Happy Chandler’s reaction to Sturgis and Clay

April 13, 2011 in 1950s-1960s, Social history

After the U.S. Supreme Court ruled segregation unconstitutional with the historic 1954 decision in Brown v. Board of Education, all the public schools in the country were forced to desegregate with “deliberate speed”.  As expected most southern states decided to take their time desegregating public schools and whenever the federal government pressured them to hurry the process, the southern would think of clever reasons why desegregation would harm the community in order to delay the process.

Desegregation in Kentucky went relatively smooth except for two instances in the western Kentucky cities of Sturgis and Clay, located in Union County and Webster County respectively.  Ironically, these two instances happened within a period of eighteen days.  From September 5 to September 22 of 1956, not only were the eyes of Kentucky on these two cities, but the eyes of the nation as well.  Fortunately for the commonwealth, Happy Chandler was our governor.  Governor Chandler had served as governor from 1935-1939 and then went on to be a U.S. Senator from 1939-1945.  Surprisingly, Chandler then went on to serve as the commissioner of  Major League Baseball from 1945-1951, where he helped to integrate baseball and even helped to bring Jackie Robinson to the Brooklyn Dodgers.  Then he returned to the bluegrass to serve his second term as governor from 1955-1959.

The desegregation trouble in Kentucky started in Sturgis on the morning of Sept. 5 as a group of African-American children were walking to school and a mob of white farmers blocked the young children from entering the school.  Governor Chandler was informed of the incident and immediately order the Kentucky State Guard and the Kentucky State Police to protect the children so they would be allowed to attend school that very day.  At the same time a similar scene was occurring in Webster County in the city of Clay.

For the next eighteen days, the Kentucky State Police, the Kentucky State Guard, and the U.S. National Guard all worked together to ensure the safety of the African-American students in both Sturgis and Clay.  When the officers and guardsmen were only asked to escort the children to school and nothing more, Governor Chandler insisted that the men stand by the child in school in order to protect them.

Many white Kentuckians were upset with Governor Chandler because he supported the African-American students and some people even called for his impeachment, but Chandler defended himself by saying, “When the Governor takes office, he puts one hand on the Bible and takes an oath before God to protect the humblest citizen.  What we did today is in keeping with the oath I took.”  he also told the people of Sturgis to “go about their own businesses” and that they just might find out that “the children wouldn’t mind integration.”  Even after things started to simmer down in Sturgis and Clay, Chandler told the press that he would keep Guardsmen in the two cities as long as it was necessary to maintain law and order.  When Chandler released the executive order activating the Kentucky State Guard, he justified the whole process saying that it was deemed a federal law by the Supreme Court and since Chandler is Governor of Kentucky, it is his duty to see that it is enforced.

State attorney General Jo M Ferguson ruled that since neither school board in Union Co. or Webster Co. had any provisions for an “orderly process” of desegregation established, the black students could not attend.  She insisted that provisions who be made and then the students could attend the schools.  However, NAACP lawyer James A. Crumlin quickly filed a suit asking the court to enforce desegregation in Kentucky.  The court directed the two school boards to establish desegregation plans that would be enforced the following year in 1957.


Works Cited

“Albert Benjamin Happy Chandler.” Major League Baseball. Available from http://mlb.mlb.com/mlb/history/mlb_history_people.jsp?story=com_bio_2. Internet; accessed 13 April 2011.

Trowbridge, John. Available from http://kynghistory.ky.gov/NR/rdonlyres/4AF62952-3762-472D-A52A-D18F8122C5C5/0/sturgisandclayky1956.pdf. Internet; accessed 13 April 2011.

4 responses to Happy Chandler’s reaction to Sturgis and Clay

  1. I have heard the name Happy Chandler many times since moving to Kentucky. I never knew his accomplishments or that he stood up for desegregation with such a response as you have written about. During this class project, I have read about many people displaying the intestinal fortitude required to make our country a better place to live. It makes me proud to know that many Americans stood up for what was right in a time that was so wrong!

  2. I knew of Happy Chandler being the commissioner of baseball in the mid and late 1940’s, however I didn’t know he had stood up for desegregation so strongly, I agree with Colsanders. It can clearly be seen after reading this paper why Happy Chandler is one of the most talked about Governors of Kentucky.

  3. I have been a citizen of Kentucky my whole life and have never heard of this story or of Happy Chandler. I have multiple interests in this story because I am also a diehard baseball fan.
    Reading this story makes me really proud to be a Kentuckian. Seeing how Chandler stood up and and wanted to see federal law carried out properly. Interesting how some states saw their independent states rights as more important than federal rights. This same fight between state/federal is still being fought today in Kentucky with coal mining restrictions.

  4. My father, Ted M. Yeiser was head of the National Guard unit of Henderson, KY that governor Chandler sent to Sturgis to integrate and protect the black students attempting to attend Sturgis high school. I have heard my father speak about these days all of my life. I am proud of his actions.

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