On May 8, 1968, a white Louisville police officer, Michael Clifford, pulled over Black schoolteacher Charles Thomas, who was friends with Manfred Reid, a West End real estate broker. Seeing his friend harassed, Reid confronted the police, who then beat and arrested both men. Clifford was suspended for brutality in the arrest, but on May 23, a Civil Service Board reinstated him.
After years of similar treatment, however, the Black community’s outrage reached a new high. Four days after the officer’s reinstatement, Black activists planned to protest.
It turned into what Louisville civil rights icon Anne Braden called the Louisville Rebellion, several days of confrontation with police and the National Guard.
It also led to the arrest of five Black men and one woman, who quickly became dubbed the “Black Six.”
Fifty-two years later, the underlying causes of the unrest still fester in Louisville and across the nation.
The Louisville Rebellion had burned out the Black commercial district at 28th Street and Greenwood Avenue, leaving a scar in the Parkland neighborhood that has not healed.
The yearly anniversaries of the unrest and continuing impact on West Louisville were well covered by the local media, with stories in the Courier-Journal and local broadcast news.
But there was scant attention to the later malicious prosecution of the six Black Louisvillians who were prosecuted for inciting the rebellion.
They were prosecuted by city officials under a fantastic legal theory with little connection to reality — a modern day inquisition that unfairly placed the lives of six Black Louisvillians in legal jeopardy for two years.
Their trial began 50 years ago this July, which also marked the second month of protests in Louisville over the fatal police shooting of an unarmed, emergency room technician, 26-year-old Breonna Taylor, during a botched raid that yielded no drugs.
The outrage over police brutality in 1968 remains today, if not more so.
And what is significant about the Black Six arrests and trial is that little has changed regarding law enforcement and the Black community in Louisville.
When drawing lessons, it is important to understand that all the legal mechanisms used by the police and prosecution against the six are still available to authorities. Vague conspiracy charges, exploitation of gun laws, punitive use of bail, abuse of grand juries — all are still available to the overreaching prosecutor.
The Black Six get charged
A new group, Black Unity League of Kentucky, or BULK, had planned the protest for May 27 near 28th Street and Greenwood Avenue in the Parkland neighborhood. Seeking to engage more young people, BULK leaders Robert Kuyu Sims and Ruth Bryant asked James Cortez, a member of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, or SNCC, if he could come to Louisville. Cortez had led them to believe he would bring Black power leader Stokely Carmichael but, in fact, he never contacted the former SNCC chairman.
But the rally was spirited; photos show Cortez and Hawkins speaking from atop of a car to a large crowd. Cortez told his audience that police were keeping Carmichael’s plane from landing. As the crowd was breaking up, knots of young people began to throw rocks.
Police charged in, and several days of unrest ensued.
The National Guard was called in and eventually order was restored after significant property damage around the city and the loss of two Black lives. A signature image of the event is of a defiant Black man calmly lighting a cigarette in front of a spiky line of bayonets held nervously by young National Guardsmen.
After the unrest, Mayor Kenneth A. Schmied and Commonwealth’s Attorney Edwin A. Schroering Jr. were determined to prosecute someone for the damage.
Unable to accept the organic nature of the unrest, Louisville’s white leadership sought to prosecute a cross-section of the African American activist community for planning the disturbances. The Black Six were indicted for conspiring to start a riot and blow up West Louisville chemical plants — a conspiracy hatched in the fevered imagination of Louisville’s white establishment, driven especially by Schmied and Schroering.
Schroering kept the defendants lives in abeyance for over two years in a flimsy case that fell apart at trial and was dismissed by Judge S. Rush Nicholson after a motion for a directed verdict. Nonetheless, by exploiting the prosecutorial tools of the state, the authorities were able to wear down and neutralize political activists.
In the words of Ann Braden, the city “ignored the basic social problems” behind the unrest, including police brutality in The West End, and instead focused on the “outsider” Cortez, the Bradens (their usual suspects) and BULK.
They first arrested Cortez. His hotel room was raided, and police conveniently found a sawed-off shotgun at which point he was charged with federal weapons violations.
