Merlene Davis: Event celebrates CORE activists and civil rights icons

Because most of the local news reports during the civil rights era focused on the Deep South, who can blame young people for assuming nothing similar happened in Lexington or in Kentucky?

But sit-ins did occur in Lexington. Marches did happen. And changes did slowly come.

Most of those protests were spearheaded by a group of black and white members of the Lexington Congress on Racial Equality or CORE.

While members of that group didn't experience the brutality suffered by Emmett Till or endure the cruel indignities meted out by staunch segregationist Bull Connor, they still had to muster the courage to go against accepted norms to gain access to stores and lunch counters in the Bluegrass.

Nieta Wigginton wants to make sure you know that and your children know that.

Wigginton has launched Whistle Work, a non-profit she said will offer educational and entertaining events for youth and the adults who nurture them.

"We blow whistles to get someone's attention and to guide someone in a different direction," Wigginton said. "When it comes to our youth, there is whistle work to be done."

Whistle Work's first event is "Aiming for New Heights & Celebrating the CORE of Kentucky's Civil Rights Movement," on Nov. 9 at the University of Kentucky Student Center Annex. It will focus attention on the local CORE activities and the people who risked their jobs, standing in the community and the support of family to encourage businesses to open their doors equally to black and white customers.

Gerald L. Smith, the Martin Luther King Scholar in Residence at UK, will talk about CORE's influence in Lexington and Kentucky.

Smith won the Richard H. Collins Award for his essay about CORE, published in The Register of Kentucky Historical Society in 2011.

CORE was founded in Chicago in 1942, but the first CORE chapter in Kentucky was founded in Lexington in 1959, Smith wrote.

Members of CORE kept meticulous minutes, he said.

"I spent hours and hours reading through that stuff," he said.

What he found was an interracial group of clergy and teachers from the community and UK who wanted to change accepted segregation in Lexington.

They held sit-ins at McCrory's and H.L. Green's dining counters in downtown Lexington, as well as Woolworth's and Kresge's. The managements refused to serve seated black diners.

The sit-ins were always non-violent, and "training sessions, Smith wrote, were organized to prepare demonstrators for verbal and physical abuse."

By the summer of 1960, Smith wrote, the lunch counters in downtown Lexington were integrated. So the group directed their attention on desegregating local movie theaters, and later to urging merchants to hire black employees.

Activities in Lexington soon spread to Louisville, Frankfort, Covington and Richmond where CORE branches were formed.

"Richmond was a tough city," Smith said. "It was called the Mississippi of Kentucky."

The main reason CORE succeeded in Lexington and other cities in Kentucky was its female leadership. In Lexington Julia Lewis is credited with maintaining the values of CORE and for reaching out to other organizations, including the NAACP led by Audrey Grevious. "The level of cooperation was just beautiful," Smith said.

That theme of cooperation will be central throughout the event at UK in November, Wigginton said.

She will introduce Dorothy I. Height to young people and highlight the role she played in building coalitions that would be united in the civil rights effort.

Height was president of the National Council of Negro Women from 1957 to 1997, and as such oversaw programs dealing with voting rights, women's rights, poverty and AIDS.

"She could pull groups together," Wigginton said. "She worked with CORE and with the NAACP on the national level, and she was one of the organizers for the March on Washington."

As a special treat to bring Height to life for the young people, the National Great Blacks in Wax Museum, located in Baltimore, will display wax figures of Height; her mentor Mary McCleod Bethune, who founded what would become Bethune-Cookman College in 1904, and the NCNW in 1935; assassinated Civil Rights icon Medgar Evers; and Kentuckian Whitney Young Jr., who led the National Urban League in 1961.

The display will be in the Martin Luther King Jr. Center at UK, along with artifacts from the Freedom Times-Underground Railroad and a collection of photographs taken by Calvert McCann which documented the activities of CORE when the local media refused to.

After the opening program and panel discussion, fifth- to 12th-grade youth are invited to attend workshops with subjects including economic empowerment, voting rights and the Underground Railroad.

Youth must be registered, have a signed permission slip and a photo release to attend. Lunch will be provided with the donation of a canned good.

"These types of events re-enforce the wonderful things they are learning," Wigginton said. "It offers another opportunity to share life and character skills.

"Students learn of Dr. King and Rosa Parks, because they will never have the opportunity to meet those icons," she said. "However, on November 9th, they will have the gift of meeting elders who as youth risked their lives to advance social justice in our community. Their reflections can impact the next generation if we give the generations a platform to communicate. This event offers this platform."

Wigginton is inviting all former CORE members to attend the event and be recognized.


What: "Aiming for New Heights & Celebrating the CORE of Kentucky's Civil Rights Movement," a recognition of a program that helped to open lunch counters, hotels and employment opportunities to blacks in the Bluegrass.

When: 9 am - 2:30 pm, Nov. 9.

Where: University of Kentucky Student Center Annex.

Cost: Free. Youth are asked to donate a canned food item.

Information and youth workshop registration: