Segregated Clubs in Kentucky Raise Issues for Private Business, Civil Rights Law

Krissah Thompson, Washington Post, June 2, 2010

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his comments, and Paul soon backed down, saying he supports the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and would not want it to be repealed.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

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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.

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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.” {snip}

{snip} 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. {snip} 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. {snip}

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.”

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Because Liz Carter is white, she’s banned from debating Democrat Rep. Hank Johnson and the other black candidates running for his Georgia congressional seat at a candidate forum in Atlanta tonight.

The forum, moderated by Newsmakers Live, is solely for the black Republicans and Democrats running for Johnson’s 4th Congressional District seat, Carter took to the Internet to say.

Carter, a Republican, expressed her disappointment on Twitter Wednesday, asking, “What happened to diversity?”

“We called them, we asked to participate,” said Carter’s campaign manager, Cheryl Prater. But she said Newsmaker Live’s event moderator, Maynard Eaton, told the campaign that because Carter is white, she’s only allowed to sit in the audience and not participate.

Newsmakers Live is a black media organization, which according to its website has a “global urbane perspective” and publishes a weekly journal and video show that “embodies a unique ‘infotainment’ concept that specializes in intense interviewing of prominent personalities and political figures.” Its website includes videos titled, “Are Black Babies An Endangered Species,” and “Moving African-American Businesses to the Next Level.”

Maynard, the editor-in-chief of Newsmakers Live, did not immediately respond to a request for comment by e-mail. But a flier advertising the event’s guests only shows the photos of the three black Democrats and one black Republican running for the seat: Hank Johnson,Vernon Jones and Connie Stokes, all Democrats, and Republican candidate Cory Ruth.

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