Mother of teen slain during ’68 riots recalls unrest 50 years later

A few weeks after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in 1968, riots broke out in cities across America. There were also riots in Louisville, but they were sparked in the aftermath of a police brutality case as well as racial tensions.

LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WHAS11) — In the 50 years since the riots of 1968, much has changed in Louisville’s West End. Many businesses have long left the area near 28th and Greenwood.

What has not changed in the last five decades, is the love Fannie Groves has for her son James, a 14-year-old boy who was killed by police during the unrest.

RELATED: 50 years after ’68 riots, Parkland, West End still feel effects

“It was hard to believe, you know, because I had never seen a riot before,” Groves said from her more recent home, “I had no idea my son was going to get killed that night.”

She recalled residents demonstrating near 28th and Greenwood. They were fighting against the expected reinstatement of a white police officer who had been suspended for beating a black man weeks earlier.

Stokely Carmichael was scheduled to speak at the demonstration, but according to historian Tom Owen, a false rumor alleging Carmichael’s plane was being intentionally delayed sparked the unrest.

Rioters eventually made their way toward 32nd Street, where Groves lived at the time, just a few feet away from where her son’s life ended.

“I heard the shots. When they shot him, I heard his scream,” Groves recalled, “His last words was mama.”

“I remember mom looking for all of us to make sure we were all in the house that night,” James’ sister Barbara said.

The only child who was not at home was James.

RELATED: One quick snapshot causes Louisville to pause in 1975 riots

His mother let him go to the nearby store to get a soda because, at the time, the riots had not reached their street.

1968 Louisville Riots Articles

The bullets that killed Groves’ son came from a police officer’s gun. She believes police mistook her boy for someone else.

“I walked down there to see was it him and that’s when they told me, pointed the guns on me and told me I couldn’t see him,” she recalled, “Yes, they pointed them at me, put them to my head and told me I could not view whomever it was.”

She said she was told the person killed was a man, not a teenaged boy. It was only when she and her husband went to the hospital did they learn it was James.

“I still don’t understand talking to my dad that night, sitting on his lap asking him when did he have to die and all my dad could do was cry,” Barbara Groves said.

Meanwhile, the mother, who was also grieving, turned her pain into a plea to the community to end the riots before more lives were lost.

“My heart was just about gone and I said, ‘Lord, if somebody don’t try to curb these riots, it’s going to be many more mothers feeling like I’m feeling today.'”

“She stood up for this city,” Barbara Groves said of her mother’s courage, “She had a voice, she spoke out, she helped save this city from destruction and that’s what matters to me today.”

Not all of the destruction could be avoided, but many credit Fannie Groves’ message with preventing even greater loss. Her faith fuels her family’s belief James Groves did not die in vain.

50 years after ’68 riots, Parkland, West End still feel effects

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Plenty can change in five decades. No place knows that more than Louisville’s West End, specifically folks who lived and owned businesses in the Parkland Neighborhood.

Ken Clay is one of those people. He grew up in the West End and owned the Corner of Jazz business which was located at 28th and Greenwood.

“It was a growing little business enclave,” Clay said, “This little strip was THE strip. There was a lot of activity in the area.”

Today, the strip is much different than Clay or Tony Young remember.

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Executive Producer Lena Duncan and Investigative Researcher Andrea Ash contributed to this report. Duncan can be reached at and (502) 582-7224. Ash can be reached at and (502) 582-7297. iTeam Investigator Derrick Rose can be reached at and (502) 582-7232. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook.

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