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

By Krissah Thompson
Wednesday, June 2, 2010; A01

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his comments, and Paul soon backed down, saying he supports the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and would not want it to be repealed.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.

Since then, "there have been tremendous changes," said John Johnson, executive director of the commission. "The truth is that if people were going to do the right thing, there would have never been a need for these laws to be on the books to begin with." The case, which pitted the private clubs against a state agency, reflects the kind of government intervention that Paul seemed to reject.

Kentucky is not the only place where some clubs have been slow to open their doors to blacks. Katon Dawson, South Carolina's GOP chairman, quit the Forest Lake Club in Columbia in 2008 when it came out that the 80-year-old country club had no black members. Dawson said he had pushed for it to change. Former Maryland governor Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. (R) got into similar political trouble in 2005 when he held a fundraiser at the Elkridge Club in Baltimore, which had no black members at the time. At first, Ehrlich said the club's membership was "none of my business." Later he said the club should diversify.

McCall does not deny that for many years whites resisted integrating the clubs. But he said they face a different problem now that they are desegregated: Many prominent blacks decline invitations to join.

As Smith explains it, "Who wants to be in that environment, given the history?"

One person who does is William Summers V, 38, a banker in Louisville who was the first African American to accept membership in McCall's club. He said he joined because, like Coleman, he believes blacks should be a part of all segments of the city's social life. His grandfather owned the local R&B radio station, and his father has been deputy mayor for 21 years.

"I lived in Louisville all my life, and I had no idea the club existed," Summers said. "There shouldn't be any place in my home town that isn't diverse."

On a quick tour of the Louisville Country Club, founded in 1908, Summers paused at a wall of old pictures: white men in billowing golf pants; a crowd of jolly white faces at a 1939 dinner dance. Upstairs, antique china painted with pheasants hangs on the wall in the casual family dining room. The cozy dining room across the hall once seated only men, Summers said, looking self-conscious. "You can't change the past."

Research editor Alice Crites contributed to this report.

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