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Excerpt from Oral History Interview with Lyman Johnson, July 12, 1990. Interview A-0351. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) See Entire Interview >>

White Louisville leaders assumed that inequal race relations were "good enough"

Though Louisville had more signs of racial progress than most other southern cities, it was difficult to accomplish further advances in racial equality because white leaders felt that enough had already been done. For example, the Louisville school superintendent assumed that paying black teachers 85% of what white teachers earn was fair considering other cities paid less.

Citing this Excerpt

Oral History Interview with Lyman Johnson, July 12, 1990. Interview A-0351. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) in the Southern Oral History Program Collection, Southern Historical Collection, Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Full Text of the Excerpt

But here's the point that I find hard to understand. Here is Louisville, Kentucky, in 1946-47-48. It doesn't have a Talmadge for a governor. It doesn't have a Bull Conner for a police commissioner or any of these racist segs for mayors and whatnot. It's got Wilson Wyatt. It's got Barry Bingham. It's got Mark Ethridge and Tarleton Collier. It's got Lyman Johnson. It's got Frank Stanley with a newspaper that had been there since the '30s. It's got Central High School that's been-Central High School started in 1888. Atlanta didn't even get it's first black high school until the '40s. Atlanta didn't get a single black policeman until 1948, and Louisville had a black representative in the state legislature in '36. And I'm saying, this must had been accomplished. Why didn't this city go ahead and do the rest of it? Why didn't it become the national model of a real integrated city?
LYMAN JOHNSON:
The only answer I can give is [pause] , "Why aren't you Negroes satisfied? Look how good we are to you. Now, don't bug us too much." That was the attitude. "Don't bug us anymore." And then they'd do all that you just mentioned. "Just look around, look around." What did the superintendent tell me when I was asking him-I was leading a committee of black teachers, fussing and scuffling and trying to get equal pay with white teachers back in 1939, '40, and '41. We were getting 15% less pay. When we were given a job, we'd be put on the schedule with white teachers and then clipped 15% for no other reason than the fact that we were black. The superintendent called me out one day. He brought in five Negro principals and five Negro counselors and me. He had eleven of us Negroes out there at his board of education, and for an hour and a half practically every statement he made was, "Mr. Johnson, don't you see how nice Louisville is in comparison with Birmingham and Atlanta?" I said, "Mr. Superintendent, right out of your office upstairs I've already gotten the information. Your statistics department furnished me with the information, and I think at one of the cities, I think Birmingham, I'd be getting 56% of what the white teachers made. Over in Atlanta, I think it was 64%." He said, "And you're not satisfied with 85%?" I said, "Hell, no, I want 100%. That's your trouble, Mr. Superintendent. I got a master's degree from the University of Michigan, and you've got a man teaching in the white high school who has a master's degree from the University of Alabama, and he's making 15% more money than I do. He teaches the same number of students. He teaches out of the same textbook. We have the same number of classes, and the same number of days per week, same number of hours per week, and he gets 15% more. I've got a master's degree from a school that doesn't recognize the school that the other man got his masters from." I said, "How do you square that with fairness?" He said, "If you're not satisfied with the way we treat Negroes, why don't you quit?" "Because I don't want to quit. You're going to have to fire me, man." See?
JOHN EGERTON:
Yeah, I see what you're saying.
LYMAN JOHNSON:
He was trying to show me I ought to "behave," in quotation marks.
JOHN EGERTON:
You ought to be satisfied?
LYMAN JOHNSON:
I ought to be. He said, he used the word, "Aren't you satisfied? You're making 85%. Look, look, you show that you know what's going on. If you lose your job here, where else in the state of Kentucky will you get as much as you get here?" Well, I guess at Bowling Green I would have gotten about 65%. I'd have gotten about 65% down in Hopkinsville.
JOHN EGERTON:
So the very fact that you were ahead of other people was used as an excuse not to go any farther.
LYMAN JOHNSON:
They were, oh, shall I use the word, kind of smug, sacrosanct. They were sort of feeling like we're so much better Birmingham. Oh my goodness! Mobile, Alabama, you might not get 50%. In my hometown in Columbia, Tennessee, they offered me $55.00 a month, Columbia, Tennessee, $55.00 a month with a year beyond a master's degree. And I said, "Well, Mr. Superintendent, if a young white teacher started out with no experience-I admit I have no experience as a teacher, but I do have a heck of a lot of academic credit-if a white teacher comes in with a master's degree and a year beyond a master's, in your field, not in education courses, but in your field, how much would you give him?" He said, "$110.00." I said, "You'd give him $110 and give me $55! How you square that." He said, "You see, that's the schedule. You get 50% of what the white people get." I said, "You can take the job and stick it up your ass." And my father said, "Son, I didn't teach you, that isn't the language I taught you." I said, "Papa, this is a new day. This is a new day."