Two Horses, Two Races: The Civil Rights Movement Goes To The Kentucky Derby

Every year for the past 55 years during the week leading up to the Kentucky Derby, Louisville has hosted one of the nation’s largest parades, the Pegasus Parade. Every year but one. In 1967, the parade and all the other traditional “Derby Week” events were cancelled. That year, instead of the usual festival and fanfare, tension was in the air. Civil rights protests and counter-protests had brought the city to the brink of full unrest. As race day approached, Louisville’s mayor asked the governor to call in the National Guard to help police Churchill Downs. The Ku Klux Klan had announced they would also be in attendance at the race in full regalia, ready and willing to stop any potential disruption.

Against this backdrop, a thoroughbred racehorse named Proud Clarion arrived from Lexington to stable at Churchill Downs.

It was fitting that Proud Clarion would arrive to a city forgoing fanfare. He wasn’t supposed to be there. The horse hadn’t won a single stakes race in his two years of racing. He had never run the mile-and-a-quarter distance of the Derby, and most of his wins were in short sprint races. He had just run a surprising second in the Blue Grass Stakes at Keeneland racecourse in Lexington a few weeks before. This win somehow instilled his trainer, Loyd Gentry Jr., with enough confidence to enter him in the Run for the Roses. Gentry’s bid was ridiculed by horsemen all over Louisville. So much so that one week out from the biggest race of his (or Proud Clarion’s) life, Gentry still hadn’t found a jockey to take the mount.

As Gentry searched for a jockey, it was far from a lock that the city would even have a Derby at all.

***

If it were up to Hosea Williams, there wouldn’t have been a Kentucky Derby that year. For a while it seemed like it might actually be up to him, too. Williams was one of the country’s foremost organizers and agitators, and he had come to Louisville that year to kick up some serious dust.

When Williams arrived in Kentucky in February of 1967, the city was actually known around the country for its progressive stance on civil rights. One of the only major Southern cities to integrate their schools without incident, Louisville had escaped much of the unrest and protest that had spread across other Southern urban centers in the ’60s. But in 1967 all of that was changing, and African-American Louisvillians found themselves taking to the streets, marching, sitting-in and facing arrests.

For three years, civil rights leaders in Louisville had been pressing the board of aldermen to pass a bill to make it illegal to refuse to sell or rent property based on race. Since desegregation, white flight had had a dramatic impact on the city, and housing discrimination was further exacerbating the city’s racial divide. A group of influential black ministers and civil rights leaders formed the Committee on Open Housing (COH) to organize a protest movement in support of the fair housing bill. After suffering several defeats, the COH were ready to give up on lobbying the board of alderman and turn to the kinds of tactics that had been so effective elsewhere in the civil rights movement. Led by Rev. A.D. King—brother of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.—the committee asked the Southern Christian Leadership Council (SCLC) to send them some help. The SCLC sent them Williams.

Hosea Williams was a creative organizer, a veteran of seminal civil rights battles like the Birmingham Project-C campaign, the Montgomery Bus Boycott and the Battle of the Bridge in Selma. Upon his arrival in Louisville, he huddled up with the committee’s leaders to discuss strategy. His recommendation: that the protests should target the people in a position to help the fair housing law pass—that is, the city’s aldermen, the mayor, as well as members of the Concerned Citizen’s Committee, a politically influential segregationist group.

In the first week of March, the campaign kicked off with a march to Mayor Kenneth Schmied’s furniture store. In the following weeks there were further marches and demonstrations in front of the aldermen’s homes. The aldermen lived in all-white neighborhoods, and the marchers were often met by jeering crowds of angry residents.

The campaign soon grew even more provocative. On March 14, the COH held a sit-in during a meeting of the board of aldermen. Police reacted brutally—stomping on participants and dragging them down the stairs of the courthouse. Their actions fanned tempers, as the community reacted to the sight of children and elderly women being physically assaulted and mistreated.