Schroering then convened a grand jury that indicted Cortez and five others for a conspiracy to blow up West End chemical plants and to destroy property. In addition to Cortez, the grand jury indicted:
— two local, Black power activists, Sims and Samuel Hawkins,
— Bryant, a middle-class civil rights activist who happened to live with her family right across the street from the plant she was alleged to have planned to blow up,
— Reid (whose arrest had started the conflict),
— and Walter T. ”Pete” Cosby.
In one sign of the contrived nature of the alleged conspiracy, Cosby, a business partner of Reid’s, had never even met some of his alleged conspirators.
Why it happened
In extraordinary times of turmoil, the threat of political repression is heightened. The norms of “respectful debate” are disrupted by political conflicts so existential to the status quo that government uses its police powers to suppress democratic dissent.
Nowadays, the 1960s and early 1970s have a tie-dyed glow about them but those days weren’t all Beatles’ songs and day-glo Jimi Hendrix posters. The McCarthy era was over but most of the instruments of political repression remained. To counter the civil rights movement and the mobilization against the Vietnam War, federal and state officials often joined forces.
The House Un-American Activities Committee or HUAC, was still operating and by the 1960s it was under control of conservative Southerners who saw communism behind both movements. FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover shared this belief and directed his agents to harass both the nonviolent protests of King and the more militant Black Power movement, using a special unit, COINTELPRO to plant agents to infiltrate, spy on and disrupt Black organizations.
The repression of purported communists and Black activists of all political shades was taken up locally by Kentucky police and prosecutors.
Louisville was no better
In 1954, Anne and Carl Braden were prosecuted as communists under the state sedition law. The Bradens had bought a house near Shively, an all-white neighborhood of Louisville, and deeded it over to a Black couple, Andrew and Charlotte Wade. White segregationists harassed the family, shot out the windows of the house and burned a cross in front of it.
They finally drove the Wades out of the home by bombing it.
Instead of tracking down the bombers, prosecutors arrested the Bradens and eventually convicted Carl Braden. Released on appeal, he later would be prosecuted by HUAC for contempt of Congress.
Ordinary African Americans in 1968 faced a long history of small indignities and larger repression by Louisville police. Historian George C. Wright has chronicled a depressing history of police harassment of Black citizens of Louisville from the end of the Civil War up to the mid-20th century.
A white newspaper in 1910 explained that the purpose of the harassment “was to establish in every home of a Negro man or woman in this city a condition of terrorism, a living fear of the billy and the revolver.”
That same year the NAACP’s The Crisis expressed it this way: “The policemen act upon the assumption that the Negro has no rights, civil or political, that a police bully is bound to respect.”
Despite the introduction of Black officers in the 1920s, Louisville police harassment continued well into the civil rights era. In 1968, a Black police officer confided to the Louisville Defender that the police department is “led by known Klansmen. … There’s more race hate on the police force than there is outside.”
While cities like D.C., Chicago, Cincinnati, and Kansas City rioted in the aftermath of the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. on April 4, 1968, Louisville maintained an uneasy peace. But feelings were still raw from the long open-housing protests (which saw an appearance by King in 1967). The administration of Mayor Schmied (whose Republican party had sought to block the new housing discrimination law) did nothing to ease smoldering tensions.
But what sparked the May riot was a case of police harassment and brutality all too common in Louisville and the fact that — after the briefest of suspensions — the police officer who beat and arrested two Black businessmen was cleared of misconduct. This reaffirmed to many African American Louisvillians that no matter how hard they strived for middle-class respectability, the institutions of the city government placed controlling Blacks above their dignity.
The Black Six trial
A multiracial coalition was organized to support their legal defense and the Bradens’ Southern Conference Educational Fund, or SCEF, kept the pressure on Louisville’s white community. The plight of the Black Six also attracted a group of lawyers that would distinguish themselves in future.
Three of Louisville’s leading African American attorneys made appearances in the case. Neville Tucker, a Democrat who in 1969 became the first Black ever elected a Louisville Police Court judge, represented several defendants. Benjamin “Ben” F. Shobe, who served as judge of the Jefferson Circuit Court from 1977 to 1992, represented Bryant. (James A. Crumlin, Jr, a former president of the Kentucky NAACP who had sued to integrate UK in 1948, was an assistant commonwealth attorney.)
