Story Time: The 1967 Derby, where MLK said “ummmm best not”

This country was a very different place in 1967. The Civil Rights Movement was in full swing, the Apollo Program was just beginning, the Vietnam War was still raging. In sports the first Super Bowl was played that year, the Red Sox lost yet another World Series, Muhammad Ali was stripped of his World Heavyweight titles and was banned from boxing for his refusal to join the Army and the last Triple Crown winner was Citation 19 years before in 1948. Back then, for one day a year, even with all that going on the eyes of the country fell as it always did on Louisville, Kentucky for the 93rd running of the Kentucky Derby. However, this year the horses had to step back as the focus shifted from the race itself, to potential race riots.

Louisville transitioned pretty easily into desegregation. While many consider Kentucky southern, there is no doubt that Louisville is nothing like the rest of the state and has the culture of a midwestern city. A pressing issue though was for the city to make it illegal to refuse to sell or rent homes based on race. This was the first time race had really been a major problem in Louisville as black ministers had formed the Committee on Open Housing (COH) and marched the streets to get the attention of Mayor Kenneth Schmied. In one of their marches, the police reacted violently by stomping on protesters and dragging them down the street. The mayor claimed that “outsiders”, people coming from out of town to participate in the marches were to blame for the violent nature. Thats when Dr. Martin Luther King Junior caught wind of the events.

While he condemned what had happened in the marches, Dr. King was happy to praise Louisville’s “reputation for pioneering in social progress” in a telegram to the Mayor. To get some national attention, Dr. King brought the Southern Christian Leadership Council (SCLC)’s board meeting to Louisville that year with another march on March 30 over equal opportunity housing and marches continued through April. On that same day he spoked at the University of Louisville’s school of law telling the overflow crowd of students that many blacks “see life as a long and desolate corridor with no exit signs. This is what the demonstrations are about in Louisville.”

Louisville’s most famous son, Muhammad Ali, was very vocal about his support of the marches. One SCLC organizer suggested protesting, and even preventing the Kentucky Derby from even being run as it was less than a month away. One of the traditions the city has is the annual Pegasus Parade every year days before the big race. Except this year it was canceled for the first and only time.

As the race drew closer, the marches got more intense. People were being arrested from the parking lot at Churchill Downs as protesters were blocking horses from getting to the track and preventing some from even racing. During one race the Monday before the Derby, a protester ran onto the track as the horses turned for home and stopped the race as the jockeys dodged him. The Mayor asked for the National Guard to be in attendance for protection, and the Ku Klux Klan said they would help maintain order and would be fully dressed in the infield. Rumors floated around that many African Americans would show up and stand by the start of the race with dog whistles to disrupt the start.

The day before the race, Dr. King made a speech declaring that the race will be left alone–he will not condone any protests made at Churchill Downs that day, and instead encouraged marches downtown instead. He knew that if a protest were to be carried out in the infield, with thousands of armed guards, police, and Klansmen in the small Churchill infield, that it could turn into a full blown riot and and badly.

Thanks to the speech, Derby day was tense, but went off without a hitch. It was a gloomy humid day but 30-1 Proud Clarion and Bob Ussery went on to win the race for Darby Dan Farm.

The unrest in Louisville continued well into the next year. To appeal to the African Americans, the Domocrats running for the board promised that if they received their votes they will work to create fair housing. They made good of their promise and created what would become the Kentucky Fair Housing Act.

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