Driving through Shawnee Park last year I noticed a familiar face on the side of the road. It was the Rev. Louis Coleman shuffling through an array of items in the back of his disheveled van like a squirrel hunting for a sacred acorn. I pulled over to say hello, and the reverend gladly took a break from his spring cleaning. We spent the next few minutes talking, touching on a wide range of subjects — police abuse, Derby cruising, renaming 22nd street Dr. Martin Luther King Boulevard, and the generational divide.
Before I drove away he handed me a copy of “And The Walls Came Tumbling Down,” the autobiography of Ralph Abernathy, who was a close associate and friend of Dr. King. The book was sacrilege among members of the civil rights generation, mainly because it highlighted King’s extramarital indiscretions. Coleman suggested I read it.
Although I had seen Coleman several times since, he never once asked that I return the book.
Of all my Louis Coleman memories, I thought of this one after receiving a text message on Saturday saying he had died at the age of 64, after suffering a series of seizures.
The unexpected death of such a pivotal voice for change in the city has left droves of longtime friends and fellow activists reeling, and even those who criticized the often-divisive Coleman were stunned by the news. Several hastily planned memorial services are expected to attract well-known civil-rights leaders from across the country.
“I can’t think of a time I didn’t know Louis Coleman,” says Raoul Cunningham, president of the Louisville NAACP. The pair grew up together, with ties tracing back to their parents, who attended Central High School together. And while Cunningham says he participated in Louisville’s sit-in movement as a teenager in the 1960s, Coleman didn’t join the civil rights movement until later in life.
But after arriving on the scene in the 1970s, the ubiquitous activist spent the next 30 years fighting, often with his familiar bullhorn in hand.
While Coleman has garnered a loyal following over the years, it’s no secret that some critics will not miss the reverend or his brazen style of activism.
“Within the civil rights field you’re going to always have a certain number of people opposed to you,” Cunningham says. “Rev. Coleman represented a more confrontational style. He was a march-in-your-face type of person.”
Al Herring, director of the Muhammad Ali Institute for Peace & Justice at U of L, says what made Coleman so controversial was his persistent agitation on matters of racial justice. “The one thing he did that created such opposition was on the question of racial equality,” Herring says. “It was clear to him that racial intolerance and inequality was what weakened Louisville and sickened the moral heart of this community.”
Whether speaking out against police abuse, pollution in the West End, gun violence or minority contracts, Coleman was never at a loss for words. But while he’s most known for his tenacious outspoken tactics, Herring says there was more to the man.
“He was moved by faith,” Herring says. “People will remember him with the bullhorn, but I remember him on his knees praying before a march.”
What average observers won’t understand, Herring says, is that Coleman believed in racial equality, which was why he worked through a minefield of criticism.
Losing the chief agitator for civil rights in Louisville cannot be overstated. It subtracts from the community a voice and conviction that was not always right but remained steady. But regardless of Coleman’s intentions, such dramatic protests and in-your-face activism were at times imperfect, and didn’t always bring change.
“He was an extraordinary man in an ordinary suit,” DX Ashanta, a West Louisville resident who marched alongside Coleman, says. “I loved him like a father and will miss him greatly.”
Fondly remembering how comfortable the reverend was with himself, Ashanta recalls how he typically wore sweat pants and tennis shoes. On a more serious note, Ashanta told me in a voice message that Coleman’s death puts pressure on everyone who supported him rattling the cages — both openly and secretly — to step up and continue his activism.
“He would have us not to mourn,” Ashanta says. “He would call us to action.”