Living the Story: The Civil Rights Movement in Kentucky
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School Segregation and Integration

In 1904, Kentucky passed the Day Law, which mandated racial segregation in both public and private schools. Segregated education was legal until the 1954 ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka that the “separate but equal” doctrine was unconstitutional. Kentucky officials announced that they would live by the decision, but actual implementation was left to the localities.

Progress toward desegregation came slowly. By fall 1956, 75 percent of Kentucky school districts had devised desegregation plans, but only 50 percent of Kentucky schoolchildren attended desegregated schools—most of them under token “freedom of choice” plans. Large-scale desegregation would only be achieved with the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the 1965 Elementary and Secondary Education Acts.

In 1956, eight black students (including James Howard) enrolled at the previously all-white Sturgis High School. About 200 members of the National Guard and 20 state police troopers were called into the two small Western Kentucky towns of Sturgis and Clay to help quell the resulting disturbances by hostile whites. The black students were removed from the white school and sent back to the black schools for another year. Integration finally took place in 1957.

In many Kentucky communities, integration was a gradual process, with black schools remaining open until the mid-1960s. Between 1955 and 1966, 17 school districts were ordered to desegregate their schools after the NAACP filed suits in federal court. Integration meant that blacks would no longer have hand-me-down books and equipment and would have access to more courses. But it came at a high cost. Many black teachers were demoted or lost their jobs, and many schools in black neighborhoods were closed so that whites would not be forced to attend them.

By 1970, a process of re-segregation, based on residential patterns, was well under way. As a result, the American Civil Liberties Union filed lawsuits challenging racial discrimination in several locales, winning three major school cases: Hopkinsville, Lexington-Fayette County, and Louisville-Jefferson County. The Jefferson County case, a joint effort with other organizations, was one of the few nationwide where the court ordered cross-district busing to achieve racial balance.

In higher education, the Kentucky General Assembly voted in 1886 to create a normal school to train black teachers. Eventually it became a small liberal arts college with the name Kentucky State College, but it was always plagued by neglect, underfunding, and political intrigue, despite the official policy of “separate but equal.”

Meanwhile, other Kentucky professional schools were still segregated. And for degrees not offered at Kentucky State, the legislature voted to use state funds to help black students go to graduate school out of state rather than integrate other Kentucky institutions. That policy remained in place until 1949. One year later, new legislation allowed individual colleges to choose whether to desegregate at both the undergraduate and graduate levels, nullifying the Day Law.

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