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Long before the Kentucky legislature waged war on ‘woke,’ it accused people of communism

By John Cheves, Lexington Herald-Leader
Published: October 23, 2023, 6:00am

FRANKFORT, Ky. — Kentucky saw growing demands for change in the late 1960s — civil rights protests, environmental protests, the anti-war movement, poor people organizing against their own exploitation — and the state’s politicians thought they knew whom to blame.

It was the communists, they said.

“This state has become a headquarters for subversion,” state Rep. Theron Kessinger, R-Beaver Dam, said during a Kentucky House floor debate in the 1968 legislative session.

“We don’t realize it, but communists are working all around us,” said state Rep. Marge Cruse, R-Louisville.

“These hippies and beatniks and assorted reds and pinkos are right in our midst,” added state Rep. I.C. James, D-Harrodsburg.

But lawmakers had a plan.

Working with newly elected Republican Gov. Louie Nunn, they established a bipartisan, 10-member legislative panel called the Kentucky Un-American Activities Committee.

KUAC — pronounced “quack” by critics — was charged with rooting out “subversive groups and persons (who), under color of protection afforded by the Bill of Rights of the United States Constitution, seek to destroy us and the ideals for which we fought to preserve and to subject us to the domination of foreign powers and ideologies.”

KUAC would hunt for Reds in the Bluegrass State.

It focused on Louisville civil rights activists, blaming them for riots in the city in May 1968, and anti-poverty workers who had come to help Eastern Kentucky, several of whom were jailed for sedition because of “suspicious” books the Pike County sheriff found in their homes.

Politically, both groups were considered to be troublemakers by the leaders in their communities. KUAC would be a way of neutralizing them.

“Best wishes to you all, because I’m kinda on your side,” Court of Appeals Chief Justice Morris Montgomery assured KUAC members as he swore them in June 13, 1968.

Echoes of KUAC still resonate a half-century later in Kentucky whenever politicians rail against groups that express new and different ideas, historians say.

“You can swap out the fears of communism in the ‘60s with fears of political correctness in the ‘90s with fears of wokeness right now,” said Aaron Purcell, historian and director of special collections at Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, Va.

“During times of moral panic, people make quick assumptions and they divide into groups and turn against each other — or they are turned against each other,” Purcell said.

“You get groups like KUAC that look for a boogeyman and harass people who are considered to be threats only because they’re trying to change things.”

Purcell wrote about KUAC in 2019 for The Register of the Kentucky Historical Society.

“It fell into the typical political trap of pointing fingers rather than looking in the mirror and saying, ‘Hey, we have these two groups, inner-city, poor Black people and mountain, poor white people, and here are the difficult living conditions they’re facing, and here is why they are upset,’” he said.

“This wasn’t meant to be a fact-finding mission to learn about conditions on the ground. It was meant to stop people from organizing themselves and being politically active.”

Cold War and McCarthyism

Early in the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union, Congress and many states created special legislative committees to uncover communists in public life while also attacking people who either held dissenting views or who were in minorities.

The Florida Legislative Investigation Committee, for example, targeted suspected gay educators in the state’s schools and universities after it failed to find a communist link to the NAACP. The committee ruined the careers of scores of teachers.

The most famous example was the U.S. Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations, led by Sen. Joseph McCarthy, a Republican from Wisconsin.

McCarthy claimed to have “here in my hand” a list of — depending on where he was speaking — between 57 and 205 communists employed by the State Department. “McCarthyism” became synonymous with leveling unfair allegations against people.

Kentucky legislators wanted in on this. But they were thwarted through most of the 1960s by two Democratic governors, Bert Combs and Edward “Ned” Breathitt, who had no interest in communist-baiting, said Ron Eller, a retired University of Kentucky historian.

Then, in 1967, voters elected Nunn, a staunch conservative. Nunn took a dim view of the street protests by young people demanding reforms in society, Eller said.

In a June 1968 speech at Eastern Kentucky University, Nunn warned an assembly of youths gathered for Bluegrass Boys’ State that “a smog of moral cancer” plagued the nation. It must be eliminated by a return to “the principles of God and country,” the governor said.

“By the late 1960s, you’re seeing pushback to civil rights and the other movements by the white middle-class,” Eller said. “A lot of older people in particular are more conservative, and they believe that we’ve been going too far. Any activist at this point is likely to be accused by someone of being a communist.”

