Attack of the activist – A longtime civil rights leader faces criticism for her latest outburst

A seasoned Louisville civil rights activist with a reputation for a quick temper has landed in trouble with the Kentucky Alliance Against Racist and Political Repression, perhaps for the last time. 

For years Gracie Lewis has worked to fight racism, but the feisty advocate’s longtime tenure with the Kentucky Alliance now is in jeopardy after she reportedly got into an altercation with a child, then berated the boy’s mother.

“Gracie had an inappropriate and totally out-of-line confrontation with my 13-year-old son and I approached her about it,” says Attica Scott, a fellow activist and coordinator at Kentucky Jobs With Justice. On July 21, she says Lewis verbally abused her son, Advocate, who was participating in the Arts and Activism Summer Institute at the Alliance.

Specifically, the 13-year-old claims Lewis accosted him for getting in her way, then waved her finger in his face and told him not to speak unless spoken to.

The boy’s mother says she approached Lewis about mistreating her son, and that she received the following threatening message on her answering machine the next day: “This is Gracie Lewis you black bitch. You better not never bring your skinny, narrow ass and get in my face again because I will kick your black ass. Peace.”

This isn’t the first troubling altercation Lewis, 60, has had on the job, but it is the first conflict involving a student, says Shameka Parrish-Wright, a Kentucky Alliance board member. “This is something the Alliance will have to deal with,” she says.

Grassroots organizations often accept “damaged goods” — those bruised and battered from years of activism — into their ranks because they bring considerable talent, Parrish-Wright explains. That being said, Lewis might have gone too far this time.

“When you act like that and you abuse people,” she says, “you should not be allowed to be a part of the organization.”

And that’s exactly the kind of definitive action Attica Scott would like to see taken.

“I think she needs to be barred from the building,” says Scott, suggesting Lewis has repeatedly been granted unwarranted special treatment. For example, she says the entire second floor of the Carl Braden Memorial Center is provided to Lewis two days a week to run a youth camp called Emerging Leaders, but that currently, there are no students even enrolled in the program. “It doesn’t make sense administratively or financially to give the limited resources to her with no participants,” she says. “But they favor Gracie and let her have her way.”

Those who know Lewis, however, say the matter is complicated because she’s a noted member of the civil rights struggle, part of a disappearing generation of outspoken activists. She’s been at the forefront of many of Louisville’s social justice causes and a bold critic on air pollution, police brutality and the desegregation cases that affected Jefferson County Public Schools. Lewis also has been prominently featured in a number of documentaries about the state’s civil rights movement, including The Kentucky Civil Rights Oral History Project.

LEO Weekly contacted Lewis for this story, but she would not comment.

Sources say Lewis was suspended for several days as a result of the incident, but K.A. Owens, co-chairman of the Kentucky Alliance, would not confirm the information. Instead, he provided a written statement that said the organization will decide how to resolve the matter in a timely manner once all the facts are gathered. “We assure everyone that the Kentucky Alliance will continue to provide a safe environment for volunteers, staff and the many guests of all ages from the community,” the statement read. 

Making the latest Gracie Lewis showdown more controversial than usual is the fact it took place during one of the Alliance’s most successful youth programs, and involved a student. The Arts and Activism Summer Institute teaches between 20 and 30 young people about social justice issues, providing opportunities for artistic expression and political education.

“From its inception, the program has enjoyed the Kentucky Alliance,” says Bani Hines-Hudson, who founded the summer institute in 2004. She chose the Kentucky Alliance for the program because she admired the organization’s work ethic, as well as its members and volunteers.

If the reaction of the program’s young participants to the Lewis debacle is any indication, they truly are learning something about activism. So far, 20 of the program’s students have signed a petition demanding that the Alliance discipline Lewis.

But some friends and fellow activists defend Lewis, pointing out that she’s dedicated her life to improving the community.

“The public shouldn’t get the wrong story about Gracie,” says Bob Cunningham, a longtime member of the Alliance and friend of Lewis. One of the organization’s first chairs, Cunningham says Lewis shouldn’t be cast aside.

However, he acknowledges that his friend has a tumultuous personality that could push talented newcomers away. 

“I love her,” Cunningham says. “But you cannot allow your brother or sister to burn your house down, no matter how much you love them.”