George L. Burney Sr. (1928—2017): He kept the dream alive

Jul 5, 2017 at 11:27 am
George L. Burney Sr.

Every McDonald’s restaurant in America seems to have a breakfast club made up of old men who spend their mornings sipping coffee and solving the world’s problems. The McDonald’s at 28th Street and Broadway is no different. A few days after Christmas, about 10 middle-aged to elderly African-American men sat together in the front of the restaurant, near a television tuned to ESPN. Talk shifted between observations about the recently played UofL and UK showdown in the KFC Yum! Center and commentary on current events.

There was a pause in the conversation when George Burney walked in. Each member of the coffee group took time to greet him with a “What’s up, Mr. Burney?” or “It’s ole George.” The diminutive 87-year-old is a regular at these morning sessions, which is why he picked this restaurant for his interview with LEO. Burney put a folder of news clippings on one of the tables and got in line for his coffee. One of the other members of the group, a man wearing a postal uniform, spied this reporter’s notebook and exclaimed, “George Burney is a good man, and you can quote me on that.”

Burney certainly is known for good deeds. For more than four decades, he has served as president of P.R.I.D.E. Inc., a community fundraising group that helps Metro Louisville’s disadvantaged. P.R.I.D.E. donates Thanksgiving turkeys to nursing homes, makes sure poor kids have Christmas presents and Easter candy and hands out Wal-mart and McDonald’s gift cards to needy families. The group does all of this with a $6,000 annual budget and an all-volunteer staff of eight.

Without a doubt, P.R.I.D.E.’s largest and most important activity is its annual Martin Luther King Jr. Motorcade, which is celebrating its 43rd year. Burney says more than 100 vehicles took part last year. He’s expecting an even bigger turnout in 2015 with [then] Attorney General Jack Conway, a candidate for governor, as the Grand Marshall. Burney said the motorcade is a way to honor King and his message of nonviolence, but it is also a forum to spotlight contemporary problems in the community.

“Louisville has kept Dr. King’s dream alive for 43 years,” Burney said. “It’s more important now than ever. The theme for this year’s motorcade is ‘Stop the Killing.’ The white man is not killing us. These kids are shooting each other in the streets almost every night. I hear about a shooting seems like once a week. You’ve got to get together and talk to these kids. Tell them killing is not the way.”

In 2014, Louisville’s homicide rate increased by 14.6 percent. There were 55 killings compared to 48 in 2013. This was still lower than 2012 when the city had 62 homicides. The LMPD does not keep statistics on how many of these cases involved black-on-black crime, but Burney feels such incidents should be tracked. He said the source of the problem is the disconnect between millennials and members of the Civil Rights generation.

“Dr. King would not be pleased with the situation we have today,” Burney explained. “Kids do not know what we had to go through. They tell me all the time that they would not have sat on the back of the bus. They don’t understand that you could be killed if you didn’t sit in the back. We’ve come too far to be fighting each other now.”

Burney was born in a time when Louisville was still a legally segregated community. He grew up on Magazine Street in West Louisville. At the time, most white-owned businesses were cut off to African-Americans, who had their own business center around Walnut Street (present day Muhammad Ali Boulevard). Burney joined the fight against segregation in 1954, when he took part in a demonstration led by attorney Eubanks Tucker at the Greyhound Bus Station at Fifth Street and Broadway.

Burney took a faded Courier-Journal photo out of his folder and put it on the table between us. “This is where a white man spit in my face at the Greyhound Bus station,” he said solemnly. “Blacks were not allowed in the waiting room at the bus station, and Bishop Tucker (he was an officer at his church) got us together to protest it. He came to my house and said, ‘George, we going down to the bus station.’ I was in show business back then. I worked at night, and I had my days free, so the community found something for me to do.”

Burney had a long and successful career as a bandleader and professional dancer. As a child, he took tap lessons from Jewel K. McNari, a teacher who taught dance classes in a West Louisville settlement house at 16th and Chestnut streets. Burney became one of McNari’s Dancing Dolls, a troupe of students that performed at local events. He made his professional debut dancing on WAVE-TV with Cliff Butler’s band in 1948. In 1954, Burney became the first black disc jockey on WLOU-AM radio.

Burney’s big break in show business came when he was 21. John “Preacher” Stephens, a Louisville blues singer and a spoon player for the Henry Miles Jug Band, invited Burney to perform with him at a club in Cincinnati. This led to regular club dates in Cincinnati and Louisville, and eventually led him to travel all over the country and Canada. He met his wife, Barbara, now 71, when he was performing in her native Vancouver, Canada. She was 21 at the time with show business aspirations of her own. The couple still has property in Canada, and they live there part of the year but come back to Louisville in the winter so Burney can supervise his various activities.

Over the course of his show business career, Burney toured with comedians Bob Hope and Moms Mabley, and performed with jazz great Duke Ellington. Billed as George Burney and his Flying Feet, the dancer would jump over nine to 15 chairs on stage. “I played the Apollo Theater in Harlem with Moms Mabley,” he remembered proudly. “Bill Robinson (renowned African-American tap dancer and actor) came to see me that night. He talked about introducing me to some people, making movies and all of that. Nothing ever came of it, but I had a good career. God has really blessed me.”

