In this ourVoices special, openDemocracy’s Editor in Chief Mary Fitzgerald travels back to Louisville, Kentucky: the city where her father’s family has lived for generations.
For months, the city centre has been occupied by Black Lives Matter activists, continuing to protest daily over the police killing of Breonna Taylor. They say they won’t give up, no matter who wins the US election.
Kentucky is also the home of one of America’s giant political figures: Mitch McConnell, the Republican Senate Majority leader who’s been in power 36 years. It looks inevitable the state will choose Trump, and Mitch, again this time.
But as Mary discovers, what’s happening on the ground in Louisville still tells us a lot about where the country could be headed on November 3rd – and in the months and years to come.
Mary Fitzgerald: We’re now two days away from the US election. Joe Biden is up in the polls, but with Trump threatening not to abide by the results, the nation stands in limbo - poised for what could be the most consequential election in decades.
I’m Mary Fitzgerald, the editor in chief of openDemocracy. Over the past weeks and months, I’ve been speaking to voters all across the country. I’ve been traveling through the key swing states, but to really get under the skin of what’s happening in America right now, I went back to Louisville, Kentucky, the place my father’s family has been living for generations.
It's so strange being back here at this moment. I’m recording this from downtown Louisville which is all boarded up, the streets are silent apart from when there are protests. My grandparents still live here, just a few miles away. But I can’t go see them. The pandemic has already claimed nearly a quarter of a million lives.
But I’m here because if you really want to understand what’s happening in America right now, and what might come next, you need to dive deep into one place, and for me that’s Louisville.
Jecorey Arthur: So growing up in Louisville has been a reflection of growing up in the United States of America. And I would say that Louisville is the perfect place to reflect America. I call Louisville the capital of American racism because we have the southern tendencies, we are the gateway to the south. But we are also closer than other southern cities, and other southern states to the north and the midwest. So you have that covert racism and you have that overt racism, and that is what it has meant growing up in the city of Louisville.
Mary Fitzgerald: This year Louisville was the scene of some of the largest Black Lives Matter protests over the police killing of Breonna Taylor. Every day and night, they’re still going strong.
Donald Trump: And I’ll tell you something. We have a man, one of the most powerful men in the world. It’s okay, he comes from Kentucky, that’s not bad. (source)
Mary Fitzgerald: I’m also here in Louisville because I’m fascinated by one of America’s giant political figures: Mitch McConnell, the Republican Senate Majority leader, who’s been Kentucky’s senator since 1985. He’s the main power broker of the conservative agenda in Washington DC, and recently engineered the appointment of Trump’s Supreme Court Justice, Amy Coney Barrett.
Mitch McConnell: Thank you Kentucky, aren’t we proud of president Trump? Let me just add, thanks to President Trump and a Republican Senate, 84 new federal judges this congress. That’s already a record Mr. President. Keep sending them our way, and we’ll keep confirming them and change the court system forever. Thank you for being here. (source)
Mary Fitzgerald: Since the 90s, Kentucky has voted for a Republican president. It looks inevitable the state will vote for Trump, and for Mitch, again this time. But, as I’ve discovered, what’s happening on the ground in Louisville still tells us a lot about where the country could be headed.
Donald Trump: And you know we’ll be running together in 2020. That’ll be a lot of fun. (source)
Mary Fitzgerald: I’ve been coming to Louisville all my life. Despite big gains for racial equality won long before I was born, to me this place – like so many places in America – has always seemed shockingly segregated.
Why? And what does the history of these deep racial divisions reveal about the choices facing voters today? I started by asking my grandparents.
Jerry Fitzgerald: We just took segregation for granted. It was like it really didn’t exist. Because I had no contact with people of color, at that point, and I think that I mentioned the first time that I ever really encountered a black person up close and personal was when i was a freshmen in high school and was playing on the basketball team, and the segregated school in Louisville was for blacks West Central high school right down in the middle of the city, urban locations.
Mary Fitzgerald: My grandfather has lived in Louisville since 1931. He told me that segregation was the background noise that he never heard growing up. Nobody in his world did.
Jerry Fitzgerald: And then the second time, and this was maybe four years, five years later, when I joined the military, the navy, and one of the persons that went from Louisville to San Diego over a five day period was a black person. And I think I mentioned playing poker on the train. He was watching but he wasn’t participating and I didn’t think this was right, so I invited him to play poker with us. He did and he won quite a bit, he really took most of our money. So those were basically the only two experiences I ever had with a person of color. So segregation to me, was just something that existed.
Mary Fitzgerald: My Grandma told me about her experiences growing up in a segregated society, too.
Elinor Fitzgerald: And I went to college in Memphis, and I began to meet people from all the more southern states, who were so anti-black, but they had been raised by black nannies. And I always thought that was so strange because they loved the nannies that had raised them, almost like a parent. And yet, they would not have anything to do with blacks in the school.
