For 30 years Gerald Smith has taught his students about the civil rights movement and race relations in America. In his lectures and his four books, Smith shares the stories of the men and women who came together in the 1950s and ‘60s to combat discrimination at polling places and at work, in housing and public accommodations.
Now in the face of a new wave of racial violence and lingering issues of police brutality, generational poverty, and mass incarcerations that disproportionately affect African Americans, Smith wonders when new leaders will emerge to unite Americans around a modern civil rights movement.
“I’m tired of the conversations, we need action,” Smith says. “We need people who are willing to come forward with the kind of courage to make change.”
Smith is a professor of history at the University of Kentucky and co-editor of The Kentucky African American Encyclopedia. He appeared on KET’s Connections in a special conversation for Black History Month to discuss racial activism past and present.
Even with the progress for equality made by earlier generations, Smith says blacks in Kentucky remain marginalized.
“You see us primarily on the football and basketball fields,” Smith says. “But when it comes to sitting on boards or in administrative positions, you see very few African Americans… What does that say about Kentucky, but more importantly, what does that say about African Americans?”
In the 1960s, blacks in Louisville, Lexington, Paducah, and other Kentucky cities united to fight for fair housing and open public accommodations. But once activists secured some gains in those areas, Smith says the movement slowly fell apart. He says the leaders of that generation failed to engage younger people in the fight or even explain to them why joining the NAACP or other civil rights organizations was important.
“With integration, we surrendered a lot in terms of the African American community,” Smith says. “We integrated to a point that we integrated ourselves right out history.”
At the same time, conservative Republicans took the White House, where Smith says they focused on “law and order” criminal justice policies and scaling back civil rights. Without visible leaders and strong organizations, Smith says blacks have difficulty effectively challenging racism today, even on local issues like development practices that put landfills and sewage treatment plants in poor and minority neighborhoods.
“We’re really not extending the kind of voice necessary to say, ‘No, we’re not going to take that.’”
Blacks in Church and in Sports
Smith, who is also a Baptist minister, puts part of the blame on black churches. He contends many pastors are reluctant to address race and social activism from the pulpit, opting instead to focus on messages of salvation. Smith says faith leaders like Martin Luther King Jr., who were so prominent in the civil rights movement, and the practice of prayer are missing from today’s activist groups like Black Lives Matter.
“But at the same time, I don’t want to romanticize the 1950s and ‘60s, because not everybody was with King,” Smith says. “Not only was he upset about the segregation he saw in white churches, but he was also quite critical of black clergy who refused to get involved.”
If King were alive today, Smith says he believes the civil rights icon would be an advisor to Black Lives Matter as well as advocating for other social causes, including the rights of Dreamers and other immigrants.
“The evils that he talked about on the eve of his death remain with us because we continue to bury our heads in the sand: militarism, racism, and materialism,” says Smith.
In addition to lecturing on King and the civil rights movement, Smith also teaches a class at UK about race and sports. He questions why, in 2018, athletics is still seen as the primary route for African Americans to find fortune and prominence.
Out of the 75 students who take his sports class, Smith says only a handful are black. He says his white students have an intellectual curiosity about race and want to be prepared to interact with a wide variety of people as they leave relatively homogenous Kentucky and move out into a more diverse world.
Something else missing from his sports class are student-athletes. Smith says that’s because high profile college athletes tend to lead lives that are isolated and insulated.
“There’s certain people that you do not want them to be in contact with and, quite frankly, there’s some information you don’t want them to know,” Smith says. “You don’t want them to become racially conscious.”
“As long as we can be trusted to shoot the last shot or throw the last ball, then fine, but don’t come here trying to change things.”
The Debate over Jefferson Davis
One recent issue that black leaders have brought to public attention is the placement of statues honoring Confederate soldiers and leaders. Smith is part of the effort to remove a statue of Jefferson Davis from the rotunda of the Kentucky Capitol. African Americans have long opposed the likeness of the Confederate president, but efforts to remove it gained momentum following a shooting at an African American church in Charleston, S.C., in 2015, and after white supremacists rallied in Charlottesville, Va., last summer.
Smith says the Davis statue is an “embarrassment to the state” and he calls it “a gross misrepresentation of integrity, of leadership, of honor.”
The state Historic Properties Advisory Commission, which oversees the monuments in the Capitol, voted in 2015 to keep the Davis statue but update a plaque on its base to more accurately reflect the Kentuckian’s role in the Civil War and as slave owner.
Smith says he continues to work with state legislators to seek the full removal of the statue.
“This is an issue about who we are as Kentuckians and how do we want to be represented in our state capitol,” he says.
During his run for governor in 2015, Matt Bevin said the statue should be taken from the capitol and placed in a museum. But last August, Gov. Bevin said removing Confederate monuments amounted to “sanitization of history.”
Smith rejects that notion, saying Kentucky still operates a state park commemorating the birthplace of Davis in Todd County, and the statue could be placed there. He contends the real sanitizing of history came in describing Davis as a hero, patriot, and statesman on the current plaque affixed to the statue. Simply changing that wording, Smith argues, doesn’t resolve the bigger issue.
“I think about the black athletes in particular in this state because Kentuckians love athletics,” Smith says. “What kind of message are we sending those African American kids… when more than 70 percent of Kentuckians say we want somebody in that state capitol who represented slavery and who was a traitor to this country.”
As they rallied at the capitol last August, Smith and the other black leaders sent a letter to the governor about taking the statue out of the Rotunda. Smith says he’s disappointed that Bevin hasn’t responded to their request.
“History was made when we had the rally, and nobody can change that,” Smith says. “As we write about history, then the story is going to be told about what we did and what he did not do.”