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    On a December night in 1972, Martin Luther King Sr. took the pulpit at Southern Star Baptist Church on Algonquin Parkway, where a crowd had gathered to jump-start the mayoral campaign of west Louisville civil-rights activist Leo Lesser. “There are some white people in Louisville who in their hearts know that it is right, know that the time is right, for a black man to be mayor of Louisville, but they don’t have the moral courage to act and speak out,” King said, according to a Courier-Journal report about the rally. The elder MLK was himself a leader in the civil-rights movement, and he was among a coalition of confidantes who had persuaded Lesser to run for mayor.

    Inside the yellow brick church, King used most of his speech to denounce racism, urging support for school integration through busing, and highlighting the need for all people to overcome hate. “If anybody could be bitter, if anybody could hate a white face, I could be that man,” he said, referring to his son’s 1968 assassination by James Earl Ray. “But I’ve been saved, and now I don’t hate any man.”

    Lesser never took the stage that night, which by all accounts would have suited the humble pastor just fine, as he was far more concerned with effecting change than garnering praise. When Lesser officially filed to run for mayor in the spring of 1973, he told the C-J he sought to “remove the ‘coldness’ from government” and “generate a greater sensitivity to the human factor.” The issues he hoped to tackle in office — fair housing policies, employment opportunities, integrated education, criminal-justice reform — mirrored the causes he fought for on the civil-rights front. Despite a swell of support in west Louisville and among progressives citywide, Lesser’s mayoral bid was unsuccessful. He came in third in the Democratic primary, with physician Harvey Sloane nabbing the nomination and ultimately going on to serve two terms.

    In the face of disappointment, Lesser and a handful of his closest supporters were determined to continue advancing his platform. The method would be print media — specifically, a news and culture magazine shedding light on life in Louisville’s African-American communities. Named Black Scene, the first issue was published on Aug. 30, 1973, with a goal of highlighting both the tribulations and achievements of black Louisvillians. Black Scene’s editorial board explained its motivation and mission in the inaugural issue. The statement read, in part: Most of us were involved in an unsuccessful primary election campaign and became aware, during the campaign, of deficiencies in our community. This is our first step.

    In addition to the Rev. Lesser, the masthead featured a who’s who of social-justice champions, including John Johnson, a rising star on the city’s human-rights commission, and civil-rights attorney Robert Delahanty — both leaders on Lesser’s mayoral campaign. The volunteer-run magazine initially was published every couple months, but lack of funding eventually resulted in a sporadic printing schedule. Momentum further waned following the sudden death of Lesser in 1974.

    Black Scene ceased publication in 1976, as the careers of those involved became increasingly demanding. At the time, Johnson was gaining stature in the NAACP and on the local human-rights commission, while Delahanty was preparing to run for district judge. (Eventually, Delahanty became the first chief judge of Jefferson County District Court.)

    Over the past five decades, the short-lived magazine had been largely forgotten — that is, until last year, when 17 issues were unearthed in the Delahanty household. As a result of the discovery, a relaunch of the publication is forthcoming under the name Black Scene Millennium.

    “It was a treasure trove that just unexpectedly resurfaced,” says Katy Delahanty, granddaughter of the late Robert Delahanty, who died in 1993. At first, the Delahanty family sought to simply archive the original content, but as Katy pored over the old issues, she envisioned something bigger. Now she’s spearheading the multifaceted Black Scene Millennium project, which includes publishing four new editions that will revisit topics covered in the original.

     

    “Hold on, let me turn off MSNBC,” Dolores Delahanty says upon answering the phone. She returns a moment later, eager to recount how she and her son discovered a stack of Black Scene magazines while cleaning out an old metal filing cabinet in the basement of her Iroquois Parkway home. “It was like finding a treasure,” she says. “I had forgotten all about it.”

    She recalls how her husband Robert first got involved with Louisville’s civil-rights movement as a lawyer representing activists pro bono. “He was a very unusual white guy for the times,” she says. In 1967, he defended Lesser and several others jailed for contempt of court after violating a judge’s restraining order prohibiting nighttime marches. The following year, he was a defense attorney for the “Black Six,” a case in which six African-Americans were accused of conspiring to blow up oil refineries along the Ohio River. After two years of court hearings and massive public demonstrations, a judge dismissed the case due to lack of evidence.

    “He was very involved in defending some of the young people that got arrested during demonstrations for public accommodations and open housing,” says the 89-year-old widow, herself a social-justice icon in Kentucky, where she was critical to the passage of a law allowing women to secure loans and credit cards in their own names. She also co-founded the National Women’s Political Caucus and served as secretary of the Kentucky Commission on Women, so it’s no surprise when she matter-of-factly points out there were no women involved in the creation of Black Scene. This detail aside, she says, “It was an amazing group of men who came together to take a deeper look at social issues and point out major concerns of the community. The articles were very thought-provoking, very avant-garde for the time.”