Attempting to quell the protests, Mayor Schmied was quick to lay the blame on “outsiders,” specifically calling out the SCLC organizers that had come to Louisville. This got the attention of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. He wired Schmied a telegram which praised Louisville’s “reputation for pioneering in social progress” while also condemning the attacks on protesters and the city’s refusal to pass fair housing legislation.

In order to give the issue some national attention, Dr. King decided to bring the national SCLC board meeting to Louisville. On March 30, he led a march and rally of nearly 400 people, effectively putting the opponents of fair housing in Louisville on notice that he and the SCLC were making this fight a national priority.

Following Dr. King’s visit, A.D. King decided the COH should hold their marches to aldermen’s homes nightly. In Luther Adams’s Way Up North in Louisville, A.D. King is quoted as saying that the marchers were just out “home shopping” in the aldermen’s neighborhoods. “You can’t buy anything until you’ve looked at it,” he joked. The counter-protests turned uglier. After one of the nightly “home shopping” marches, police reportedly confiscated Molotov cocktails from a group of young whites.

The COH’s protests continued through April. Mayor Schmied passed ordinances to make it easier for police to arrest demonstrators; hundreds of protesters were thrown in jail, emptying COH’s reserves as the organization was forced to post bail for so many of its members. During one protest, A.D. King was hit in the head by a rock and his teenage daughter knocked to the ground. Hearing of the incident, Louisville native Muhammad Ali—who had recently announced his decision to defy the draft—rushed home to show his support for the fair housing movement.

Ali wasn’t the only celebrity who came to town to support the movement. Comedian-turned-activist Dick Gregory showed up as well. In fact it was he who first brought up the idea of disrupting the Kentucky Derby. At a protest outside the jail that held a young SCLC organizer, Gregory said, “I ain’t going to lay down in front of a horse myself but there’s a lot of cats that will. If it comes to closing the Derby up, we’ll just have to close it up.”

The idea made many of the movement’s leaders—including A.D. King and Anne Braden (a prominent white civil rights and labor activist who had made national headlines after purchasing a home in an all-white neighborhood for a black family who had previously been denied the right to buy there)—nervous. They knew that shutting down the Derby—an almost religious institution in Kentucky—would be perceived as an unforgivable transgression. But others, Williams most vocally, took up the idea. Williams strongly believed that the threatening to shut down the Derby was precisely the leverage the movement needed. And he wasn’t bluffing, either. Williams believed that if the group threatened to shut down the Derby, they had to be prepared to follow through.

“Derby or no derby,” he said, “there’s going to be some hell in Louisville until a housing bill is passed.”

Williams proposed a number of tactics for disrupting the Derby. Tactics such as “drive-ins,” during which activists would flood the streets around Churchill Downs with their own cars, driving as slowly as possible in order to create a traffic snare that would prohibit horse owners from getting their mounts to the post in time. He also advocated that, once the race started, a group of protesters actually move onto the track and hold a sit-in on the stretch in order to stop the race altogether. Many members of the COH wanted instead to simply call for a boycott of the Kentucky Derby, hoping the threat of lost revenue would be enough to pressure the city aldermen. Others still felt that the Kentucky Derby was off-limits and they should avoid targeting it at all.

***

One week out from the Kentucky Derby, and the groups hadn’t reconciled. But as a nod to Williams and his supporters, the COH’s leadership agreed to have the nightly marches wind from white neighborhoods to end at Churchill Downs. Reprisals were swift. Hundred of marchers were rounded up and arrested in the racetrack parking lots, A.D. King and Anne Braden among them.

With many members of the COH leadership in jail, Williams was able to take the reins. He called for “trial runs” of some of his direct-action tactics.

As Proud Clarion and other Derby hopefuls arrived in Louisville they encountered traffic jams all around the track. Horses slated for weekday races were forced to “scratch” when they were unable to reach the track in time for the post. The Monday before the Derby, five young men, including Robert Sims, a SCLC organizer, were on the apron near the stretch watching the day’s races. During an afternoon race, as the horses entered the back stretch, Sims and the others climbed over the rail, scuttled out into the middle of the stretch of the race course, and sat down in the dirt. As the horses rounded the turn into the final stretch run, their surprised jockeys pulled up tightly on their reins, bringing the race to a dead-stop.

