One of the ‘Black Six’: people don’t change because you ask

The year when Manfred Reid Sr. was born, 1936, was the same year that the last Black man was publicly hanged by the justice system in the United States — and it happened in his home state of Kentucky. 

“So, my socialization as a child from my parents was being aware of the risk of being harmed by just moving around within the community where you lived,” Reid said. 

Thirty-two years later, in 1968, this lurking threat of unprovoked violence caught up to Reid, who by then was the owner of a profitable real estate business. A Louisville police officer attacked Reid with a blackjack while he was checking to see if a friend who was being questioned was OK.

Reid sustained several strikes and then was arrested. 

The officer was suspended at first but then reinstated by a Civil Service Board. This sparked what activists called the Louisville Rebellion: close to one week of protest from a Black community sick of police violence and racial inequality. 

Protesters received no concessions, and the city charged Reid and five other Black people, most of whom he barely knew, with conspiracy to destroy property and to blow up West End chemical plants. A judge found the “Black Six,” as they were called, not guilty, but Reid had already lost everything: his license, the business, his wife and support from the community.

Before 1968, Reid had actively supported the civil rights movement and had even worked with an attorney to eliminate restrictions for Black people who wanted to buy homes from white people. But, Reid didn’t consider himself an activist. 

“I never participated in demonstrations. You know, as a business person you just don’t do that,” he said. “… It just wasn’t my temperament to get involved like that.”

The events of 1968 sent Reid on a life journey that crescendoed with him becoming a Louisville affordable housing advocate, a role that he still fulfills at 84 as the long-time chair of the Louisville Metro Housing Authority.

In those same 52 years, the world has changed in some ways but remained the same in others, Reid observes. Police, he believes, are still at odds with the Black community. And, Breonna Taylor’s shooting death is proof of that. But, as Louisville is caught up in its biggest racial justice movement since 1968 — inspired this time by Taylor instead of Reid — he sees hope for progress.

SOCIETY’S JOURNEY

Reid believes the culture of law enforcement in America is the same as it was in 1968 when he was beaten by an officer. And, he says it’s the same as when publicly funded forces first emerged in the United States to protect property and preserve slavery. 

Essentially, police have never considered Black people to be human, Reid said, and their duty is to guard the white community from the Black community.

He was reminded of this when Louisville police killed Taylor, a Black woman, in a botched raid on March 13.

But, the protests Reid is seeing in response are different than what he’s witnessed before. The demonstrators are more diverse; the protesters during the Louisville Rebellion were mostly Black. Demonstrators also maintain a camaraderie that continues over time, Reid said. “We didn’t have that.”

Reid thinks Taylor, unlike him, will receive justice — that the police officers who shot their weapons will be indicted and, hopefully, convicted. 

There are aspects of the 2020 protests that worry Reid, particularly the reaction of the far-right, who have brought their guns to counter-protests. Black militias like the Not Fucking Around Coalition have done the same.

“This appears to me to be a precursor of a much more difficult time to come as a racial conflict between the races,” Reid said. “I hope that’s not true. But, if they’re both going around with guns — both sides — and the government being what it is today, it only takes a spark for a bunch of people to get killed.”

But, Reid thinks it’s possible for law enforcement to change if officials follow the lead of the community. 

“Law enforcement is an instrument of government,” he said. “So, the government has to begin to join the community in the initiating changes that create a tranquil community.”

Flash-points like Reid’s assault and Taylor’s death can create the opportunity for those cultural shifts. 

“People don’t change overnight,” Reid said. “And they don’t change because you ask them to change. There has to be circumstances in time that creates the opportunity by which people can begin to take consideration of their existence and find a new path.”

A PERSONAL JOURNEY

At 10 years old, Reid became an orphan. 

His mother and father had moved the family from Reid’s hometown near Hazard, Kentucky, to the Parkland neighborhood of Louisville in 1944. 

Reid’s father, a coal miner, died of black lung in 1945. His mother passed in 1947. 

Raised from there by his uncle, Reid knew he had to work to survive. 

Even before his parents died, Reid sold newspapers. From there, he transitioned to delivering groceries. Then, to selling shoes and working as a janitor at Holiday Shoe Store on Fourth Street. Reid’s manager fired him from that job after Reid praised the Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court decision. 

Reid had to drop out of Bellarmine College because he didn’t have enough money to stay in school. But, after getting married and having kids, a friend persuaded Reid to become a real estate salesman. They solicited home buyers for a realty company while studying for their salesman examination. Reid later passed his broker exam, too.

It was a fruitful time to start a realty company when Reid began his own business in his late 20s or early 30s. Almost every Sunday, Reid found himself showing houses.

“It was quite lively,” he said. “There was the idea of Blacks could buy houses anywhere in The West End, and that created a sense of excitement. And people wanted to get out on the weekends and on Sundays to see what they could find.”

It was also an important moment for civil rights. Black people across the country were calling for equal treatment. In Louisville, civil rights activists were organizing sit-ins at Fourth Street lunch counters.

