1960s Louisville civil rights leader Raoul Cunningham to present MLK Day lecture Jan. 18

Dec. 22, 2009

Raoul Cunningham, a leader in the 1960s civil rights movement in Louisville, Ky., will present the Martin Luther King, Jr. Day Lecture at Luther College on Monday, Jan. 18, 7 p.m. in the Center for Faith and Life main hall.

Cunningham’s presentation is open to the public with no charge for admission.

The 2010 Martin Luther King, Jr. Day Lecture coincides with the 50th year celebration of the sit-in movement in Greensboro, N.C., and Nashville, Tenn. Those sit-in movements gave rise to the Louisville movement that drew international attention to the civil rights struggle in 1961.

Cunningham began his civil rights activities when, at the age of 14, he joined the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People Youth Council. Cunningham joined the effort to register blacks to vote and worked to elect Woodford R. Porter as the first black to serve on the Louisville Board of Education.

In 1959 Cunningham participated in his first direct nonviolent action campaign with the Youth Council when the Brown Theater would not admit blacks with mail-ordered tickets to see the all-black movie “Porgy and Bess.” The campaign ended when the students returned to school in January, and the theater remained segregated.

In January 1961 the NAACP Youth Council and the Congress of Racial Equality started the Louisville movement by demonstrating in downtown Louisville. Cunningham was the first of many students arrested.

The demonstrations, along with negotiations, an economic boycott and voter registration, ended segregation in Louisville.

As a Howard University student, Cunningham managed the successful campaign to elect Georgia Davis Powers as the first African American and first woman to the Kentucky Senate. He has been involved in government, politics and civil rights ever since.

Cunningham served as senior assistant for legislation and community relations for U.S. Sen. Walter D. Huddleston for 12 years, working on a variety of issues including civil rights legislation and the Martin Luther King Holiday Bill.

He served as deputy commissioner of the Kentucky State Department of Personnel, where he directed the affirmative action plan for the state. After leaving state government, he became vice president of public affairs for U.S. Corrections Corp.

In 2000 Cunningham was asked to serve as NAACP Voter Empowerment Program Region III and State coordinator. He led the drive that registered more than 6,000 African Americans in a two-month period.

He agreed to serve temporarily as the national deputy director of the Voter Empowerment Program at the NAACP national headquarters in Baltimore.

Cunningham served as president of the Louisville Branch NAACP for 2005-06. He currently serves on the Kentucky advisory committee for Help America Vote, executive board of the Kentucky Historical Society, and committee on equal opportunity for the Council on Postsecondary Education.

In 2003 Cunningham was inducted into the Kentucky Civil Rights Hall of Fame. He was awarded the 2006 Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Freedom Award by the City of Louisville.

Cunningham has been featured on Kentucky Educational Television and been honored in numerous publications, including “Who’s Who Among American Blacks,” “Who’s Who in American Politics,” “The Fascinating Story of Black Kentuckians: Their Heritage and Tradition” by Alice A. Dunnigan, “I Shared the Dream” by Georgian Davis Powers and “Sundays Down South” by James Chatham.

Cunningham’s lecture at Luther is part of the nationwide observance of Martin Luther King, Jr. Day. During his lifetime, King sought to forge the common ground on which people from all walks of life could join together to address important community issues.

Working alongside people of all ages, races and backgrounds, King encouraged Americans to come together to strengthen communities, alleviate poverty, and acknowledge dignity and respect for all human beings. King’s legacy is the continuing work for tolerance, peace and equality.