To Bring People Together: The Arts, Interracialism, and Black Power in the Louisville Freedom Struggle

Article excerpt

From 1965 to 1969 the West End Community Council, a biracial neighborhood organization, sponsored a series of arts festivals as a way to bring whites and blacks together in a creative and social atmosphere.

In 1966 a group of young black artists, frustrated with their inability to crack into the local gallery scene, invited white and Asian American friends to help them start their own, calling it the Louisville Art Workshop.

In 1967 a group of black teenagers and a white director formed the West Side Players and began performing socio-dramas with the goal of provoking dialogue between whites and blacks, and thus bridging the racial gap. These stories from Louisville, Kentucky illustrate the ways that arts and social action organizations explored the relationship between creative expression, race relations, and community. Each group used the arts to bring people together across the racial divide. Each also sought to foster creative expression, especially among poor, inner city minorities. However, each found a unique combination of priorities along a spectrum from art for art's sake, to art as one of many ways to address community tensions and foster relationships.

In the late 1960s the black power movement began to spread the call for a separate art and culture and, in some places, the rejection of white partners and integrated communities. The responses of these Louisville arts groups to black power were shaped by the priority each placed on the art itself, race relations, or community-building. However, while each group confronted the ideas of black consciousness and often incorporated them into their program, in no case did the members reject their interracial vision. Too often the popular understanding of the black freedom movement portrays a sharp divide between an early struggle to create an interracial community and a later black power movement that called for separate black institutions. In this paper I will use these stories to show that on the local level black power and the integrationist impulse, did not conflict. Instead, individuals and groups concerned about race relations and community found ways to incorporate black consciousness into their interracial goals. In Louisville, black power and interracialism coexisted and reinforced each other.

In the mid-1960s, as local campaigns for the desegregation of public facilities were drawing to a close and efforts to open housing were just beginning, Louisville's West End Community Council (WECC) proposed using the arts to bridge racial gaps and encourage integrated neighborhoods. The organization had initially fought panic selling and white flight. Members soon realized, however, that creating a true interracial community would require convincing people that integrated neighborhoods were positive living environments. Meeting in spring 1965, WECC members sought ways to "provide group activities to enable West End citizens to mingle socially," and decided to host an arts festival as a way to "bring people together." Festival organizers agreed there should be a balanced program, with white and black performers and participation by people from all over the city. While they wanted to encourage performances by West Enders, the priority was to maximize attendance and interracial social mixing.'

An estimated three hundred people turned out for what became the first annual festival. The program included a production of "A Midsummer Night's Dream"; musical performances ranging across jazz, rock and roll, folk, and opera; poetry readings and amateur skits; and over two hundred pieces of visual art. Organizers had hoped the chance to mingle would lessen racial tensions and lead to friendships. Festival organizers were proud of the "relaxed informality among all those who attended and a lack of tension and strain among performers and spectators." Most important, the festival proved that "all West Enders can live in harmony. That our West End [is] a true community-a place where people work together for the betterment of all. …