Un-American activities in Kentucky

Nunn encouraged the 1968 General Assembly to create KUAC. It was assigned to meet during the two-year interim (this was long before annual legislative sessions) and report its findings in 1970.

The governor even selected the panel’s members and provided its $50,000 budget from his own office so it wouldn’t have to compete for funding with other legislative committees.

There was a smattering of opposition.

Several civil liberties and civil rights groups united under the banner “Kentuckians against KUAC.” They sued in federal court to block the committee as a violation of the constitutional rights to free speech and free association. Their lawsuits were dismissed. Courts said KUAC had yet to call any witnesses, so there was no evidence that anyone was going to be unfairly harassed.

Nunn defended KUAC in a 1993 oral history interview. No harm could come from poking around, he said.

“They was just trying to find anyone that was bein’ disloyal to the country. It wasn’t a witch hunt,” Nunn said.

“Why, hell, just like the wind blowing through the trees — it makes some noise today. And tomorrow, there’s no wind,” he said. “So, let it blow through. If rotten limbs fall out, well, that’s fine. If there aren’t any rotten limbs, then nothing gonna fall out.”

‘You can’t vote against this’

The committee’s original targets were supposed to be more balanced.

Nearly 70 index cards — a “sedition suspect” file prepared by KUAC staff — held the names of Kentuckians on the political right and left, from members of the American Nazi Party, White Citizens Council and Ku Klux Klan to the NAACP, Campus Committee on Human Rights and Appalachian Group to Save the Land and People, which fought the environmentally destructive practice of strip-mining the mountains for coal.

In the end, however, KUAC did not act on this file. Lawmakers only looked to the left.

In particular, the young War on Poverty volunteers who descended on Appalachia in the 1960s were easy pickings because they seemed so strange, with shaggy hair, hippie clothing, weird books and vegetarian diets, Nunn said in his oral history.

“They came in from a different lifestyle,” the governor said. “The things they said didn’t fit into the local situation. What was really a mediocre socialist could end up being a full-fledged communist within two weeks, depending on who was saying what about them.”

State Sen. Scott Miller Jr., R-Louisville, was a lawyer who privately acknowledged years later that he never felt comfortable having an un-American activities committee in Frankfort. But he didn’t dare oppose it, Miller said in a 2006 oral history interview.

“I remember it went buzzing through the House and people said, ‘Look, you can’t vote against this. You’re voting against the flag, motherhood and the Star-Spangled Banner — you know, everything,’” said Miller, who served as KUAC’s chairman.

“We didn’t find any communists,” Miller added. “Found a few nuts, but no communists.”

West End riots in Louisville

KUAC held its first hearings in the Kentucky Senate chamber in September 1968.

Lawmakers investigated fiery riots that took place over four days in May in Louisville’s West End neighborhoods. Violence left two Black teenagers shot to death, by a store owner and a police officer; 474 people arrested; and hundreds of thousands of dollars in property damage.

“We intend to inquire into the legitimate grievances of the people of Louisville as well as into any groups which may have sought to exploit these grievances,” KUAC chairman Miller announced as the hearings opened.

There were plenty of grievances.

On the first night of the riots, several Black community leaders went on WAVE-TV to urge everyone off the streets. They also sympathized with the community’s rage.

Louisville remained openly racist, they said. Housing was segregated and, for Black families, often was slums. Many white-owned businesses neither hired Black people nor wanted to serve them. Police treated Black residents with suspicion and hostility, they said.

On May 8, a white police officer roughed up a Black real estate broker and a Black school teacher during a wrongful arrest. That was the last straw, the community leaders said. The officer was suspended, but a civil service board soon recommended that he be reinstated.

But KUAC never pursued the reasons why people were angry.

Instead, its witness list was dominated by police officers and city officials. They blamed the riots on several Black men who spoke at a protest rally organized May 27 by the Black Unity League of Kentucky, a civil rights group, in response to the wrongful arrests.

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“The disorders were organized and were not a spur-of-the-moment thing,” testified police Capt. John Hampton.

The Black Six prosecution

KUAC learned that a recent visitor from Washington, D.C., James Cortez of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, promised to deliver his friend, Black Panther Party leader Stokely Carmichael, as a featured speaker for the Louisville rally.

Carmichael never arrived. There is no evidence he even knew about the rally.

Throughout the evening of May 27, Cortez falsely claimed Carmichael’s plane was circling Louisville, prevented from landing at the airport by frightened white city leaders. That aggravated tensions in the crowd.