    The magazine — about the size of a Reader’s Digest — included a diverse mix of content. Volume 1, issue 1, begins with a story titled “Unwanted Black Children.” The commentary suggests that the number of African-American kids in foster care had reached “crisis proportions,” adding, “It is little wonder that many such children, growing to adulthood without love and proper care, now populate our penal institutions.”

    Leo Lesser cared deeply about the issue of young black men becoming ensnared in the criminal-justice system. He sought to connect with these men by serving as chaplain at the city jail and serving on the board of First Offenders Inc., a nonprofit that offered “guidance to the first offender to make it his last offense.” The first cover of Black Scene reflected this commitment: artwork of a black man on death row.

    John Johnson recalls the image in vivid detail. “The cover of the first issue displayed a black child’s face with a tear running down its cheek,” says Johnson, one of Black Scene’s original editors, who now serves as executive director of the Kentucky Commission on Human Rights. “To some degree, the picture symbolized our hurt in the loss of the election, but more importantly, it also symbolized the concerns we had heard from many underserved, downtrodden, dispossessed and left-out citizens whose families had endured generations of neglect, disrespect and hopelessness.”

    Black Scene’s coverage was guided by concerns voters raised during Lesser’s mayoral campaign, Johnson says, and many of those issues remain relevant today. He rattles off a list of topics he’d like to see the revamped magazine tackle, including the school-to-prison pipeline, voter suppression, racial profiling, economic injustice, police brutality, lack of affordable housing and gun violence.

    In his official role as director of the state’s human-rights commission, Johnson recently penned a letter in support of Black Scene Millennium, a project he expects will address social equity, financial equality and discrimination, particularly in west Louisville. “We understand the challenges that face communities that live in disadvantaged urban neighborhoods,” he writes.

     

    When Dolores Delahanty found the long-forgotten Black Scenes, she reached out to her granddaughter for guidance. Katy Delahanty is a board member of the Portland Museum, so Dolores thought Katy might have ideas on how to archive the materials. “When I saw them, I just fell in love,” says Katy, an artist who also works as outreach director for Louisville Visual Art. “As I started reading more of the material, it seemed to percolate in a natural way, and it seemed that it should be bigger than just archiving.”

    With her grandmother’s blessing, Katy is embarking on the Black Scene Millennium project with the help of local journalist and author Michael Jones. (Jones writes for Louisville Magazine.) Together, they’ve outlined several goals, beginning with making the original content available online. The hard copies eventually will be archived at either the University of Louisville or the Western branch of the public library. This fall, they plan to publish the first of four new editions, which will provide updates on Black Scene stories that remain relevant today. The magazine will adhere to the ’70s aesthetic and use the original table of contents as a framework. Another goal is to commission murals of a few of the original covers in locations where civil-rights activity occurred.

    According to Jones, potential areas of coverage include redlining (the practice of denying loans based on a neighborhood’s racial makeup), revitalization of the Russell neighborhood and police-community relations in the West End, just to name a few. “We would look at these issues in the context of the old articles to see what has changed and what’s still the same,” he says.

    In addition to releasing four new magazines over the course of a year, the duo plans to publish a book featuring a side-by-side comparison of original articles and updated material, along with a coffee-table book that includes images of old and new covers accompanied by a recap of stories. They plan to provide Jefferson County Public Schools with copies of the books free of charge. “Everybody we talk to seems so hungry for this, because there’s not really a voice for the black community,” says Jones, who describes media coverage of west Louisville as often superficial. “There’s not a lot of context. That’s partly because of the 24-hour news cycle, but also because people just don’t know the history.”

    Both Katy and Jones agree that the purpose of Black Scene Millennium is not to bemoan what has not been accomplished over the past 50 years, but rather to constructively identify challenges that remain and to create an outlet for reflection. They’re currently lining up an advisory board and contributors, including a few individuals who were part of the original publication. Acclaimed local photographer Bud Dorsey, who has spent more than half a century photographing west Louisville for publications including Black Scene, has already signed on to participate.

    Dorsey says Black Scene was unique because it covered “the good, the bad and the ugly.” However, his preferred photo assignments were those that illuminated the West End’s rich culture and engaged community, as opposed to its flaws. “West Louisville has a lot of good going on, despite some bad things happening — especially the homicides,” he says. “Media coverage sort of has a negative overtone to it, so it’s a breath of fresh air to show that we’re still humans, we still like everything that other communities like — the arts, entertainment, social gatherings. I would love to help document that for the new Black Scene.”

    This originally appeared in the March 2019 issue of Louisville Magazine under the headline "Unearthed Treasure." To read more from our 2019 West End Issue, click here.

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