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Runyon: Kim Davis Saga And The Role Of Judges in Social Progress

Protesters outside the Rowan County Courthouse.
Protesters outside the Rowan County Courthouse.

Why is it that Kentucky rarely accepts reform unless it is prodded by a court to do so? I’ve asked that question frequently over the years, and was reminded yet again when the circus erupted in Rowan County over issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples.

In June, the Supreme Court ruled that prohibitions on such unions were unconstitutional, upholding several lower court rulings – including a notable one by the late U.S. District Judge John G. Heyburn of Louisville.

Rowan County Circuit Court Clerk Kim Davis has turned into a media celebrity for her defiance of the law by citing her religious beliefs as the reason why she was unwilling to issue any licenses to either gay or straight couples.

During the week of Ms. Davis’ celebrity, I was reminded of another occasion, 40 years ago, when Louisville broke into the national media spotlight: September 1975 was when a desegregation order featuring a controversial busing plan was rolled out. The assignment plan was ordered by federal courts – first at the Appeals level, then implemented by U.S. District Judge James Gordon in Louisville.

The case had been brought to challenge the boundaries of school districts in the old Louisville and Jefferson County school districts. In time, the courts decided that the lines had been drawn in part to keep some schools mostly black and others mostly white. These were “neighborhood” schools for which some have great nostalgia. In fact, they were also highly discriminatory. And the disparities between schools for the well-to-do and the less affluent were striking.

Anti-busing organizations sprang to life and other groups, including the Ku Klux Klan, rallied to their sides. Parents were encouraged to defy the judge and the law, and keep their children home.

In response, the archbishop of Louisville, Thomas McDonogh, announced that parochial schools would not be havens from busing. Strong and united community leadership supported the plan. Crucial voices included Mayor Harvey Sloane, The Courier-Journal and Louisville Times editorial pages, religious leaders, and smart school administrators, principals and teachers.

I watched it all as a young reporter who was assigned to the “deseg team,” which placed me in Judge Gordon’s courtroom on the sultry summer night the order was issued, at the bus stops and in the classrooms when school opened, and in the riots on the streets of Fern Creek, Shively and Pleasure Ridge Park the opening weekend of classes. That was the first -- and only -- time I’ve experienced tear gas. And I saw some of the most vicious bigotry of my life.

To this day, when I hear horns honking, it reminds me of the anti-busers’ clarion call. The streets of Louisville echoed for months with endless honking.

Looking back on it all, 40 years later, the thing that most impressed me was the willingness of tens of thousands of parents and children to comply with the law. Just like most of the government servants across the nation who issue marriage licenses, they understood that the law is not about our personal views or prejudices.

People like Kim Davis will always be with us. Fortunately, most people silently follow the laws, pay their taxes and participate in democracy. The excellent Jefferson County Public Schools system we have today is a tribute, in many ways, to their example.

Keith Runyon is a longtime Louisville journalist and former editorial page editor for The Courier-Journal. His commentaries run every Friday on 89.3-WFPL and wfpl.org. 

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