Louisville civil-rights pioneer Norbert L. Blume died yesterday, at 89. At a time when the Kentucky Democratic Party stood for segregation and racial discrimination, Blume, as Speaker of the Kentucky House of Representatives, led his party and the Commonwealth into the sunlight of justice and equality.
Blume grew up in Louisville’s West End, and graduated from St. Xavier High School. He enlisted in the Navy during World War II, and returned to his hometown with three Bronze Stars for valor. He married his childhood sweetheart, Marie Louise Buecker, and found a job working at the old Standard Sanitary Plant, on Seventh Street. He joined the union, and worked his way up the organization, until he was elected president of Teamsters Local 783.
As Secretary of the Louisville Federation of Labor, he supported the repeal of Kentucky’s “Day Law,” which prohibited integrated classrooms. He also pushed for integration of various Louisville municipal services, such as the Fire Department.
Kentucky House of Representatives (photo: LRC)
He entered politics, as 43rd District Representative in the Kentucky General Assembly. In 1964 he led the fight for adoption of a state-wide public accommodations law. After much effort—and criticism from his fellow Democrats—he was finally successful in getting the statute enacted, in 1966; making Kentucky the first southern state to prohibit businesses serving the general public from discriminating on the base of race, color, religion, ancestry or national origin.
On a personal note, I remember Norb as a charming and charismatic gentleman, who was not only my friend, but served as my political mentor. I worked in all of his political campaigns, and learned about grassroots precinct politics from him.
Back in the day, Democratic Headquarters was located in the Old Vienna Restaurant building, on Fourth Street (ironically, now the William O. Cowger Parking Garage), and the party machine was dominated by “Miss Lennie” McLaughlin; a staunch segregationist. In 1964, Norb wanted to run for congress as a challenger to Republican Gene Snyder. Since that election portended to be a Democrat landslide—with Lyndon Johnson at the top of the ticket—just about any Democrat was assured victory in Kentucky’s Third Congressional District.
But Miss Lennie insisted that Norb was just too liberal to get the support of the Democrat machine, and talked former Louisville Mayor Charlie Farnsley into running in the primary election, with headquarters support. Norb ran as an anti-headquarters Democrat, but was defeated by Farnsley, who handily won the general election, defeating the incumbent Snyder.
Old Charlie didn’t really care much for Washington politics. He felt that it took too much time away from his two passions: Running the pro-Confederacy “Lost Cause Press,” and promoting his own brand of Kentucky Bourbon Whiskey, “Rebel Yell.” He didn’t run for re-election.
When 1966 rolled around, Miss Lennie had retired, and a new bunch—Leadership Effort for All Democrats (L.E.A.D.)—had taken over the Jefferson County Democrat machine. The Party adopted a more open organization plan, designed by Ed Jackson and Morris Borowitz, and youngsters like Todd Hollenbach, Skip Grafton, C’Allen Chauvin, Alice McDonald, and Steve Magre, started getting involved in local politics.
That year, Norb Blume was an easy choice to run for congress as the Democratic nominee. We set up the “Blume for Congress” headquarters in the Old Vienna headquarters building, with Georgia Davis (later, Georgia Davis Powers, the first female African American Kentucky State Senator) and Lukey Ward (whose little boy, Mike Ward, later was elected Third District congressman) in charge of organization. My job was to deliver posters and handbills to precinct captains.
But the Third District had been changed; Gene Snyder now lived outside the City Limits in the Fourth District (where he was handily re-elected to congress), and Norb had to face the popular Republican former Louisville mayor Bill Cowger.
Norb lost to Cowger by less than 500 votes. Two years later, Cowger was unseated by Democrat “Landside Ron” Mazzoli by 258 votes. Local elections tended to be close back in those days.
Refusing to leave the West End, Norb remained in the General Assembly until 1977, when he was defeated in a five-way Democratic primary race by Carl Hines Sr., an African American.
Sadly—and unfairly—it took more than 40 years for Norb to receive the recognition he deserved (but never sought) for his heroic stand in the civil rights struggle. In 2005, Blume was inducted into the Kentucky Commission on Human Rights Hall of Fame.
Limitations of space—and a reluctance to trade too much on a great man’s memory—prevent me from relating the flood of anecdotes which come to mind upon hearing of Norb’s passing. But I would be remiss if I left readers with the impression that Blume was merely a high-minded liberal lawmaker who stimulated the collective conscience of his Party.
Norb was a grassroots political organizer, par excellence. He knew more about the down-and-dirty art of precinct politics than anyone I ever met. One example will suffice.
One cold November morning in the 1960s, my friend Tom Hogan and I were serving as “special challengers” for the Democratic Party, down at a notoriously corrupt precinct on West Jefferson Street. It was General Election Day, and for the first time, Blacks were beginning to switch their historical allegiance from the Republican Party. A Republican County Commissioner, named Parky Archer, was at the precinct, handing out half-pints of whiskey to anyone agreeing to vote for the GOP.
Of course, Tom and I were outraged. We debated over whether we should call the police or the Election Commission, to report this corruption of the democratic process. Just as we were preparing to drop the dime (ask your Grandfather what that means) on old Parky, Norb drove up in front of the precinct, in his battered old station wagon.
“Parky Archer’s giving out half-pints!” I said to Norb, as he approached us. “I’m sorry, boys,” the 43rd Legislative District Representative replied, “I forgot all about you guys.”
With that, Norb reached into the pockets of his trenchcoat and removed two half-pints of Old J.T.S. Brown and handed them to Tom and me. “That should take a little edge off the cold for you,” he said.
I’m going to miss Norb. Good thing we didn’t call the cops.
Read more: An excellent memorial, written by Joe Gerth
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