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Amid Protests For Racial Justice, Activists Ask Kentucky Derby To Take A Stand


It's not the first Saturday in May, but this is Kentucky Derby day. (Vocalizing). The postponing of the race is just one reason the 146th Derby is one for the history books, as WFPL's Stephanie Wolf explains.


UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER: Maximum Security keeps on fighting. War of Will...

STEPHANIE WOLF, BYLINE: Often referred to as the two most exciting minutes in sports, the Kentucky Derby is also a marquee social event - days of fanfare, parties, parade, a massive fireworks show.


WOLF: A lot of that is gone this year due to the global pandemic. And even more notable, none of the 155,000 plus fans in the grandstands, a revision Churchill Downs, the home of the derby, made recently.

That's not all that's different this year, though.


UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: It is our duty to fight for our freedom.

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTER: It is our duty to win.

WOLF: Louisville just marked 100 consecutive days of protest against racism and police violence. And demonstrators plan to make Derby 101 days. Several groups held a press conference near Churchill Downs Friday. This is Aaron Jordan of No Justice No Peace Louisville.

AARON JORDAN: We have several Black-led organizations behind us, and we have full intent to black out Derby.

WOLF: There have been demands to cancel Derby, something that's never been done before. Haven Harrington is CEO and host of Main Events Sports radio. He's covered the Derby for years. He thinks it should be run. It's the city's signature event. But while the horse racing industry doesn't often weigh in on social justice issues, Harrington says now is not the time for silence.

HAVEN HARRINGTON: In this town, you know, which is still waiting on bated breath for what's going to happen with, you know, Breonna Taylor and the officers involved - can't just be big hats and pretty dresses. You have to say and do something to acknowledge the situation.

WOLF: Churchill Downs did issue a statement Thursday afternoon, acknowledging how Black jockeys once dominated the race but were then excluded and acknowledging the pain community members feel right now as they wait for the state attorney general and FBI to conclude their investigation into the police killing of Breonna Taylor. Yet it's important to carry on, says Churchill Downs CEO Bill Carstanjen. Here he is talking on CNBC.


BILL CARSTANJEN: This is an important part of healing. This is an important part of our traditions and culture in our community.

HANNAH DRAKE: Tell me how this would unify this community, the running of horses.

WOLF: Poet and activist Hannah Drake lives near Churchill Downs. She's had a simmering frustration with the Derby for years, even more so, she says, as she faces arrest for obstructing a highway by protesting in the streets.

DRAKE: But it's fine for Derby to inconvenience me and block off streets, not let me pass. That's fine.

WOLF: Drake, who is Black, recently wrote a letter to the CEO asking for some self-reflection of the institution's lack of Black representation and a lack of, in her opinion, compassion.

DRAKE: This is an institution that can redeem itself. And they need to start by asking themselves how can we be better neighbors to the adjacent community and to the city.

WOLF: One way she thinks they could do better is by dumping a tradition she says is rooted in racism.


UNIDENTIFIED SINGER: (Singing) Then my old Kentucky home, goodnight.

WOLF: Since the 1920s, Derby fans have sung the state song "My Old Kentucky Home" before the big race, sometimes weeping as they do so. It's been called an anti-slavery song, but Emily Bingham says that's inaccurate. She's a Louisville-born historian, who is working on a book on the history of the minstrel song.

EMILY BINGHAM: It was written by a white man from Pennsylvania about a Black person being sold down river from Kentucky to the Deep South, to be sung by white men pretending to be Black men on stages for white audiences.

WOLF: Bingham adds that the man who wrote it, Stephen Foster, was not an abolitionist. Churchill Downs says it will be played this year. But after some discussion, they've decided to have it performed by a solo bugler, following a moment of silence. Poet Hannah Drake says that makes no difference. It still doesn't align with their statement about empathy and change. For NPR News, I'm Stephanie Wolf in Louisville.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Stephanie Wolf
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