THE ASSAULT

On May 8, 1968, Reid was driving east on Broadway with two fellow Black businessmen (Walter “Pete” Cosby and Luther Wilson) when they saw a friend being questioned by police. The friend was a Black teacher named Charles Thomas. Reid didn’t know this, but police said they had stopped Thomas because he was driving a car similar to one used in a burglary. 

Reid, Cosby and Wilson stopped the car and got out to make sure nothing happened to Thomas. “We were aware of the risk we faced just by trying to offer our assistance to him,” Reid said, “but we try to do that.”

They addressed Thomas, asking him if he needed help and watched as he got arrested. 

“We said, ‘We’ll come up and get you out on bail,’” Reid said. “Then, the one police officer, Michael Clifford, he jumped up and said, ‘Get out of the street.’ So, we started complying with him.”

But Clifford didn’t calm down. He took out his blackjack and hit Reid. By that time, around 200 Black community members had gathered to watch the scene, yelling from the sidelines, according to the UK’s Notable Kentucky African Americans database.

Reid and the officer tussled, Reid said. Another blow followed, possibly even a third or fourth one — Reid isn’t sure. He used his arms to shield himself. It would have been normal, expected even, for Reid to be mangled or killed by the officer, he said. But, the assault ended in bruises and a night in jail. 

The officer was suspended. Reid was left with a feeling that he did something wrong. It might have been over. But, something much worse was coming for Reid. 

THE AFTERMATH

On May 23, the Civil Service Board reinstated Clifford, and Black Louisville revolted. 

Over 2,000 National Guardsmen were called in. Around 400 people were arrested, two teens were killed and property damage abounded. 

Reid did not participate in the protests.

Although, one day, when the crowds came to 20th Street, he left his home to watch from a distance. 

As Reid watched the city burn in his name, he realized that he might be in trouble of his own. He tried to assess how much. After the protests, he got his answer. 

Reid found out by reading the newspaper that a grand jury convened by Commonwealth’s Attorney Edwin A. Schroering Jr. had indicted him and five other people for conspiracy.

Reid lived a mile from The West End chemical plants he was accused of plotting to blow up. And, he personally knew only one other supposed co-conspirator: Pete Cosby, his friend who he conducted business with. 

Reid knew of Ruth Bryant, Robert Kuyu Sims and Samuel Hawkins — all local Black activists who lived in the neighborhood. But, before the protests, he had no knowledge of James Cortez, an activist that Bryant and Sims had invited to Louisville for the protests. Bryant and Sims were members of the Black Urban League of Kentucky, which held the first protest of the Rebellion. 

Together, they were dubbed the Black Six. The reason they were indicted, Reid’s sure, was racism.

Their court case continued for around two years. A Louisville judge eventually ruled the Black Six not guilty. But during that time, Reid’s life had collapsed. 

The Real Estate Commission, a conservative organization, stripped him of his license. Everything else important to him soon followed.

No one wanted to associate with Reid, even the rest of the Black Six. If they did, it would just invite suspicion from investigators. 

“When they break you,” Reid said, “whenever you begin to lose your banking credibility and you lose your community support out of fear and you lose the family, you’re alone. And you just simply have to begin to try to rebuild your life.”

FROM BUSINESSMAN TO ACTIVIST

The court case that took everything from Reid also gave him a new purpose. 

Left with nothing else, Reid turned to activism. One of his first positions echoed his time in the housing business. He became a member of the West End Community Council, which attempted to curb white flight in Louisville’s Western neighborhoods. Reid joined while still fighting his court case. 

During that same period, he started working with Anne and Carl Braden’s Southern Conference Educational Fund, or SCEF.

To explain why he got into activism, Reid pulled out a resolution he helped pass at a SCEF Board of Director’s meeting. The first sentence reads, “The essence of freedom in any society is the power to determine policy both economically and politically and the control of cultural development throughout the community.”

“That’s what I wrote in 1970,” Reid said. “That was my perception of social change and economic change in The West End of Louisville. So, the more I realized the depth of those social issues that I was entangled in, I began to find support, counsel and direction through SCEF.”

Almost 20 years later, after Reid was forced to move into Beecher Terrace, he became the president of the public housing developments’ resident association. Then, Mayor David Armstrong appointed Reid to be a commissioner of the Louisville Metro Housing Authority. Since 2000, Reid has been the chair of the board. 

In his time on the board, Reid is proud of updating, and in some cases replacing, almost all of the city’s publicly-owned housing complexes: Cotter and Lang Homes, Sheppard Square and Clarksdale. Critics argue that some of these projects have displaced residents, but Reid stands by them. 

His time, though, is almost over. Following his business instincts, he’s focusing on how to set up the Housing Authority for the future.

“Based on the mission of the housing authority, how do I begin to participate in setting the stage for the future of housing production and an attack on poverty, providing livable wages and new ideas in terms of home ownership as it relates to marketing and financing?” Reid said. “These are the visions that we need to have for the future.” •