Civil rights activism has always gone hand in hand with show business for Burney. In 1960, he was living in Seattle, Washington, when 25 law students showed up at his door at 10 a.m. They had heard about his involvement with civil rights in Louisville, and they wanted him to help them stage a protest at the local Woolworth store. Burney said the event opened his eyes to the possibilities for interracial action in the fight to end segregation.

“Blacks could go to the Woolworth in Seattle, but they couldn’t in the Deep South,” he said. “These kids wanted to desegregate all Woolworths, and I agreed to help. All of these white students behind me, and I’m carrying a sign that says: ‘Today and not tomorrow,’” Burney recounted. “This little 12-year-old white boy, everywhere I walked, he’d walk with me. I finally said, ‘What do you want?’ He said, ‘I want to carry your sign.’ I boohooed like a baby.”

In 1971, Burney retired from show business and moved back to Louisville. He founded P.R.I.D.E. that year and started a second career as a volunteer courthouse liaison. In 2010, the Louisville Metro Police Department honored Burney as Volunteer of the Year. At a dinner for Burney’s retirement from the courthouse, Kentucky Court of Appeals Judge Martin Johnstone, a former Jefferson County circuit court judge, admitted, “I was never quite sure of his official role. He was just always there helping someone. He might help with a lot of logistics, like telling people where to get bonds posted, or how a victim’s family can let their voice be heard.”

Another thing that Burney did when he returned to Louisville was join King Solomon Baptist Missionary Church at 1620 Anderson St. That’s how he got involved with the MLK Motorcade. The event was started by Rev. Charles Elliott, Jr., King Solomon’s longtime pastor. Elliott was actually friends with the slain civil rights leader. He grew up in Alabama and was mentored by Fred Shuttlesworth, the man who recruited King into the civil rights movement. Elliott told an interviewer for the Kentucky Human Rights Commission that he knew King was special from the moment they met.

“I knew he was anointed in some divine way because of my upbringing,” the pastor said. “I didn’t know what God was doing, but I knew God was doing something. King was studying for a law degree. No man would leave what he had to be treated the way he was treated,” Elliott said of King’s willingness to give up a comfortable existence for a greater good.

Elliott was the youth coordinator for the famous Montgomery, Alabama bus boycott that made King a household name. In 1961, he became a pastor of King Solomon. Elliott was one of several links that Dr. King had to Louisville. A.D. King, Martin’s brother, became pastor at Zion Baptist Church in Louisville in 1965. Both King brothers and Elliott took part in the 1964 March on Frankfort, a demonstration for open housing and voting rights in Kentucky. The March on Frankfort has been overshadowed in the history books by the 1963 March on Washington, where King delivered his famous “I Have a Dream” speech. But the Kentucky demonstration is no less significant in the fight for equality and human rights in America. It played a part in the 1968 passage of the Kentucky Civil Rights Act, which protected African-Americans in housing and public accommodations and gave the Kentucky Human Rights Commission the power to investigate potential violations. Kentucky was the first Southern state to pass such a law.

Elliott said King’s assassination affected him on a personal and spiritual level. “I was marching with King in Memphis before he died,” Elliott said in a phone interview. “I was not there the day he got shot. I had to get back to my church for something. But I met with him the day before. His passing affected me deeply as it did the whole nation. I put the motorcade together after that to keep his dream alive. This was before there was a holiday for him.”

The King Holiday was signed into law by Ronald Reagan in 1983 but not recognized in all 50 states until 2000. However, Elliott’s motorcade was an immediate success. After a few years, the logistics of planning the event became too much for him to handle with other duties. Elliott passed the responsibility over to Burney.

In 2015, the MLK Motorcade comes full circle. The event will end at King Solomon, where Elliott will lead a ceremony honoring King. Conway and other elected officials are expected to speak. St. Stephen Baptist Church Pastor Kevin Cosby and Metro Police Chief Steve Conrad will also be among the guests there to show their support for King’s legacy and Burney’s “Stop the Killing” movement.

“I was only 12 years old when Dr. King was assassinated in Memphis, Tennessee,” Conrad said in a statement. “And while at the time I was not fully aware of just what his legacy would mean to me or how it would affect my own future, deep inside I knew there was something in his message and in his actions that would remain with me forever. As Chief of Police, I try daily to incorporate Dr. King’s principles of nonviolence and the importance of justice for all into my decisions, and most importantly, into my actions.

“Celebrating Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.  Day is a great way for all of us to remember what Dr. King stood for and to give praise for the heroic acts of this great man who wanted nothing more than for us to peacefully coexist for the betterment of humanity.”

Burney is glad that the MLK Motorcade has become an annual staple for the community. But he’s not going to let the big event on Jan. 19 get in the way of his regular routine. Participants in the motorcade will line up at the 28th Street McDonald’s restaurant at 10 a.m. Anyone arriving early will probably find George Burney sitting at a table inside the restaurant shooting the breeze with some of the invited dignitaries.

“The Attorney General and I will be here drinking our coffee and talking to people,” Burney said with a laugh.“You know, I got to have my coffee in the morning.”