials) were not like, ‘Good idea! We’ll do that tomorrow.’

    “It was more, ‘We’ll listen, but we’re not sure we’ll do anything.’ Like, ‘We’ll see what the children are talking about.’”

    The parade floats made their way to Broadway while about a dozen BSU members gave a press conference on campus accusing the administration of “blatant fallacies.” Then the students entered Strickler’s office. “This is a takeover,” one of them told a C-J reporter, as he closed the oak door. “We’re going to be here until Strickler comes and gives us authority to implement our program.”

    The confrontation reflected late-1960s Black Power ideology. A younger generation of activists was impatient with merely being tolerated in white institutions and alienated by ongoing urban poverty and distress. Since the Derby Week demonstrations of 1967, King had been assassinated. White flight to the suburbs continued — encouraged by a real-estate industry that frightened homeowners into thinking integration would ruin real estate values, and by redlining banking practices that discouraged lending and sales in black neighborhoods. In May 1968, police misconduct had sparked demonstrations followed by a multi-day riot that left two African-American residents dead and damaged swaths of west Louisville. Former President Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society anti-poverty programs had changed little in urban areas, and Black Power, not integrationist incrementalism, became the watchword for younger activists like U of L students J. Blaine Hudson, Gerald Neal (now a longtime state senator) and Williams.

    Black Power rhetoric gave white America the jitters. It was separatist. It was aggressive. Some leaders urged African-Americans to arm themselves. The militant Black Panther Party never gained a significant presence in Louisville, but a C-J profile of the BSU from March 1969 noted that the group had a poster of Panther leader Eldridge Cleaver on a wall. The conversion of boxing champion Cassius Clay to Muhammad Ali and the black separatist Nation of Islam (and his refusal to fight in Vietnam) infuriated many whites. Even white allies in the civil rights movement struggled with the Black Power assertion, as exemplified in an April 1969 BSU editorial that read, in part: “All whites are either consciously or unconsciously racist.” Many stepped back as black organizations focused on self-help and, as one BSU circular said, the need to “unlearn the white mind.”

    The demonstrators at the president’s office in Grawemeyer Hall refused to speak to mediators sent by the administration, and finally Strickler appeared. In an interview, Neal told me, “After we announced ourselves and he sits into his chair and we give him our demands, he sort of leaned back in his chair and we’re saying, ‘Therefore, we’re taking over this office.’ He looked at us and said (jokingly), ‘Don’t you think you better lock the door?’” Soon afterward, the students left peacefully without a breakthrough, but with a promise that they would face no punishment for the occupation.

    The next day’s C-J depicted a world turned upside-down: BSU member Bobby Martin reclining in the president’s chair, feet propped on the capacious desk. The evening of the occupation, Nixon’s vice president, Spiro Agnew, arrived in Lexington for the governors’ conference and addressed the Louisville situation from the airport tarmac. Agnew predicted that “amnesty” for confrontations such as the one in Strickler’s office would only “encourage future explosions.”

    The nation had been focused on campus disruption. Calls to dismantle ROTC offices, start black-studies programs and expand opportunities for local black students were common refrains across campuses. That spring, Cornell University protesters had armed themselves with rifles. Harvard students sustained serious injuries when hundreds were evacuated from the administration office. In mid-April, Columbia University students took over two buildings and were met with heavy police action. Just the day before the U of L occupation, members of the U.S. Congress spoke from the floor about investigating student protesters and canceling financial aid and federal research grants where protests were tolerated. On the morning of the U of L takeover, a New York Times story carried on the C-J front page quoted Nixon at a U. S. Chamber of Commerce gathering. He said America needed college administrators with “backbone.”

    The C-J reported that Gov. Nunn had called Louisville Mayor Kenneth Schmied, a Republican, and said, “We’re not going to have people taking over that university.” Under pressure, Strickler had changed course, and he told the press that any future “violent behavior” from students would result in immediate dismissal. All of the turmoil threatened delicate negotiations between U of L and Frankfort aimed at bringing the city-funded institution into Kentucky’s higher-education system. White flight and suburban growth had thinned Louisville’s tax base, and state support was the university’s holy grail.

    Disregarding (and perhaps disbelieving) Strickler’s threat, the BSU returned to campus Thursday. They burned an effigy of the university in front of the building that housed the office of the dean of arts and sciences, and an opposing white student urinated on the flames. Without warning, black students then stormed the building. According to the C-J, an “overwhelmingly hostile” crowd of perhaps 400 onlookers congregated outside.

    Several black athletes stepped up to assist the takeover. Members of the Cardinal football team blockaded the entrance when white students, some displaying George Wallace buttons, tried to break in. Medford Lee, a co-captain of the team, had been warned by coaches to “stay away from militants,” yet Williams, who joined the players on the steps, recalled that Lee and the other players wound up delaying practice that day.