Mary Fitzgerald: These are the stories I grew up with. But I never heard the other side. So I tracked down Teri Foree, now 74. She grew up in a small town in eastern Kentucky, and moved to Louisville as a young adult.
Terry Foree: My mother’s side of the family weren’t professional people. They did domestic work, most of them did. And so they were accustomed to having to go in backdoors in order to clean and to do all that kind of stuff. And in the next breath, the kids to the little white kids are sitting on their lap and hugging them and you know, this kind of thing. But they let us know that white people were prejudiced, and it didn't matter how they treated you in their homes, that they would not stick by you and this kind of stuff. They didn't leave any room for us to not understand that whites as a whole were prejudiced.
Mary Fitzgerald: Had things changed at all a generation later, when my Dad and his sisters were growing up in Louisville? My aunt suggested I talk to Pastor Ronn Elmore, someone she knew growing up.
Ronn Elmore: I consider Louisville to be kind of a smooth back in those days of smooth, polite racism, smooth and polite segregation. So I'm not surprised that your grandfather could say, I wasn't aware of this. Because it was such an entrenched part of the culture there. And at least by the time I came along, it wasn't as much the poverty in the black community – factories abounded, there was bourbon, there was General Electric, there was the cigarettes. So everybody had a job. And they had jobs that made them homeowners and investment property owners and fancy car drivers, and all of that. And it's like everybody just kind of knew the rules. And then along about when we moved to the West End that started crumbling, and we saw that people weren't satisfied with the status quo remaining in place.
Martin Luther King: Now is the time to rise from the dark and desolate valley of segregation to the sunlit path of racial justice. Now is the time to lift our nation from the quicksand of racial justice to the solid rock of brotherhood. Now is the time.. (source)
Mary Fitzgerald: The civil rights movement took shape in the early 60s spearheaded by MLK demanding full racial equality.
Ronn Elmore: So I remember when Martin Luther King or Jesse Jackson or any of those people would come to town, that meant that we would go to the rallies, and then after it was over, we would go to the Holiday Inn and play bid whist with with Martin Luther King and the entourage that he brought. And then when his wife was in town, we helped my mother clean up the house and make the food and all that because Dr. King's brother, A. D. King was my father's best friend, and he was a pastor as well. And so when M. L. King came to town, they would have the rallies, but the bid whist party tended to be at our house. And so all of these pastors came, there was jazz music. We were put to bed and I could hear the laughter, the clinking of the bourbon glasses, the cigarette smoke wafting up the stairs. And then we would fall asleep about midnight just when they were getting going. And I remember waking up the next morning and coming downstairs and going: one of these glasses Martin Luther King drank from it. So I would drink from each one of them so that I could be touched by his aura, his mojo.
Mary Fitzgerald: As the movement gained momentum, pressure mounted on politicians in Washington to respond.
Television announcer: Congress passes the most sweeping civil rights bill ever to be written into the law, and thus reaffirms the conception of equality for all men that began with Lincoln and the Civil War 100 years ago. The negro won his freedom then, he wins his dignity now. Five hours after the house passes the measure the Civil Rights Act of 1964 is signed at the White House.
Mary Fitzgerald: As a child, I learned how the Civil Rights Act changed America. But that’s only part of the story. My father went to high school in Louisville in the early 1970s.
Greg Fitzgerald: Kentucky repealed what they called Jim Crow laws and segregation laws, a long time ago. Even in the late 40s, and certainly into the 50s, they were getting rid of those. So at that time, the schools became integrated. In other words, each school district would have a catchment area, and whoever was in that catchment area went to that school, whether they were black or white, they went school together.
So, about 20 years later, it was observed that this pattern of housing that we had created de facto segregation, and these are the actual terms that were used de jure and de facto. The de facto segregation was not by law, but it was there. And was deemed to be not a good thing in terms of social harmony and equal opportunity.
So the court decided to order an integration program for Louisville and Jefferson County, the entire metro area, where every school would reflect the exact racial quota or division that was representative of the county as a whole. So if I remember my figures, right, I think it was 83%, white and 17%, black, every school had to be that way. And so you were taking schools, there were three schools in central Louisville that were virtually 100% black. And then there were schools like mine out way out in the East End, that were, you know, 97% white. And so there was a massive amount of cross town busing, people getting on school buses and riding 20-30 miles to go to schools in order to balance the numbers out.
It was an absolutely, phenomenally unpopular program. It's hard to describe how opposed the entire population was, including the majority of the African American population, to this to this social experiment.
Mary Fitzgerald: I asked Ronn Elmore for his perspective on bussing. Was my dad right that the majority of the black community was really against it?