Cortez “went on to say that there should be more unity and that the Jews and the honkies should be made to get out of this end of town. They are selling low-grade meat and taking money to the East End and spending it. They are not putting it back into the neighborhood,” police Detective Kenneth Newcomb told KUAC.

As the rally broke up, a police car drove into the intersection. Bottles and rocks rained down from nearby roofs, sparking the days of upheaval that followed.

Police officials told KUAC about a larger plan for chaos among activists tied to the rally. Those activists — Cortez, four other men and one woman — would be dubbed the “Black Six,” charged with conspiring to start the riots and also with plotting to use dynamite to blow up oil refineries in the West End.

The Black Six prosecution eventually fizzled.

No proof of a conspiracy behind the riots was produced at trial; no dynamite was found. The dynamite part of the case rested on bizarrely self-incriminating statements that Cortez alone allegedly made to police, statements that were not recorded and that Cortez later denied in court.

The defendants finally were cleared in 1970 when a judge directed a verdict of acquittal. Last year, the city of Louisville formally apologized to the surviving Black Six and their families for “this injustice.”

Working for the FBI

However, at the KUAC hearings, lawmakers were assured that police had substantial evidence to prove Cortez and the others were radical leftists who conspired to cause destruction.

Among the recommendations made to KUAC by Louisville officials were allowing the death penalty for anyone committing arson during a riot and providing legal immunity for police officers who kill someone while trying to break up a riot.

In a strange twist, evidence came out during the Black Six prosecution showing that Cortez — at the center of the controversy — secretly worked for the FBI, not the communists.

The bureau planted hundreds of spies and provocateurs in civil rights organizations during this era as part of its counterintelligence program, known as COINTELPRO.

During questioning by Louisville police, Cortez said he was assigned by his handler, an FBI agent named Glover, to infiltrate Black Power groups, befriend Stokely Carmichael and report on subversive activities.

In exchange, the FBI gave him $75 a week and an apartment.

Skeptical about this claim, police Detective Melver Tinsley called the FBI in Washington. An FBI agent named John Glover confirmed that Cortez was indeed a paid informant, although he denied that Cortez was on assignment with the bureau while in Louisville.

In his 1979 autobiography, retired FBI assistant director William Sullivan acknowledged that the bureau had an informant in the Black Power community who turned up in Louisville. The FBI informant “was part of a group that started a riot in which two men were killed,” Sullivan wrote. “It was a very sticky situation.”

The Appalachian Volunteers

KUAC held its second hearings at the Pike County courthouse in Pikeville in October and December 1968.

The committee targeted the youthful War on Poverty groups working in the mountains, particularly the federally funded Appalachian Volunteers.

Those groups sometimes were supported by Pikeville College, whose liberal new president, 37-year-old Thomas Johns, urged students to get off campus and immerse themselves in Eastern Kentucky’s many regional needs. Johns’ wife even taught a sewing class for “the AVs,” as they were known.

The AVs started in the mid-1960s by restoring old schoolhouses and planning recreation activities for children.

They became more controversial over the next couple of years as they moved into local politics.

The AVs helped a Pike County man, Jink Ray, prevent a coal company from strip-mining his farm. They assisted people in signing up for welfare benefits. And they organized poor families to demand cheaper rates on a proposed drinking water system in the Marrowbone community that was the Pike County judge-executive’s pet project.

By the time KUAC organized, courthouse bosses were urging Nunn to evict those “long-haired, bearded, hippie-looking people.” Allegations of communism put them on the committee’s radar.

“Complaints that communists are working among the poverty program people have been circulating in Pikeville for some time,” Pike Commonwealth’s Attorney Thomas Ratliff told reporters.

Ratliff was a wealthy coal operator and an ambitious Republican politician who unsuccessfully ran for lieutenant governor on the 1967 GOP ticket with Nunn.

Ratliff prosecuted three anti-poverty workers for sedition in 1967 after the sheriff raided their homes and claimed to find “suspicious” books and papers proving they plotted to overthrow the government of Pike County. Federal judges swiftly tossed those cases out of court, finding the state’s sedition law to be unconstitutional.

At the KUAC hearings, Pike County officials nonetheless rehashed the sedition allegations. Local residents said they resented the AVs, who looked different.

The young outsiders seemed like atheists and communists, meeting in their Marrowbone Folk School for purposes that couldn’t possibly be any good, witnesses said.

