Learning to Live Together: Murray Atkins Walls’s Fight for a Fairer Louisville

In the age of Black Lives Matter, Standing Rock, and #SayHerName, it may seem pedantic or even a bit naïve to say that nothing happens in a vacuum and that movements are never, even when histories claim otherwise, singularly focused. Still, the demand that participants in protest actions be pure and purely motivated — to swallow a doctrine hook, line, and sinker — persists as we build the narratives of contemporary movement cultures. We only need to look at the life of Murray Atkins Walls, a Kentucky Civil Rights hero and all around badass woman, to see that activism requires seizing any opportunity to make a “step by step” change — be it fair housing, integrated libraries, or the Louisville Girl Scouts Council.1

Fair Housing and Fair Libraries

Segregated housing for black citizens in Albany, GA. (Warren Leffler/Library of Congress | Public Domain)

In 1935, newly married to Dr. John Walls, Murray left Indianapolis for Louisville. Working with the Works Progress Administration conducting a fair housing survey, Walls was introduced to the city’s segregated housing and educational systems.2 Since the passage of the 1904 Day Law, Kentucky schools at all levels were segregated. Though a Louisville ordinance prohibiting property sale to African Americans was ruled unconstitutional in 1917, the city’s housing patterns remained segregated through de facto measures and government red lining.

Walls would spend the rest of her life fighting for fair housing and equal schools in Louisville. She joined city boards, worked with elected officials in Louisville and Frankfort to push for fair and opening housing, and personally desegregated the main branch of the Louisville Free Public Library.

Over the course of eleven years, Walls and the Louisville NAACP took small steps to gain full access to the Louisville Free Public Library branches. Walls wrote letters, attended board meetings, and used the white and African American newspapers in the city to promote her message. Her fight was practical and personal. She could not use the branch across the street from her home and was denied interlibrary loan privileges for material within the Louisville system.

Separate was absolutely unequal at the Louisville Free Public Library until 1952, when all of the branches were desegregated. The fair housing and library integration fights were about equity, but also opening spaces for neighbors and citizens to learn with each other, to share space and ideas in cultural centers within their neighborhoods and organizations.

Step by step Walls worked to make Louisville a place of opportunity for African Americans — opportunity to live in safe housing; to check out a book at any library branch; to work at or even try on clothes at the downtown department stores.

“You’ve Got to Learn to Know Each Other”

As Walls’s work for fair housing and the library fight gained traction, she also turned her attention to her “beloved Girl Scouts organization.” In 1940, Walls joined an interracial committee to improve the Negro Girl Scout camp program. The Cardinal Girl Scout Council, for Louisville and Southern Indiana girls, was completely segregated. “They had their own cookie money. We had our own cookie money. They had their own camp. We had our own camp,” Walls recalled.3

Murray Atkins Walls in her Butler University cap and gown. (Kentucky Human Rights Commission/Explore Kentucky History)

Separate troops, and especially separate camps at the Girl Scouts’ property Camp Shantituck, were burdensome for the African American troop because their camp occurred almost immediately after school let out for the summer, so there was no chance for the girls to “get their camp fee together.” Further, filling the camp and offering a dynamic, beneficial program was difficult because there were not enough girls of the same age in the Louisville area who could attend Camp Shantituck.4

Following the 1954 Brown v. the Board of Education decision, the Cardinal Girl Scouts Council began to seriously consider integration of operations, especially Camp Shantituck. Walls delivered a moving speech calling for integration for economic, social, and moral reasons. Using the Girl Scouts Purpose and Basic Beliefs to frame her argument, Walls told the group:

It is necessary for our very existence that brown people and white people and yellow people learn to live together amicably and with respect. We must help our young people to hold with respect the dignity of human beings be they white or brown or black or yellow. They cannot have it so long as we set one group off to themselves as untouchables, unworthy of belonging to the whole group. And at the same time those untouchables learn that something is radically wrong and immensely unjust about a code of ethics and standards which will permit any scoundrel if his face is white to belong with the group while anyone whose face is yellow or brown or black no matter how decent, how worthy, how noble, how law abiding — cannot belong.5

By tying the Girl Scouts code to larger societal sins, Walls successfully convinced the Council to vote unanimously to integrate Camp Shantituck for the summer 1956 programs — the summer before Louisville public schools began to desegregate. Camp Shantituck’s integration, in Walls’s memory at least, was a huge success — when schools integrated in the fall of 1957, young black and white girls already knew each other and had lived, played, and worked together at camp. School integration in Louisville did not progress smoothly — not that Walls and the Girl Scouts didn’t try — but a busing plan and a lot of white resentment led to a decades long legal battle and ongoing efforts to make public schools in Jefferson County fair and equitable.6 Alongside the continued push for fair housing in the city, it would be easy to look at Walls’ life work and see little progress.

Murray Atkins Walls was a fair housing activist from the day she arrived in Louisville in 1935 until the day she died there in 1993. Being a fair housing activist also meant Walls was a fair libraries activist. And a fair schools activist. And even a fair Girl Scouts activist. Walls’s life work was making a more equal and just Louisville.

Integrated Girls Scouts troop at a program featuring Rosa Parks in 1992. (Library of Congress | Public Domain)

She used accommodationist tactics — working with the Courier Journal; pushing her downtown department store employer to hire more African Americans and pay them equally; joining interracial organizations for social justice, and working within the dominant white power structure to push for legislative action. Her tactics were mid-century, but the holistic approach to change and the interconnected nature of activism led Walls to new opportunities to make slow, measured headway against Louisville’s culture of exclusion.

Notes

  1. Luther Adams, Way Up North in Louisville: African American Migration in the Urban South, 1930–1970 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2010), 122. Return to text.
  2. Adams, Way Up North in Louisville, 105–7, 124, 161–65. Return to text.
  3. Dr. John and Mrs. Murray A. Walls Oral History interview by Dwayne Cox, July 27, 1977, University of Louisville Oral History Center, Louisville, Kentucky. Return to text.
  4. Murray Atkins Walls speech transcript to Louisville Area Council of Girl Scouts, January 31, 1956. Walls Papers, Box 2, Folder 13, Walls (Murray B. Atkins) Papers, Spring 1981, University of Louisville Archives and Records, Louisville, Kentucky; Walls interview, UofL archives. Return to text.
  5. Ibid. Return to text.
  6. Tracy K’Meyer, From Brown to Meredith: The Long Struggle for School Desegregation in Louisville, Kentucky, 1954-2007 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2013). Return to text.

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