    Strickler called the police. Twenty armed riot officers forced their way through and arrested 22 demonstrators, including one unruly counter-protester. Most left without struggle, but Bobby Martin was hauled out of the building by his feet. News photos showed another student, Alvin Bykes, descending the building steps, his arms raised in a defiant Black Power salute. According to a timeline compiled by the school, Strickler stated, “I shall long remember this day — the most disappointing one in my 31 years of association with the university.” A statement by the BSU laid “full responsibility” for the occupation on the administration for refusing “to deal rationally and justly with an exceedingly rational and just proposal. Power to the people, black power to black people…the revolution shall overcome.” The students spent the night in jail.

    The next day in Lexington, Republican Gerald Ford, then the U.S. House Minority Leader, addressed the gathering of governors. He noted that, as a boy, Kentucky native and first Republican president Abraham Lincoln had traveled “12 miles just to borrow a book,” which he’d read by the light of the fire in his family’s log cabin. “It’s so much easier nowadays for an ambitious young man to get an education,” Ford continued. “All he has to do is steal a rifle from the ROTC, seize the campus library and read by the light of burning draft cards.”

    In an oral history Blaine Hudson gave in 2000 while a professor at U of L, he noted that the BSU had “a pretty radical agenda but, you know, our methods were not unusual.” Some in the group “went around armed at various times, but we had sense enough not to take arms into that building because we would probably still be in jail right now or the graveyard.”


    Photo of Alvin Bykes by Michael Coers, Courier-Journal

    Mid-afternoon on Derby Day, May 3, a U.S. Army helicopter followed Nixon’s motorcade from Standiford Field. The next day’s C-J called it a “panoply of presidential power.” At the Downs’ main entrance, Hudson and other veterans of the occupation — advocates of a different kind of power — had gathered with picket signs targeting Strickler, Schmied, Nunn and Nixon. Charged with violating Kentucky’s anti-riot statute, the students would still have been in jail if Hudson’s mother had not gotten them out on bail on Friday.

    In Churchill’s gleaming new fifth-floor VIP section, the commander in chief table-surfed, chatting with some two dozen governors and their wives, who had driven over from Lexington after a Derby breakfast at Spindletop Hall. The Nixons watched the sixth race with Republican Governors Association president/California Gov. Ronald Reagan and his wife Nancy. Reporters tried to determine whether the president actually drank the julep he was holding and peppered him with questions about which horse he would bet on. “I intend,” Nixon told them, “to savor this race in Kentucky style.”

    C-J reporter James Tunnell parsed the politics at work for Nixon. The president flew to Louisville directly from Columbia, South Carolina, where he had called on 90-year-old veteran politico and “nominal Democrat” James F. Byrnes, who had been key to Nixon’s victory there in 1968. Byrnes had campaigned actively for Nixon alongside segregationist “Dixiecrats”-turned-Republicans, like Sen. Strom Thurmond and South Carolina Congressman Albert Watson, who flew to Kentucky with the president and first lady. These Southern leaders had protested bitterly against Brown v. Board of Education, as well as the Civil Rights Acts of 1964 and 1968, pushed forward by another Southern Democrat, Lyndon Johnson. In response, they and many other disgruntled white, states’-rights-oriented Democratic voters switched parties. Republicans like Nunn and Nixon grasped the chance to capitalize on disenchantment within the Democratic party. This shift in patterns of white voting from Democrat to Republican in the former slave states became known as the Southern Strategy.

    Nixon’s “law and order” rhetoric in 1968 hyped the threat of revolution from poor black communities, several of which had rioted that year following King’s death. In his acceptance speech at the Republican National Convention in Miami, Nixon evoked “cities enveloped in smoke and flame.” It was time to hear “the quiet voice in the tumult of the shouting…the voice of the great majority of Americans, the forgotten Americans, the non-shouters, the non-demonstrators.” This was Nixon’s “silent majority,” a phrase Nunn claimed to have given him. By the time Nixon arrived in Louisville for the Derby, the national Republican Party had all but given up on black voters.

    Black Louisvillians had split almost evenly between Republican and Democratic candidates in the decades after World War II. They saw the shifting winds in 1963, when the Nation called out Nunn for operating Kentucky’s first “outright segregationist campaign” in his first bid for governor. Nunn called Democratic Gov. Bert Combs’ order desegregating Kentucky’s public accommodations a “dictatorial edict” forced on the state by U.S. Attorney General Robert Kennedy. Despite being a virtual newcomer, Nunn narrowly lost that race. When he ran again in 1967, Nunn denounced “forced” housing and vowed to rid Kentucky of civil rights “agitators” like Carl and Anne Braden, who had helped the African-American couple Andrew and Charlotte Wade buy a home in an all-white neighborhood. (The house was later fire-bombed.) Neal recalled changing his registration from Republican to Democrat in 1967 — rejecting Nunn and embracing Louisville Democrats pushing an open-housing ticket. When the state legislature passed its own open-housing bill in 1968 — the first measure of its kind south of the Ohio River — Nunn protested by letting it go into law without his signature.