Ronn Elmore: Well, the white schools tended to be in Louisville, my goodness, they were just excellent schools. The quality was just incredible. And so black people thought busing was fantastic.
Mary Fitzgerald: But it sparked a fierce backlash.
WHAS-TV news: There were several incidents reported today, three people, two white men and a 16 year old white teenager were arrested today outside Manual High School for allegedly threatening students entering the school. A car was found at Central High this morning with bullet holes in the windows, the tires on the car were flat. Southern high school had another bomb threat today the school was evacuated again. There was no bomb. (source)
Mary Fitzgerald: And while bussing tried – at the most superficial level – to correct segregation in education, in practice the racial wealth gap kept society unequal and divided.
For decades, successive Republicans and Democrat administrations kept it that way.
Under Nixon, the priority was law and order. Reagan waged war on welfare. Clinton got tough on inner city crime and drugs.
And, it turns out, both Mitch McConnell and Joe Biden had their parts to play.
Jecorey Arthur: Joe Biden wreaked havoc on black families across this country when he not only helped write and advocated but also helped pass the 1994 Crime Bill. There are more black men today in prison in this country than there are women in prison on the entire planet. And that is in part to Joe Biden's work on that crime bill. So I will never forgive him for that.
Mary Fitzgerald: That’s Jecorey Arthur. This year he became the youngest person ever to be elected to the Louisville City Council.
Over the past week, I’ve got to know a new generation of racial justice leaders here in Louisville. They’ve occupied Jefferson Square in the centre of the city every day since Breonna Taylor was killed in her home by police executing a warrant.
NBC New York: The grand jury indictment in the Breonna Taylor case, but none of the officers involved are charged directly with her death. (source)
Mary Fitzgerald: Not knowing that the men banging on the door were police, Breonna’s partner – woken from bed – fired a shot. The resulting police gunfire killed Breonna. None of the officers were charged with her killing.
Protestors say they’re not going to stop until they get justice, no matter who wins the election on Tuesday.
This is Latoia Stafford.
Latoia Stafford: What was it about Breonna’s case that shook my core so strongly? She’s a woman, she was in her home, you know, the land of the free, right? That's what they say, right? You can't even be free in your house where you actually pay rent to be there. She wasn't free to go to sleep, and get a nice rest and wake up to go back and do what the system says we have to do, which was go to work, to continue to pay for where she was murdered at.
That what got me out of my bed and into the streets. Because I'm used to seeing it happen to men, right? This has been my whole lifetime. Because like I said, it's 400 plus years that it's been going on. So you kind of grow hard to the fact of it happening. You kind of close the eyes, you know, that's not right. Right? You find comfort in it, I guess, and just say, we're gonna fix it one day. Then like I said, Breonna happened.
Mary Fitzgerald: I asked Latoia what she thinks of Joe Biden. Does she agree with Jecorey, that Biden doesn’t deserve their votes?
Latoia Stafford: And we know that we got the election coming up. Number one thing that we really need to focus on in this election is getting Donald Trump out of office, right? That will change so many things in itself. The most important thing is to get Trump up on out of there, and let him take Mitch with him. Because his hand is in everything. When your hand is in everything you can control a lot. I mean, 36 years, I think it is.
Mary Fitzgerald: I asked my Dad about Mitch McConnell, too.
Greg Fitzgerald: He went from being a kind of moderate reformer type guy who challenged the establishment to the most establishment right wing, completely unprincipled politician. And it's just been an amazing thing to see. He did not start out the way he ended up.
Mary Fitzgerald: The thing that puzzles me is, I’ve never spoken to anyone – in my whole life, Republican, Democrat, black or white, who has anything good to say about Mitch. So how has he been able to hold onto power for so long, for 36 years?
One answer involves the story of Charles Booker. Earlier this year, Charles narrowly lost his bid for the Democratic nomination, which would have put him on the ballot against Mitch McConnell in two days time.
Instead of Booker, the Democratic establishment candidate Amy McGrath is on the ticket against Mitch. And she’s trailing in the polls.
What could have been different, if Charles Booker had run? Here’s Jecorey Arthur again.
Jecorey Arthur: What makes Charles special to me personally is that he lives around the corner from me. And he lives in a neighborhood known as Russell in the West End community, you know a historically black community that used to be called the Harlem of the South at one point that housed over 150 black businesses. This was the place to be if you were black in the city of Louisville, for almost a century.
Unfortunately, Russell has faced so much disinvestment and so much neglect over the course of time, we are home of the highest poverty rate in the city of Louisville 52.7%. So over half of our residents are suffering from being financially challenged and living in this poverty. And when you not only come from that type of neighborhood, but you live in that type of neighborhood, you are going to be a different type of politician like I am, you're not going to just talk about issues from a third person perspective, you're going to talk about issues from a first person perspective, because you live the life of your constituents, you are your constituents.
