Historical Marker #1998 in Louisville notes the pioneering civil rights efforts of I. Willis Cole, noted publisher of "The Louisville Leader," an African American newspaper.
The great abolitionist Frederick Douglass once said, "Those who profess to favor freedom and yet depreciate agitation, are people who want crops without ploughing the ground; they want rain without thunder and lightning; they want the ocean without the roar of its many waters. The struggle may be a moral one, or it may be a physical one, or it may be both. But it must be a struggle. Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will." Publisher and activist I. Willis Cole was of like mind. He rarely held his pen to save someone their feelings. In one issue he wrote, "At all times you do not speak, and often we suffer because of this. The things that I have written are those in which I believe. I make no apology for them. I shall not squirm nor shall I quibble, and I shall continue to 'think as I please.'"
Cole was born in Memphis, Tennessee, in 1887. He graduated from high school and LeMoyne Junior College (LeMoyne-Owen College today) in Memphis and moved to Louisville before World War I. Cole initially worked as a salesman, but he soon put down $50 to start the "Louisville Leader" a black weekly newspaper for the city. Cole began publishing in 1917 and the newspaper flourished through the 1920s, 30s and 40s, eventually reaching a circulation of more than 20,000 readers.
Cole was steadfast and militant in his demand for equality before the law, and was also a constant opponent of segregation. He led efforts to prevent the segregation of Louisville's street cars and fought to keep city parks desegregated. In addition, he battled to obtain funding for black educational facilities that resulted in the construction of two junior high schools and helped fund the Louisville Municipal College for Negroes. Cole also encouraged blacks to exercise their right to vote, and, in 1922, he ran for a seat in the Kentucky state senate but lost.
Cole's dedication to service was witnessed by the number of organizations in which he participated. He was the vice-president of the National Negro Business League, recording secretary of the National Negro Press Association, president of the Louisville chapter of National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, and president of the Falls City Chamber of Commerce.
Cole died on February 19, 1950. His family continued to run the newspaper but it suspended publication that fall. Cole, however, left a legacy of what can be done with persistence and standing up for one's beliefs.