Every year, Lundeana Thomas, a theatre arts professor who heads the University of Louisville’s African American Theatre Program, leaders her students in a research and writing project culminating in a theatrical performance honoring King’s legacy. A free event Monday at U of L will be the 15th annual AATP Martin Luther King Day celebration.
This year’s event begins at 1 p.m. at the Playhouse on Cardinal Blvd. Journalist Betty Bayé will deliver the keynote address, and the AATP will perform “Kentucky Women Pushing for Freedom,” a play devised and researched by Thomas and her students.
Thomas says she wasn’t always as motivated to observe the holiday in public – like many, she used to take the day off and relax.
“Every year, I was so happy. It’s Martin Luther King day and I’m off, I’m in my flannel pajamas and I have my coffee and I’m looking at TV,” she says with a laugh. “And a voice spoke to me, saying oh, the work is over, you can sit at home in your pajamas? And then the next morning, I saw [civil rights activists] Anne Braden and Mattie Jones, they were out marching with Louis Coleman. And I thought what they were marching for was so important, and I’m sitting here at home.”
“It convicted me,” adds Thomas. “I’m not going to sit home anymore just because it’s Martin Luther King’s birthday. I need to be doing some work.”
“Kentucky Women Pushing for Freedom” explores the lives and contributions of seven women active in the struggle for civil rights, including Russellville native Alice Allison Dunnigan, the first African American woman to receive White House press credentials; Louisville’s Suzy Post, whose long career in Kentucky includes groundbreaking leadership in the Jefferson County Public Schools desegregation movement in the 1970s, the Kentucky Civil Liberties Union (later the ACLU of Kentucky), the Human Relations Committee and Louisville’s Metropolitan Housing Coalition; and Mae Street Kidd, who championed low-income housing and Kentucky’s ratification of the (more than a century old) 13th, 14th and 15th United States constitutional amendments during her 16-year tenure in the Kentucky House of Representatives.
Thomas says women’s contributions are frequently overlooked in discussions of the Civil Rights movement.
“A lot of times women know about Jesse Jackson, and they know about Martin Luther King of course, and A. Philip Randolph and John Lewis, but they don’t hear about the women who were behind many of the marches and who organized many of the marches,” says Thomas.
The play’s development has afforded Thomas learning opportunities as well. This year, she first learned about The National Association of Colored Women, which united black and white female activists and suffragettes in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, including those in Kentucky. The organization predated the inception of the NAACP by fifteen years.
“It wasn’t like it was only black women helping black women, it was women helping women,” says Thomas. “I think what you see even today in Kentucky is white and black women working together. I’ve seen it myself on so many occasions. It’s fresh and it isn’t done everywhere.”
“We found a woman from Kentucky, an African American woman who was one of first to vote when women got the right to vote,” she adds. “Not only that, but she was a delegate to the Republican convention.”
Senator Georgia Davis Powers, the first African American and woman to be elected to the Kentucky State Senate, will be in attendance to receive a Service to All Mankind award. She organized the 1964 march on Frankfort, where King and Jackie Robinson spoke, and authored the memoir “I Shared the Dream,” chronicling her role in the Civil Rights movement and her relationship with King. Longtime Louisville activists Mattie Jones and Gracie Lewis will also be honored.