Mary Fitzgerald: But Charles Booker doesn’t only command respect in his own community. My grandparents voted for him in the primary, too; he very nearly won.
Many people think that a rising generation of politicians like Booker can transform Black Lives Matter into a winning political coalition. But of course, not everyone agrees. Aaron Johnson is a former police officer.
Aaron Johnson: I don't support what we've seen of Black Lives Matter in the US – as far as the what they're calling protests, but are not protests. The looting, the destruction, those aren't protests. That's not Black Lives Matter. That's people going out and destroying their communities and hurting and killing each other, and falsely claiming that it's part of their ideals. I am one of those people that when people say Black Lives Matter, I would rather say All Lives Matter because all lives do matter. So I think that is truly what should be said. I get what they're doing what they're trying to push, the true idealism of it. But what we've seen: the protests, the destruction, the chaos, the killing, the looting, that is not what BLM should be. And I don't believe that's what it truly is.
Mary Fitzgerald: I asked Aaron if he thinks there is a problem with systemic racism in America.
Aaron Johnson: No, I don't. I do not think that there's a problem. The problem that we see is what the media hypes up. People take the idea that there is a problem with racism in this country, and they blow it out of proportion. They make it so much worse than it really is. Is there racism? Yes. Is there systemic racism? No.
Mary Fitzgerald: I’ve spoken to Trump voters all over America, and they say things very similar to this. At a Trump road rally just an hour outside Louisville, I met Jeremy and his mother in law Elma. They’d brought three generations of their family out on Main Street in the small town of Lawrenceburg to show their support for the President.
Jeremy: I'm all for Trump. I wish Trump ran years ago, I think getting the country straight financially is a starting point on getting the country straight. All I can say on the Black Lives Matters movement is All Lives Matter. You know, I don't really support it. I think it's radically left driven. That's just my opinion on it.
Mary Fitzgerald: I’ve also spoken to people who didn’t want to be recorded for this podcast, who are backing Trump but won’t say so publicly – or to pollsters. One long-time Louisville resident told me that in his neighbourhood, people who support Trump don’t put out signs in their yard, because they don’t want to get their cars keyed.
Aaron Johnson: I still think that Trump is going to win. It's just like it was four years ago. The silent majority is going to step up on election day and you're going to see a flood of red votes come in.
Mary Fitzgerald: There’s one thing that many of the people I’ve spoken to across the country, Democrat and Republican, have in common. They’re worried about violence on polling day – and afterwards.
Here’s Jeremy again.
Jeremy: Yeah I believe that ANTIFA and stuff. I believe that somebody’s already put in a plan that if Trump gets elected, they're going to go crazy. I think they’re going to burn streets down. I really do. I hope not, I pray not.
Mary Fitzgerald: And here’s Amanda Parker, a lady I met in a swing county in Pennsylvania.
Amanda Parker: I do always get a little apprehensive to go to my polling station personally, because where I live is a very rural area. The majority of the people here are Republicans. There's Trump signs everywhere, Confederate flags hanging on people's porches. It's kind of discouraging. So I always get nervous. I always take my son with me when I go to the polling station, but I'm always very apprehensive when I walk in there. There's not a whole lot of registered Democrats specifically at the polling station I go to, and there's always an intimidating crowd outside waiting for people to walk in and walk out. It's a constant.
Mary Fitzgerald: Brian Hughes is an expert on far-right militia movements at American University in Washington.
Brian Hughes: I'm most concerned about far right paramilitaries and street fighting gangs, taking it upon themselves to monitor polling stations, which would amount to voter intimidation. That is probably the biggest practical concern right now is the possibility of voters being scared away from the polls, because there are gun toting gangs walking around them, or actual scuffles and even violence breaking out because there will be perhaps counter protesters for people who are there to vote who don't appreciate their presence.
Mary Fitzgerald: So in Louisville and across the country, a resurgent racial justice movement – the largest in US history – has caught fire, seeking to finally end the country’s deep racial inequities.
But it’s sparked an intense backlash – and now the fear of election violence looms.
People aren’t talking to pollsters about what they really think. The Democratic candidate is unpopular with much of the party base. The Republican president promises a “law and order” agenda, and refuses to condemn violent militias.
Chris Wallace: Will you urge your supporters to stay calm during this extended period, not to engage in any civil unrest? And will you pledge tonight, that you will not declare victory until the election has been independently certified? President Trump.
President Trump: I’m urging my supporters to go into the polls and watch very carefully, because that's what has to happen. I am urging them to do it.
Stand back and stand buy but I'll tell you what, I'll tell you what, somebody's got to do something about Antifa and the left.
Mary Fitzgerald: What happens next? And whoever wins the election, where does Louisville – and the whole country – go from here?
Join us for Episode 2 - after the election result.