Segregated clubs in Kentucky raise issues for private business, civil rights law

By Krissah Thompson
Wednesday, June 2, 2010

LOUISVILLE -- The push to integrate Kentucky's private social clubs, whose members clung to old notions of Southern white privilege for decades after the end of Jim Crow, began in the early 1990s with a lone, quiet protest: At lunchtime on days when the weather was nice, a black preacher and civil rights activist named Louis Coleman would put up a folding card table in front of one of the many unofficially restricted clubs here; set it with a tablecloth, china and candles; and dine on buns and lemonade.

Coleman died in 2008, but his efforts drew the attention of the state's Commission on Human Rights, which opened a decade-long inquiry into Kentucky's country clubs and men-only dining societies.

A 2004 state Supreme Court ruling pushed Kentucky's remaining segregated clubs to stop the discrimination or risk losing tax deductions. Still, at least one club held out until late last year.

But the idea that the government has no right to interfere with membership practices of private businesses and clubs is still prevalent enough here that it has become a point of controversy in this year's U.S. Senate race in the state. Republican Party nominee Rand Paul caused a stir last month when he said he believed private businesses should not be forced to abide by civil rights laws.

Republican Party leaders wanted nothing to do with his comments, and Paul soon backed down, saying he supports the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and would not want it to be repealed. But some in Kentucky welcomed his remarks. For many years, Kentuckians who belong to the state's most exclusive clubs have made the same argument that got Paul into trouble. Two decades after prominent country clubs in many other states began to accept their first black members, some here remained segregated, said Gerald Smith, director of African American studies at the University of Kentucky.

It is that social atmosphere that allowed Paul to question an area of civil rights law that most politicians consider beyond debate, Smith said. "The things that we are highlighting as though they are newsworthy are no longer news in a whole lot of places. We are still dealing with 'first' stuff."

The Idle Hour Country Club in Lexington is one example. The club, founded in 1924, is known for its pristine 18-hole golf course, clay tennis courts and Southern cuisine. Until seven months ago, it had never had a black member.

Phil Scott, chairman of Idle Hour's board, said he agreed with Paul's initial view that there is "tension" regarding the rights of private groups and the protections of civil rights law. "We all have the right under the Constitution to meet with people and be with people we want to be with," said Scott, a trial lawyer. "On the other hand, there are equal protections under the law. The question is: Which is going to prevail?"

The prevailing view at Idle Hour has always been: If we don't want you, we don't have to take you. "That's very plain," Scott said. "There is no right of membership. It's a privilege." (And one for the privileged. New members pay a $50,000 initiation fee.) The club accepted its first black member -- retired NBA player Sam Bowie, who attended the University of Kentucky and is well known in Lexington -- in November. "Sam's just like everybody else," Scott said.

The Louisville Country Club accepted its first black members in 2006. John McCall, the club's president and an executive at a local energy company, said he feels strongly that it and others "should have moved faster." (He declined to say how many black members are there now.) Yet he, too, resists the notion that government should have a say in how his club operates. "You will have a more successful value-based society" if you can move people to the "right conclusions about their own lives than if you force it," McCall said.

Coleman wasn't content to wait. His theatrical luncheon protests prompted the Kentucky Commission on Human Rights to file a discrimination complaint in 1994 against Idle Hour, the Louisville Country Club and the Pendennis Club. The clubs countered that they were entitled to the right of privacy and free association under the Constitution.

The state Supreme Court ruled in 2004 that the commission could force the clubs to open their records, under a state law that prohibits club members from taking tax deductions for dues to clubs that discriminate.

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