When one of the anti-poverty workers sang the civil rights anthem “We Shall Overcome” for children at a program, an angry local man punched the worker in the mouth, Pike County magistrate Foster Bentley told lawmakers.

“I think about the second verse, he lowered the boom on him,” Bentley said.

“We don’t need nobody from California or New York or northern states come in and say you shall do this, because he don’t know anything about the way we live. People just don’t digest the way some of them are dressed, the way they wear their hair long — they don’t digest that. The mountain folks don’t go for it,” he said.

Pike County native Edith Easterling was one of the few contrary voices at the hearings. Easterling joined the AVs and allowed them to build their Folk School — a community center — on her land.

The AVs showed concern for the poor people in Marrowbone, she told KUAC. That’s more than any politician ever did, she said, except for on election days, when they drove out from the county seat of Pikeville to buy votes from her neighbors.

“We don’t have anything to hide,” Easterling testified. “I’m not ashamed of nothing that they have done, and I am thankful that I am one of them.”

‘Something going on up there’

KUAC solicited criticism of Pikeville College, a private school affiliated with the Presbyterian Church.

Its president, Johns, was accused not only of supporting the AVs and sending students their way but also of letting his faculty question the morality of the Vietnam War. That raised hackles around patriotic Pike County, where many young men were in uniform.

An English professor at Pikeville College acknowledged to the committee that he made a selection of anti-war books and magazines available to interested students. A visiting Quaker, a pacifist religious order, also spoke to students about Vietnam at a meeting one evening at the professor’s Pikeville home, lawmakers learned.

It didn’t take long for this relatively mild behavior to fuel wild rumors.

“The people up in Pikeville said, ‘You know, there’s something going on up here,’” KUAC chairman Miller recalled years later in his oral history interview. “They said, ‘Up there at Pikeville College, there’s a bunch of kids running around naked!’”

Rather than apologize to lawmakers, Johns politely but firmly defended “the system of liberty and justice that this country stands for” in his appearance before the committee.

“Discrediting the Appalachian Volunteers isn’t the answer,” the educator testified to KUAC.

“The people of Pikeville take whatever is said by this hearing as the gospel, and they believe it. As a result, we have gone through a great deal of agony, and it distresses me no end.”

The fallout from KUAC

KUAC issued a number of conclusions.

It blamed the Louisville riots, at least in part, on speeches delivered at the police misconduct protest rally that it said were “designed and intended to start a disorder.” No mention was made of the actual police misconduct. The Black Six prosecution would drag on for the next two years until it collapsed for lack of evidence.

KUAC called on Nunn to get rid of the Appalachian Volunteers, saying they caused problems while serving no useful purpose. The AVs lost their public funding, shriveled and disbanded.

Johns was ousted as president of Pikeville College after only two years on the job in what he called a “coup.” He left Kentucky.

Somebody — no arrests were made — bombed the Pike County home where anti-poverty workers Alan and Margaret McSurely lived with their 1-year-old son, shortly after KUAC witnesses accused them of sedition.

Like Johns, the McSurely family left Kentucky.

KUAC called for new laws, some eventually enacted, including stronger penalties for arson, interfering with firefighters and felons carrying guns; a ban on explosive “Molotov cocktails”; and greater curfew powers for local officials during declared emergencies.

Finally, KUAC asked to continue operating permanently under a new name, the Internal Security Investigative Committee. A vote on that failed in the 1970 legislature. By then, a majority of lawmakers appeared to be losing interest in hunting for subversives.

Nunn didn’t force the issue.

Still, KUAC served its purpose by helping to preserve the status quo in Kentucky, said Robert Holcomb, president of the Independent Coal Operators Association in Pikeville.

“The investigation opened the public’s eyes to a lot of things that were taking place in the community,” Holcomb told reporters as the committee wrapped up. “It helped us to get rid of a radical element.”

There is a tradition in Kentucky politics of fearful and hostile resistance to change, said Thomas Kiffmeyer, an historian at Morehead State University and author of a book on the Appalachian Volunteers.

“2023’s Critical Race Theory is just another version of 1968’s communism,” Kiffmeyer said.

“The truth is that maybe we’re not really as different from each other as we think,” he said. “But the lure of conservatism is there’s something comfortable about at least knowing what we’ve got. And if you think that anything new might be scary, you’re going to fight it.

“And for our politicians, there maybe can be an advantage in using that, in focusing on these divisions between us rather than focusing on the issues that we really should be talking about.”