Some of the most moving and poignant stories of the civil rights movement are told by the people who lived them. They can look back on those moments and easily recall the smells, the emotions and the environment from which the stories evolved. And often, with only a little encouragement, those stories easily spring forth.
The Kentucky Oral History Commission realized that more than a decade ago and began the Kentucky Civil Rights Oral History Project, interviewing a diverse group of well-known and lesser-known people throughout the state. The intention was to publish those eyewitness accounts in a book.
Life, as always, interfered. The project director and primary interviewer, Betsy Brinson, left the state in 2003, handing off the project to Catherine Fosl, a University of Louisville associate professor of women's and gender studies.
Fosl soon realized the job was too big for one person and asked U of L history professor Tracy E. K'Meyer to help.
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The result is Freedom on the Border: An Oral History of the Civil Rights Movement in Kentucky (The University Press of Kentucky, $40).
"I think it does a fairly good job of being representative of more than just Louisville and Lexington," Fosl said.
Instead of a compilation of recollections that could get unwieldy, Fosl and K'Meyer culled through more than 100 interviews to piece together the most important aspects of a period in time and a region. They then introduced those chapters with their own essays that give context to the interviews.
Some of the topics include how blacks lived economically before and after desegregation; the fight for access to public schools and businesses, and the struggle to gain fair and open housing. In the 1960s — an era when struggle gave birth to a cultural explosion — how was black art displayed, since white galleries were closed to blacks?
How did black people, living in a very white state, manage to thrive under sometimes choking restrictions?
One of those interviewed for the history project was Wilfred Taylor Seals, a Sunday school classmate of mine.
He didn't recall the interview, conducted in 1997, but when I read him his words, he laughed and said it surely sounded like something he would say.
In the first chapter, "Life Under Segregation," Seals talks about the times when young black children would play sports against young white children at their respective parks. The blacks, coming from segregated communities such as Cadentown or Bracktown or Uttingertown, would notice the better equipment in the white parks, but that didn't seem to have much of a negative effect, he said in the book.
"What I think I was trying to say at that particular time," Seals said last week, "is that (segregated black neighborhoods) were very vital communities. I would stick to that now.
"While we knew there was a better way, a better lifestyle," he continued, "we enjoyed those relationships we had built (in the black communities). But on the other hand, now that I look back, maybe it affected us more than we thought it did."
Plus, he said, he might have just wanted to sound optimistic for the interviewers, who, according to Fosl and K'Meyer were more than likely white.
"When you tell people about nice things, about improvements, especially to white people, they tend to extrapolate that everything is good," Seals said. "You want to be optimistic and get along with people, but you really can't redo slavery and segregation in 50 years."
Those interviewed — about 75 percent of whom were black — might not have opened up as much or may have left out details of a story simply because they were looking into the face of a white person.
"We address that in the book," K'Meyer said. "It is a product of the moment, of two people having a conversation. It is a particular story that can be used in sparking more conversation."
Fosl and K'Meyer note that the race of the people involved in the oral history project might have handicapped the project for some people. All but one person involved in gathering the information and writing the book were white.
In the introduction of Freedom on the Border, the authors write, "These discussions revolve around the question of how well a writer/researcher can capture the experiences of any group that has faced discrimination if she is not a member of that population. We have attempted to do so here, and the value of our effort is ultimately up to the reader to decide."
Although I fully understand that some of the black people may have held back or changed memories to please the interviewers, the stories they tell are still quite vivid.
Lyman Johnson, who successfully sued to desegregate the University of Kentucky in 1949 and was interviewed by Fosl in 1991, talks about the beatings a black man would get from police for walking with a white woman.
Audrey Grevious, president of the local chapter of the NAACP during the 1960s, talks about how she insisted on non-violence during demonstrations in downtown Lexington to desegregate lunch counters. Although she suffered permanent damage to her leg when the manager of one store hit it repeatedly with a chain, she never fought back.
"Now you're talking about having some control," she told Brinson during an interview in 1999. "It took an awful lot for me not to take that chain away from him and wrap it around his neck. Because that's really what I felt like doing to that man. Then I thought that's what he would like for me to do."
Her brother, former Lexington councilman Robert Jefferson, said he wasn't made from the same non-violent cloth. He had to quit demonstrating because he wanted to retaliate.
K'Meyer also wrote Civil Rights in the Gateway to the South: Louisville, Kentucky, 1945-1980, (The University Press of Kentucky, $40), which was published last month. Some interviews she conducted for that work are included in Freedom.
"They are very different books," she said. "The Louisville book is a narrative, told from the scholar's point of view. This one is the voices of people telling the stories."
And that's exactly what Fosl wanted.
"I just want to give people a sense of the importance of (the movement), what happened, and how it changed us in a profound way," she said. "It's not that racism is dead. It is an unfinished story, an unfinished movement."
Fosl said she'd also like the book to spur others to write untold stories. "I want them to see there is a cool underside of history, the stories that don't get told, and have it be a launch pad for other research," she said. "At least one-third of the people interviewed could have a whole book to themselves."