The young activists were arrested, and the city of Louisville had their first glimpse of their worst nightmare—what could potentially be the scene on the First Saturday in May.

Local civil rights leaders were nervous about Williams’ “trial run” gambit, and they braced themselves for the reaction. But the reaction, while coming fast, wasn’t what they’d feared. “It exploded, and it exploded in our favor,” recalls Hal Warheim, a local activist, in Freedom on the Border, a collection of oral histories. “That Monday night the church was packed full of enthusiastic people who, I guess, finally realized that we were for real, we were serious, we were damn serious, dead serious, and would go to any length to get this ordinance. It just mysteriously pumped new energy into the movement.”

Mayor Schmied made no attempt to negotiate an eleventh-hour settlement. Instead, he panicked and asked the governor to send in National Guard troops. The Ku Klux Klan announced it would also be attending the race in force. As King and other members of COH leadership were released from jail, the city had already shut down Derby Week and was preparing for riots on Derby Day.

Concerned that Williams had gambled too high and lost, King called his brother back to Louisville to help diffuse the situation. The day before the Kentucky Derby, Dr. King appeared before a crowd of several hundred protesters and announced that the Committee for Open Housing would not make any effort to disrupt the Derby. Organizers, he said, would instead hold a march in downtown Louisville, quite possibly the most deserted downtown street in America on the First Saturday in May.

***

The 1967 Kentucky Derby was held on a rainy, humid day. The oppressive weather seemed suited for an event attended by over a thousand armed soldiers, police and Klansmen. However, the oppressive weather didn’t quite suit Damascus, the odds-on favorite to win the race. Before the race began, Frank Whiteley Jr., Damascus’s trainer, remarked that his horse was uncharacteristically sweating. Whiteley believed that his own anxiety that day probably affected his horse as well. “I don’t know what got him stirred up, but he was stirred up,” Whiteley said. “I was tense. You can pass that on to your horse.”

Proud Clarion felt no such tension. His blue-collar race history belied his fancy pedigree. He had only one big-time stakes race under his collar, and not a single stakes win in his life. He landed a jockey, Bobby Ussery, just two days before the race. And he was heading in to the race at 30-1 odds. Nobody believed in Proud Clarion. Like the working-class citizens of Louisville’s black community, Proud Clarion had not a lot to lose, but a whole world to win. Unlike the Committee for Open Housing, though, Proud Clarion pulled no punches on Derby Day.

As the 1967 Kentucky Derby unfolded, both Damascus and Proud Clarion raced in the middle of the pack, settling in behind the front running Barbs Delight. Both horses’ jockeys waited until the final turn to kick it in to gear and make their move. But as the horses rounded that turn into the final stretch—the same turn that days before had brought Robert Sims and his cohorts into the jockeys’ view—it was Proud Clarion who found his higher gear. He rocketed past Damascus, maneuvered into the middle of the stretch, and in swift, workmanlike fashion narrowed the gap between Barbs Delight and the rest of the pack. Proud Clarion won the Kentucky Derby by a single length in record time, and he did it at odds of 30-1. There had been no protests, no riots, no arrests. Everyone assembled—fans, horsemen, soldiers, and Klansmen alike—were in collective shock.

***

The decision to not disrupt the Derby bought the Committee for Open Housing and Dr. King no goodwill. The board’s position on the ordinance remained unchanged, and the board and mayor showed less willingness than ever to negotiate. When Dr. King returned to Louisville weeks later to try to help reignite the protests, he was struck by a rock thrown by a protester. He carried the rock to a rally at a church that night, held it before the assembled crowd, and declared, “Upon this rock we are going to build an open city. [We will] create a crisis so great that this city will have to respond.”

