Living the Story: The Civil Rights Movement in Kentucky
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My two feet stride into a hundred
thundering footsteps
Marching to an uncommon rhythm of peace
a cadence of justice, equality
And all that is right

My one voice echoes into a chorus
a resounding chant
Repeating freedom’s sweet harmonies
of heaven-bound folk
With hell-bent conviction

If not now, when? If not me, who?

“If Not Now, When?” by Joan Brannon

What is required to bring about a change in society? An idea whose time has come? Skilled and charismatic leaders to articulate goals and plan strategies? Both of those are necessary, but they are not sufficient. True change happens when “ordinary” people, acting on the courage of their convictions, put the idea to work in their own lives. Through individual acts of bravery, a great movement can be born.

In the 1950s and ’60s, Kentucky and the rest of the nation were swept by such a movement, as African Americans—joined by sympathetic others—organized to demand legal and social equality. In Living the Story: The Civil Rights Movement in Kentucky, individual Kentuckians tell their own stories of what they saw, heard, experienced, and did then. Some were leaders and organizers, but others were simply people who wanted to enroll in a different school, move to a new neighborhood, or shop at a downtown department store. In the segregated society of the time, such seemingly mundane acts could require great courage. By finding that courage, and by standing firm for what they knew to be right, these ordinary people accomplished extraordinary things.

The Kentucky Oral History Commission, a division of the Kentucky Historical Society, started the Civil Rights Movement in Kentucky Oral History Project in 1998 to capture stories from the civil rights era. Dr. Betsy Brinson, project director for the commission, and Dr. Tracy K’Meyer of the University of Louisville have conducted and taped interviews with more than 175 participants in the movement. For the accompanying television program, producer/director Arthur Rouse and colleagues asked 15 of them to tell their stories on videotape. Our biographies section has brief background information on these individuals, plus several other historical figures discussed in the documentary.

Living the Story is not a comprehensive or definitive history of the civil rights era in Kentucky. Its purposes are to give contemporary audiences a sense of what it was like to be part of the civil rights movement, to encourage further exploration of the subject, and to inspire young people by illustrating the role people their age played in the movement. For more about the aims and the lessons of the documentary, here are perspectives from some of its creators:

Betsy Brinson, Kentucky Oral History Commission
project director; video executive producer

Arthur Rouse, Video Editing Services
video producer/director

Joan Brannon
video co-producer/director

Joan is also the author of the poem at the left. Other poems heard in the documentary can be found on the succeeding About the Project pages. Poems are used by permission of their authors; all rights reserved.

Living the Story > About the Project