On The Mountaintop and Civil Rights in Louisville, with Louisville NAACP President Raoul Cunningham

by on March 15, 2013

See more posts about: The Mountaintop 2013-2014

Raoul Cunningham, President of the Louisville NAACP, joined the creative team of The Mountaintop for our first rehearsal to help provide historical context about Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Civil Rights Movement in Louisville. The Mountaintop is playwright Katori Hall’s vision of an imagined conversation between Dr. King and Camae, a maid at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis. The conversation, which ranges from Dr. King’s family life to his concerns about Vietnam and the Civil Rights Movement, occurs the evening of April 3, 1968—the evening before an assassin shot King on the motel balcony. Naturally, we were excited to bring one of Louisville’s greatest civil rights campaigners on board to inform our production. I sat down with Mr. Cunningham for an interview a couple of weeks later to get some of the same information for our audience.

Raoul Cunningham at Luther College, 2009.

Raoul Cunningham at Luther College to present a Martin Luther King, Jr. Day lecture, 2009.

Sam Weiner: You joined us for our first reading of The Mountaintop. What was your reaction to the reading?

Raoul Cunningham: I found it very interesting. I think that the play imparts some information that most people don’t know—hopefully those who attend will learn. I think it’s provocative in its concept and in its portrayal of Dr. King’s life. I think it borders on rumors about his life.

SW: Playwright Katori Hall’s project in The Mountaintop was to humanize Dr. King; do you think that’s an important objective?

RC: I think it is. I think it’s important to do it today because I think that—not only Dr. King but most political heroes of the past—there’s no human face on the person, whether it was Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln or John F. Kennedy. I think a person’s life is what it is. For each one there is a human facet. And I think it [the play’s examination of Dr. King’s personal, human side] is done in fairly decent taste. As I said, I think it borders on rumors. It’s interesting.

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. appears with Muhammad Ali in Louisville, 1967.

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. appears with Muhammad Ali in Louisville, 1967.

SW: Could you talk a little bit about Martin Luther King, Jr.’s connection to Louisville? I know that his brother, A.D. King, was a pastor here and that he visited the city regularly.

RC: First of all, he’d come to Louisville several times before his brother became pastor. In 1961 we were demonstrating in Louisville for open accommodations [public restrooms, lunch counters, etc. that would not be segregated by race], and he did a workshop at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, and came to our rally before we went out that day to demonstrate. In 1964 the pastor at Zion Baptist Church resigned to go to New York. And at some time in ’64 or ’65 Dr. King’s brother was called to Zion Baptist Church as its pastor. I came back to Louisville in 1965-66. In ’67 we were demonstrating for open housing and Dr. King came in several times. His brother was pastor of Zion and had organized a Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) chapter, the Kentucky Christian Leadership Conference, and Dr. King came in for that and led those demonstrations several times.

SW: What were those demonstrations like? Were they marches or sit-ins, or what were they?

RC: They were marches. Marching through primarily white neighborhoods out in South Louisville to demonstrate for open housing. In ’67, we had threatened to demonstrate at the Derby, and the demonstrations were called off. Dr. King played a major role in dramatizing that we were going to call demonstrations off and concentrate on the upcoming elections. The Democrats running for the Board of Aldermen had pledged to support open housing, and the Republicans, who had the majority on the Board of Aldermen, had pledged they would not support it. The mayor [Kenneth Schmied] wouldn’t support it either at that time. The last time Dr. King was in town was in August of 1967, at which time we had launched a voter registration rally at Green Street Baptist Church. And that was the last time he was here to speak or to participate.

Georgia Davis Powers became the first African-American and the first woman elected to the Kentucky Senate in 1968.

Georgia Davis Powers became the first African-American and the first woman elected to the Kentucky Senate in 1968.

SW: How did those elections turn out?

RC: The Democrats won. In December of 1967, once they were sworn in, they passed open housing. Then we went to Frankfort for the ’68 General Assembly. Georgia Powers was elected to the state Senate and became the first African-American elected to the Senate. Mae Street Kidd and Hughes McGill were elected to the House with Norbert Blume, and we passed open housing statewide.

SW: How was Louisville affected by Dr. King’s assassination? What was your perception of it at the time?

RC: God… Bewilderment. Wondering what the next steps would be. Because at the time we had plans for the Poor People’s Campaign. Wondering what would happen with that. I think it left almost a sense of not knowing what direction to go in at that time. Some cities rioted. Louisville did not.

SW: Could you talk a little about some of the issues the NAACP is addressing now?

RC: Felony voting rights. The Supreme Court decision on the Voting Rights Act. And today we have two new issues: trying to get the community signed up for affordable health care and the government shutdown. That’s not a civil rights issue, but it’s an issue for everybody.

SW: Could you give us a little more detail about felony voting rights?

RC: Kentucky is one of four states that does not have some level of automatic restoration of voter rights once the felon has completed his or her sentence and all orders of the court have been made. Forty-six states have some form of automatic restoration. Kentucky does not. Unless they get a pardon from the governor they cannot register to vote. They’re permanently disqualified. Which is ridiculous. Even if they’ve completed their sentence and have met all conditions—you have imposed almost a life sentence on them. They can’t vote. In Kentucky they can’t get some licenses, like barber/beautician or plumbing licenses. In most cases, they can’t find a job. So therefore, a drug possession charge, any non-violent charge, and you’re permanently barred from voting. And you have that stigma attached to you even if you turn your life around.

SW: What are the implications of the Supreme Court’s decision on the Voting Rights Act?  [Note on the Voting Rights Act of 1965: Section 4 of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 uses a formula to identify states with a history of racially discriminatory voting practices. Under the formula, a state qualified as discriminatory if: 1. The state had established a “test or device” for would-be voters, like a literacy test, and 2. Less than 50 percent of persons of voting age in the state were registered to vote on November 1, 1964. Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act requires that states identified by Section 4 submit any proposed changes to their voting procedures to the US District Court for the District of Columbia or the Attorney General for review. Such submissions must include evidence that the proposed procedures do not abridge the right to vote on the basis of color, race, or language. After the Supreme Court struck down Section 4’s formula in Shelby v. Holder (2013), Section 5 became defunct, and the states with histories of discrimination were enabled to change their voting procedures without review by the Federal Government.]

RC: The Court struck down Section 4. Section 4 determined the states or the jurisdictions that were to be affected by Section 5. Therefore it did not directly affect Kentucky because Kentucky is not a Section 5 state. But it does affect Kentucky in terms of black elected officials across the nation. And several of the Congressional Black Caucus’s districts could be altered because of the decision. Now Kentucky has never been a Section 5 state, but the Civil Rights Movement was affected by African-Americans not being able to vote, and therefore it is a civil rights issue nationally that affects everyone indirectly. And trying to fix it is going to be a major issue.

Catch Katori Hall’s The Mountaintop for a provocative look at the human side of the most iconic figure of the Civil Rights Movement, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. The Mountaintop runs through October 27 at Actors Theatre of Louisville.

Join us for the Community Conversation on Thursday, October 17th! CLICK HERE for more information.

Actors Theater of Louisville
316 West Main St.
Louisville, KY 40202
Box Office: 502.584.1205
502.371.0956 TDD

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