In truth, the weeks and months following the 1967 Kentucky Derby saw the Committee for Open Housing’s demonstrations draw fewer and fewer participants while meeting greater, and more violent, resistance. Eventually, the marches and other elements of the direct-action campaign were abandoned in favor of a new strategy. The Kentucky AFL-CIO and the local Democratic Party met with COH leaders and hatched a deal: if the COH would register black voters in Louisville and turn them out to vote the Democrats on to the board of aldermen, the Democrats would pass the fair housing legislation they wanted. The COH agreed and, in 1968, the Democrats took control of the board of aldermen. They made good on their promise, passed the ordinance, and the Committee on Open Housing took the success of their campaign on the road, registering voters across the state and pushing for what would later become the Kentucky Fair Housing Act.

***

In April 1968, Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated in Memphis. That same week, at Bowie Race Course, a horse called Dancer’s Image won the Governor’s Gold Cup. The horse’s owner, a wealthy New Englander named Peter Fuller, donated all of the horse’s winnings to Dr. King’s widow, Coretta Scott King. Fuller hailed Dr. King as “a great American who died trying to make this country free for all people.” He then packed his horse up and headed for Louisville. Like Hosea Williams before him, Fuller was going to Louisville to kick up some serious dust.

In 1968 there was no traffic jam on the way to the stable. And Dancer’s Image had no problem finding a jockey to ride him in the Kentucky Derby. The rider of Proud Clarion, Bobby Ussery, was happy to take the mount. But while Dancer’s Image was no long shot, his arrival was much whispered about among Churchill’s chattering class. Because of his public support of the civil rights movement, Peter Fuller received a chilly reception from Louisville’s old guard as well as a number of threatening phone calls and anonymous death threats. When Fuller requested extra security from Churchill Downs for his family and his horse he was denied—despite the deluge of armed security rolled out for the previous year’s Derby. He was everything the Louisville gentry was hoping wouldn’t return after 1967: an outsider, an opinionated liberal, an integrationist, a Yankee interloper.

The animosity towards Fuller and his horse only made him more strident and confident. He boasted the day before the race that Dancer’s Image would easily win. In a stunning act of hubris, he publicly rehearsed his run from the owner’s box to the winner’s circle before the gathered horsemen and punters at Churchill Downs.

The 1968 Derby didn’t unfold the way the race had the year before. Dancer’s Image didn’t rate off the pace the way that Damascus and Proud Clarion had. He took the final turn in last place, trailing the entire field. As they came around the turn Ussery accidentally dropped his whip. He was forced to slap the horse on the neck with his bare hands to urge him to go—a bizarre sight on a track. Ussery slapped and slapped and, in turn, Dancer’s Image galloped and galloped, closing quickly against the entire field to win a breathtaking race. Fuller trotted to the winner’s circle. His stride was confident—after all, he already knew the way.

Two days after the 1968 Derby, Churchill Downs announced that they had detected an illegal substance in Dancer’s Image’s urine. Phenylbutazone (“bute” for short) is a drug used to treat flu-like symptoms in horses. It’s legal in most states for racehorses, and, interestingly, it was legal in every single Kentucky Derby both before and after 1968. The rules that year said that bute could not be administered within one week of the race, and a veterinarian testified that he had given Dancer’s Image the drug six days and seven hours before the race. The mistake gave the horse no unfair advantage, but Churchill Downs nevertheless stripped him of the title. The 1968 Kentucky Derby champion is now listed as Forward Pass, the horse that ran second. In the official records, Dancer’s Image is listed as having finished in last place.

Peter Fuller spent hundreds of thousands of dollars and several years fighting the ruling, exhausting every single one of his legal appeals. Believing the ruling to be the Louisville racing establishment’s way of getting retribution for the racial unrest the year before, Fuller never again set foot at Churchill Downs for another Kentucky Derby. He vowed never to return to Louisville unless he had a horse that he knew, as certainly as he knew in 1968, would win the Derby. If he did ever find such a horse, he told the Boston Globe in an interview conducted 40 years later, he would name the horse Dancer’s Revenge.



David Hill is an organizer and writer in Brooklyn, NY. He writes for Negative Dunkalectics. He likes Archarcharch in the Derby. Follow him on twitter here.

Top photo by Jim Ferguson, used with permission; second photo courtesy of Kentuckytourism.com.