     

    Outside Churchill Downs, the BSU students circled with pickets bearing messages including “Where is Oswald when we need him?” A group of anti-war demonstrators who had driven down from the University of Cincinnati yielded to the U of L group, explaining that the black students’ cause was more important that day. Police kept watch while the picketers shouted occasional Black Power slogans, ignoring taunts from some Derbygoers. Hudson gave a C-J reporter a written statement that asked why, with millions “squandered” on “which animal will win a race,” couldn’t the “same amount of money (go) to black people — that black people might help black people?” Referring to stereotypes of blacks as submissive and contented, the BSU questioned, “If people can journey across the North American continent to witness animals galloping around a track, why is it that no one will journey across town to find living proof that Black People are not figments of an insane imagination?”

    Inside the gates, the first Derby horse stepped onto the track and the University of Louisville marching band struck the opening notes of “My Old Kentucky Home.” Not everyone sang the old and much-critiqued lyrics, but this is how they appeared in the program:
     

         The sun shines bright,
            on the Old Kentucky Home.
         ’Tis summer, the darkies are gay.

     

    The BSU statement concluded: “The ‘darkies’ are not gay any longer.”

    Majestic Prince ran a perfect come-from-behind race — the New York Daily News hailed the “mighty-girthed comet from California soaring off a single sustained burst off the big bend to win a heart-pounding stretch duel.” Before the eyes of the president, a “Prince became king.”

    An exhausted Jim Host watched the stretch run from the clubhouse rooftop. He had spent the last several days from dawn until the wee hours overseeing media and governors. Host was among a cohort of aides, nicknamed “Nunn’s Kiddie Corps” in a C-J magazine feature that spring. With their input, Nunn operated what some political observers see as one of Kentucky’s most pragmatic and effective administrations. Finding empty state coffers, Nunn went back on a no-tax campaign pledge. He corralled the Democratic legislature into adding two cents to the three-cent state sales tax. “Nunn’s nickel” saddled him for the rest of his political career, and he never won another race. But the revenue made expanded higher-education expenditures possible, including for U of L, which entered the state system in 1970. Some of the “whiz kids” around Nunn pulled him back from a heavy-handed ban on campus speech.

    To the BSU demonstrators, though, Nunn was a “reactionary.”

    On Derby Day 1969, the C-J editorialized about the BSU protests, urging for “cooler counsels” and hoping that the city’s “genius for moderation” would bring peaceful progress at the university. But the BSU tactics proved effective. By fall 1969, U of L had an Office of Black Affairs, and King scholars were attending classes. Outreach in largely black neighborhoods increased. Hudson and Strickler “remained on friendly terms,” with Hudson able to procure financial aid that helped him return to the school. By 1974, the library had more than 2,500 books related to black studies. The department of Pan-African studies formed in 1973, and in 1992 Hudson became a full-time faculty member in the program he’d fought so hard for. From 2005 until his death in 2013, Hudson served as dean of arts and sciences, leading the office he and the BSU once occupied. (Meanwhile, in 1972, Churchill Downs changed the program so the lyrics to “My Old Kentucky Home” read “the people are gay.”)

    In his 2000 oral history, Hudson tried to convey his state of mind in 1969. His formative years occurred at a time when the nation, “however grudgingly, was making progress in the area of race.” Despite the night in jail and getting booted from his college just before the Derby, it never occurred to him then that “some of the other ways American society needed to change would not actually happen.” Those ongoing and insidious failures, lacking “whites only” signs to mark them, included poorly regulated polluting corporations concentrated in low-income neighborhoods, exclusionary mortgage practices, discriminatory policing, increasingly harsh drug laws leading to mass incarceration (which has broken families, deprived people from years of earnings and restricted voting rights) — and the list goes on.

    In the half-century since the 1969 Kentucky Derby, it is clear how much longer and more difficult a course the city has been on than the one Majestic Prince ran for his blanket of roses. The equitable community many expected to emerge from the 1960s civil rights movement remains a finish line in the distance.

    This originally appeared in the April 2019 issue of Louisville Magazine under the headline "A Race About Race." To subscribe to Louisville Magazineclick here. To find us on newsstands, click here.

    Cover photo: U of L football players joined the BSU protest, which made its way to Churchill Downs on Derby Day. // Photo from the U of L Archives

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