Cortez was defended by Daniel “Dan” T. Taylor III, the late stalwart of the Kentucky Civil Liberties Union, or KCLU, who at one point alerted the court that the defense team might include William M. Kunstler, whom The New York Times called “the country’s most controversial and, perhaps, its best-known lawyer.” Future Louisville Alderman Bill Allison (a civil rights attorney whose later firm Allison, Soreff and Garber would win a major case against the Louisville police department on behalf of Black police officers) also joined the KCLU team.
The prosecution dragged on for almost two years.
The case was moved to Munfordville to secure a “fair” trial — which supporters of the Black Six thought was an attempt to get a white, rural jury.
Two SCEF activists sent a letter to every household in the city — which led to their prosecution for jury tampering. While KCLU attorney Allison got that case dismissed, it was enough to get the case bounced back from Hart County to Jefferson County.
Judge S. Rush Nicholson caught the returned case in late February 1970 and determined to try it without more unnecessary delay. “I am convinced … that we can have a fair trial in Louisville,” he told reporters. He shuffled his docket, moving a murder and an armed robbery trial to set a June 22 trial date. Barring TV cameras from his courtroom, he also ordered attorneys not to discuss the case with the press.
After nine days, in which the prosecution could never place the six alleged conspirators in the same place, the trial ended. The defense moved for a directed verdict, arguing that the prosecution had failed in its minimal obligation to prove enough of a case to take it to the jury.
As defendant Cosby — a person whose name was never once mentioned by a witness during the whole trial — sat listening, Nicholson found that prosecution had not proved its case and declared the defendants not guilty.
No Winners, Some Lessons
The Black Six were not winners.
Cortez was in federal prison on firearms charges.
Cosby and Reid’s real estate business was in bankruptcy.
Hawkins and Sims had lost any idealism about the American political system.
Bryant, on the other hand, remained active in her community up to her death in 2013. She was inducted into the Kentucky Civil Rights Hall of Fame in 2003. Her daughter, Cheri Bryant Hamilton, would serve on the city council.
Manfred Reid would lose everything and end up in public housing where he became an avid activist for residents. In 2017, he received the Mayor’s Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Freedom Award for his years of work as an advocate for affordable housing in Louisville.
And now — today
There are signs nationally that a new repression of Black activists is underway.
In an episode reminiscent of the COINTELPRO era, in 2018 the FBI arrested Black activist Rakem Balogun for his Facebook posts criticizing the police, claiming they proved he was a “Black identity extremist,” a designation that the Trump administration has invented to target Black political organizers as if they were terrorists.
The case fell apart — a FBI raid on Balogun only turned up legally acquired firearms and books — but it is a chilling echo of the potent powers of a federal government bent on punishing dissent.
And from Portland, Oregon to Washington, D.C., federal law enforcement continues to track Black activists.
In the recent Justice for Breonna demonstrations and marches, the militarized Louisville Metro Police Department has targeted journalists and used confrontational tactics against protesters. It has spent more than $300,000 on pepper balls, grenades, and flashbangs, and used tactics so aggressive that the ACLU has filed suit.
And in another echo of the past, on June 1 a state National Guard member killed Louisville restaurateur David McAtee, recalling the four protesters slain by the Ohio National Guard at Kent State in 1970.
The most depressing lesson of history is what has not changed in 50 years — or even since 1910. In 2020, police still have African Americans in what Georgetown law professor Paul Butler calls the “chokehold” of over-policing.
These are the daily tools local police have historically employed to harass Blacks and poor people: traffic stops for minor offenses like defective equipment and petty charges like loitering, trespass and disorderly conduct.
And serving midnight no-knock warrants.
However, the stubborn notion that African Americans have no civil rights that the police are “bound to respect” has outraged young African Americans and was the genesis of the Black Lives Matter movement.
The fact that despite this long history, yet another generation of Black activists have taken up the struggle is one thing we can take heart from. •
Correction: This story has been updated to include the correct name for the Black Unity League of Kentucky.