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Robert Treadway: Julia Etta Lewis, activist, head of CORE was tireless crusader for justice

Ninth of a series


Another of my own heroes of the Civil Rights movement is Julia Etta Lewis (1932-1998), the Lexington leader of CORE, the Congress of Racial Equality, the civil rights group that sponsored many of the sit-ins, marches, and demonstrations in Lexington during the early ‘60s. But that’s not why I chose her as a hero. I chose her because Calvert McCann, featured in three previous columns in this series, chose her as his own personal hero of the local movement.


“You’ve got to remember,” Calvert told me, “that in those days, it was a strike against you being a woman in a position of leadership as well as being black.” A black woman had two strikes against her before she opened her mouth in a meeting. It’s interesting, then, that three of the most important local leaders in the Civil Rights movement were women: Lewis, Audrey Grevious, who worked with Lewis in CORE, and Abby Marlatt, the white University of Kentucky professor who was vocal in her support for civil rights for blacks when most white faculty members at UK buried their heads in the sand.


“Julia made us sing that song every day,” Calvert laughed, the first time I played him an old recording I’d found of the choir of Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), singing, “Woke Up This Morning With My Mind Set on Freedom,” and asked him if they really sang it. When I talk to people today about the Civil Rights movement, people too young to remember it don’t often understand how good the sound track was. Maybe Mahalia Jackson and protest songs are old hat in the days of iPods, but in the ‘60s, they kept spirits high, and marchers from tiring.


During 1960, protestors began sit-ins at many downtown restaurants and lunch counters, primarily focusing on working class lunch counters at Woolworth’s and Kresge’s. Julia Lewis was often the leader at these sit-ins. By 1961, though, a new target arose.


In October of 1961, the Boston Celtics came to town to play in an exhibition game with the old St. Louis Hawks, a team largely composed of former UK players of that era. Lexington may have been run by segregationists, but they were practical segregationists. They knew the publicity value of having black NBA stars such as Bill Russell, the Celtics’ biggest star of the day, playing in Lexington.


People may not remember Bill Russell today, but “on the occasion of the NBA’s 35-year anniversary in 1980, it was Russell and not Chamberlain, Mikan, or Oscar Robertson whom members of the Professional Basketball Writers Association tabbed by a wide margin as ‘the greatest player in the history of the NBA,’” Peter C. Bjarkman wrote in The Biographical History of Basketball.


Sportswriter Tony Kornheiser described Russell as “a new type of black athlete: the educated, outspoken, defiant star seeking – no, expecting – respect just for who he was.”


The Phoenix Hotel was Lexington’s finest in the early ‘60s. By 1961, it had adopted a policy that it would allow black patrons to stay at the hotel as part of a “mixed group,” when special arrangements were made, but not separately. Only blacks who were guests of the hotel were permitted to eat in its coffee shop and restaurants. The team’s management made these special arrangements, and the team, including its black players, checked in to the hotel the evening before the exhibition game with no issues.


The next morning, it is not entirely clear what happened. Some reports have suggested that the black athletes were flatly denied service at the restaurant’s coffee shop the next morning. Another version, probably more accurate, is that the morning manager asked the athletes to confirm that they were guests at the hotel. Apparently Russell sensed the import of the question, that is, if the answer were no, he would not be served, and asked the management to call him and his black teammates a cab. Russell and five of his teammates took the cab to the airport, and from there the next plane out of town, without ever seeing the inside of a basketball arena. The Hawks had a much easier time of it. This was considered a social faux pas that Lexington never quite got over, though it didn’t immediately lead to an end to segregation in downtown Lexington, nor even in the Phoenix Hotel.


The incident sparked a series of sit-ins at the Phoenix’s coffee shop. Quietly, day in and day out, Julia Lewis and her friends, often including Calvert McCann, Abby Marlatt, and Audrey Grevious, calmly waited for a waitress to acknowledge them, but none ever did.

No one knows what made the management of the Hotel ultimately change its policy. It made no public announcement at all. One Sunday, after church, a group of black protestors calmly sat at a table. The waitress equally calmly passed out menus to them and stood ready to take their orders, pencil poised. Thinking they would not be served, they had brought little money, and scraped together enough to have coffee. Segregation died at the Phoenix Hotel not with a bang, but with a whimper. Other restaurants and lunch counters followed, and by 1964, when the Civil Rights Act was passed by Congress and signed into law by LBJ, most of Lexington had already voluntarily desegregated.


Both Calvert and my friend, the peace and environmental activist Don Pratt, who was also a protestor for civil rights in the ‘60s, told me that Lewis was always there, always ready to work, and always ready to sing, even if few others were.


We forget what we owe to the efforts of Julia Etta Lewis, a tireless crusader for justice, and a small group of brave friends. In 2001, both Julia Lewis and Abby Marlatt were inducted into the Kentucky Civil Rights Hall of Fame.


Tomorrow’s profile will feature Abby Marlatt, a white educator who put her job on the line for her belief in civil rights.


Robert L. Treadway is senior policy analyst at Kentucky First Strategies, LLC, a full service political consulting, lobbying, and governmental relations firm. In his role as a legal consultant, he also provides legal research and writing services to attorneys and law firms throughout Kentucky. Bob has a lifelong interest in Kentucky history, which he pursued as a student at Transylvania University, where he graduated with a major in history and minor in political science, and was an award winning editor of Transy’s student newspaper, The Rambler. He is a graduate of Harvard Law School, where his media activities included scriptwriting for Harvard Law Professor Arthur Miller’s TV series, and for Prof. Miller’s role as Legal Editor on ABC TV’s Good Morning, America. He writes, posts, and Tweets about Kentucky history. Look him up on Facebook; his Twitter feed is @rltreadway.


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