Mayor Fischer honors George L. Burney Sr. with MLK Freedom Award

January 11, 2016

Activist’s fight for positive social change started with pivotal 1950s sit-in

Mayor Greg Fischer today announced that George L. Burney Sr., a civil rights leader in Louisville for more than 60 years, is the 2016 recipient of the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Freedom Award.

Fischer will present the award at 5 p.m. Sunday, Jan. 17 during the “Keepers of the Dream” community arts celebration dedicated to Dr. King at the Kentucky Center’s Whitney Hall, 501 W. Main St. The event is free and open to the public.

“George Burney has fought for civil and human rights since he was a teenager, and he is still at it,” Mayor Fischer said. “George heard the words of Dr. King decades ago, and carries them still in his heart and his head. Everything he does is based on Dr. King’s message of peace. He loves his hometown and works every day to make it better for all.”

Burney said he is incredibly honored by the award, which is sponsored this year by Republic Bank.

“This is work I have to do, and it’s not done,” Burney said of his decades of activism. “Dr. King preached peace. He would not be happy with what we are doing to each other. He would say get rid of the guns. Take care of the children. Fight the drugs.”

Though he just turned 88, Burney said his work continues, especially trying to end violence. “The mayor is not giving up on the fight. The police chief isn’t giving up. And I’m not either,” he said.

Burney’s activism dates to 1953, when he joined Bishop C. Eubank Tucker in conducting a sit-in in the “whites-only’’  section of the Louisville bus depot, which led to its integration. Since then, as the leader of PRIDE (People’s Rights in Demanding Equality), he is best known for his annual Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. motorcade and memorial service, which began with 10 cars and now has multiplied to hundreds participating to honor the slain civil rights leader each January.

Burney, inducted into Kentucky Commission on Human Rights’ Hall of Fame in 2012, has fought for positive social change through voter registration and education. He has organized food, toy and clothes drives for the needy. He has encouraged education leaders to improve programs for minorities. He has fought for job equality for minorities and women and has helped find lawyers for those who can’t afford them.

As a young man, Burney was a successful bandleader and dancer who toured with the Bob Hope Show, and was part of an integrated group during times of segregation, along with Duke Ellington, Red Foxx, Della Reese, Etta James, Joe Tex and Lionel Hampton.

He lived for a while in Oregon and Alaska before returning to his hometown in 1971. He organized PRIDE while in Portland, Ore., where white firefighters were refusing to ride with black firefighters. He established the Louisville chapter of PRIDE in 1972.

Burney also worked as a volunteer courthouse liaison for 30 years. In 2010, the Louisville Metro Police Department honored Burney as Volunteer of the Year. 

Burney credits much of his success to the loving care of his grandmother, Martha James, who raised him in a home on Magazine Street. Today, Burney and his wife, Barbara, split their time between homes in Vancouver, Canada, and Louisville’s Algonquin neighborhood. They are members of King Solomon Missionary Baptist Church.

The Freedom Award, first presented in 1987, recognizes citizens who have dedicated their lives to promoting justice, peace, freedom, non-violence, racial equality and civic activism.

Last year’s winner was Ed White. Other previous winners include Suzy Post, Ishmon Burks, state Rep. Darryl Owens, Charlie Johnson, Merv Aubespin, Dr. Bernard Minnis, Ben Richmond, Raoul Cunningham, Georgia Davis Powers, Ed Hamilton, Lyman T. Johnson, Beverly Watts, Sam Watkins and Deborah Todd.

Burney will be presented an award of blown glass created by Ché Rhodes, associate professor, Head of Glass, University of Louisville Hite Art Institute.

The Jan. 17 concert and community arts celebration is presented by Kentucky Center ArtsReach, in collaboration with Louisville Metro Government and the River City Drum Corps.

Keepers of the Dream, hosted by Eve Williams, will feature the presentation of the Mayor’s Freedom Award, ArtsReach Living the Vision Awards, Westerfield Tolbert’s recitation of a speech by Dr. King, along with dance, music and spoken word.

Performers include representatives of ArtsReach Dance and Violin Studios from Chestnut Street YMCA, Shively City Hall, Shawnee Arts and Cultural Center, WESTEC and West End School.  Other featured artists are Ashley Cathey, Stephen Bright, Made New, AMPED, Keen Dance Theatre, RCDC Percussion Ensemble, Jreya Kyong and Rickey Reynolds.

Louisville Leopard Percussionists will perform in the Kentucky Center lobby from 4 to 4:40 p.m. Following the main program, there will be a post-show celebration in the lobby featuring River City Drum Corps.