Back-to-black movement takes aim at integration Church in Louisville is at center of fray

February 17, 1992|By Ginger Thompson | Ginger Thompson,Staff Writer

LOUISVILLE, KY. — Weighted with a heritage of moral iniquity from our past history, hard pressed in the economic world by foreign immigrants and native prejudice, hated here, despised there and pitied everywhere, our one haven of refuge is ourselves.

W. E. B. Dubois

LOUISVILLE, Ky. -- Only a few bridges link the worlds of the black minister from Louisville's blighted West End and the white minister from the affluent East Side -- and the traffic generally flows one way.

Children from the predominantly black West End have been bused to schools in the predominantly white eastern suburbs of Jefferson County since 1975. While old housing is allowed to decay in the West End, a steady flow of development on the East Side is luring away those blacks with the means to move.

Those bridges -- built in the name of integration -- are draining the life out of the black community and must be destroyed, says the Rev. Kevin Cosby, 33, the forceful black minister of St. Stephen Baptist Church. His words are inspiring to some, blasphemous to others.

His actions -- leading a successful fight against involuntary busing and advocating black self-preservation at all costs -- have thrust him into the center of one of this city's most heated debates and pushed him to the forefront of a growing movement away from integration by U.S. black leaders.

"I think the civil rights community is out of touch with what's happening," says Mr. Cosby, pounding his fist into his hand. "We went from segregation to desegregation to integration to assimilation to disintegration. Integration meant the disintegration of black institutions."

Once held up as the most effective strategy for achieving racial harmony, integration now is being blamed by some for stealing away the black community's most promising scholars, artists and intellectuals and thereby minimizing the influence of its churches, newspapers, businesses and families.

Longtime civil-rights warriors -- black and white -- remain unswayed. Still vivid in their minds are picket lines and jail cells they endured in order to defeat legalized desegregation in the 1950s, and they refuse to turn back the clock.

"I think a portion of the black community needs [Mr. Cosby's] tonic," says the Rev. Jim Chatham, the white minister of Highland Presbyterian Church in Louisville's affluent eastern suburbs. "But the fact is that the people he is leading need to be able to get along in an integrated society."

Most of the debate has centered on schools. In recent years, students in many of the South's predominantly black public universities have demonstrated to protest proposed mergers with predominantly white universities.

Officials in Norfolk, Va., and Oklahoma City, with the support of black parents, have stopped busing children. Other school systems, from New York to Maryland to Milwaukee, have developed programs specifically for black children.

It is a controversy among blacks that has recently re-emerged in pulpits across the country, as blacks grow increasingly frustrated by the disproportionate amount of violence, drug abuse, poverty and unemployment in their neighborhoods. In the midst of the fray stand Louisville's St. Stephen Baptist Church and Mr. Cosby.

'Love that empowers people'

Mr. Cosby lived in a predominantly white neighborhood in east Louisville but grew up in St. Stephen Baptist Church. His grandfather was minister for 44 years. His mother headed the music ministry until her death 21 years ago.

"It was a place where I saw black people supporting other black people," Mr. Cosby says. "High expectations were set for me, and I learned to love myself. That is the kind of love that empowers people."

When he took over the congregation 13 years ago, Mr. Cosby found his childhood haven surrounded by ramshackle houses, empty industrial plants, liquor stores, pawnshops and prostitutes. He points out tarnished jewels of yesteryear hidden in the decay: Once-profitable clothing stores, restaurants, schools and banks are now boarded up.

He hopes to restore their vibrancy, and in an impressive first step his 1,500-member congregation has built a $1 million Family Life Center. It includes a basketball court with lighted scoreboard and sound system. There is a day-care facility with plush cribs; a music center with organs, pianos and drums; a room for weight lifting and aerobics.

On Friday nights, there are movies for teen-agers and social functions for singles.

He takes great satisfaction in pointing out that no government or corporate dollars went into its construction.


"It is important to show that we can do this without white folks," says Mr. Cosby. "I got tired of spending my money as a guest in their institutions."

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