Louisville Magazine

APR 2019

Louisville Magazine is Louisville's city magazine, covering Louisville people, lifestyles, politics, sports, restaurants, entertainment and homes. Includes a monthly calendar of events.

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LOUISVILLE MAGAZINE 4.19 61 A Race About Race e collision of the 1969 Derby, Richard Nixon and the University of Louisville Black Student Union. By Emily Bingham Photo of Alvin Bykes by Michael Coers, Courier-Journal Amid intensifying anti-Vietnam War sentiment and shifting political party alignments, the first (and still only) sitting president ever to attend the Run for the Roses provided an extra measure of pomp and circumstance for the 1969 Kentucky Derby. Churchill Downs welcomed Richard Nixon on his flying visit — about four hours from touch- down to takeoff. Supporters "mobbed" the commander in chief, according to the next day's Courier-Journal. But Sunday's paper also featured "Black Revolution" advocates protesting outside the main gate. One demonstrator carried a picket sign that read, "No. 1 pig Nixon set stage for others to brutalize black people." Days before the race, the New York Times published a feature titled "Derby Week: When the South Rises," which quoted Barry Bingham Sr., my grandfather, who was then publisher of the Courier-Journal and Louisville Times. He tried to sum up what made the Derby so special, calling it "a perfect blending of sentiment, suspense and superb spectacle." Track president Lynn Stone was more specific: "It's the South. It's the horses, the gambling, the tobacco, the whiskey. It's the river town, the farms, the mint juleps. It creates an antebellum image." On the track, the unbeaten Majestic Prince, a dashing chestnut colt, had his work cut out for him to vanquish the seven other horses in the unusually small field. Turf writers predicted a blazing pace and weighed the possibility that Majestic Prince's jockey, William Hartack, might win his fifth Derby, tying Eddie Arcaro for the record. But the ritual sporting event — and a national TV audience in the millions — made the Derby a natural target for protest. Two years earlier, in April 1967, Louis- villians fighting racial discrimination and segregation in residential housing boycotted downtown businesses. After the city's Board of Aldermen failed to pass an open-housing ordinance, an organizer quoted in the C-J predicted "open hell" for the Kentucky Derby that year. Festival officials scratched the annual Pegasus Parade for fear of violent unrest as Martin Luther King Jr. planned to attend a protest that would block traffic to the racetrack. en Ku Klux Klan mem- bers appeared at Churchill Downs offering to help "keep order." According to the Louisville Times, a Klan leader said, "ey either bar Negroes from Churchill Downs Saturday or find some other way to control them." Tension rose to such a pitch that King stayed away and the open-housing group canceled the demonstration. In 1968, a doping scandal disqualified winner Danc- er's Image. By '69, Churchill Downs had a lot riding on a smooth Derby Day. "Derby Dick," as famed New York Daily News turf writer Gene Ward dubbed the president, came to Louisville to fulfill a promise. While attending the most exciting two minutes in sports as a candi- date during the 1968 Republican primary, Nixon told his friend and host, Gov. Louie Nunn, that he'd come back the following May if he won the White House. Nixon breezed to victory in the Bluegrass State in November and would probably have won even more commandingly if third-party segregationist George Wallace hadn't been on the ballot. Democrat Hubert Humphrey, who had pledged a withdrawal from Viet- nam, finished in the dust. Nixon was also shining a little extra limelight on Nunn, the state's first Repub- lican governor in a generation. On his side, Nunn piggybacked on the president's prom- ise, persuading the Republican Governors Association to convene at a Lexington resort before the Derby, with the perk that they and their wives could attend the big race with the president. Jim Host, known today for helping create Lexington's Rupp Arena and Louisville's KFC Yum! Center, was 29 at the time and Nunn's chief of public information, tourism and commerce, and he organized the '69 governors' conference. Most everything went according to plan. Film producer Cornelius Vanderbilt Whitney and his wife Marylou hosted a glittering black-tie dinner at their oroughbred horse farm near Lexington. A group of funders presented to the governors group a $70,000 yearling sired by 1963 Derby winner Chateaugay. e same day, in a bit of political protest theater, an anti-poverty coalition arrived at the resort with what they described to the C-J as an "old and pretty sorry" mule that better represented the state of the economy in Kentucky, where, according to the U. S. Census, the poverty rate was 23 percent (compared with about 17 percent today). On the Wednesday before Derby, an updated Gallup Poll showed Nixon's steady 61 percent approval rating, and the Derby horses breezed for a few furlongs at dawn. Less than a mile from the track, members of the University of Louisville's Black Student Union were poised for action that put aside courtesy and flexed new muscles. For seven weeks, the BSU, which was founded two years earlier, had engaged in negotiations to increase black Louisvillians' involvement at U of L and make the college's offer- ings more relevant to African-American students. U of L's student body of 8,000 included 187 African-Americans, fewer than in 1951, when the school absorbed the segregated Louisville Municipal College. U of L's full-time black faculty could be counted on a single hand. e union called for developing a Pan-African studies program, additions to the library's woefully inadequate holdings in black studies, opening an office of black affairs, hiring black professors, scholarship money specifically for African-American students,

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