I kinda just had the wind knocked out of me.
Just now, my family and I were leaving a local pub-grub restaurant — wings and sandwiches and such. At the door, as with many local establishments, there was a newspaper stand holding copies of the Louisville Eccentric Observer — LEO, as the locals call it — a small, independent, but very important paper that publishes the little details the Courier-Journal leaves out, and often keeps the CJ honest and accountable. I usually pick it up in a week because it contains News of the Weird, and the New York Times Sunday Magazine crossword. My old friend Sean Garrison used to write for LEO, as did Carl Brown, the ex-Alderman and social justice warrior. It was founded by Rep. John Yarmuth in my teens, and has become an institution.
But I digress – this story isn’t about LEO.
On the bottom of the cover page, the lower-left corner, was a subheader that took my breath away. Put a little crack in my cold, black heart.
“George Burney Kept The Dream Alive. Page 8.”
It’s always a little sad to see a friend referred to in the past tense. Especially when you hadn’t known he had passed.
George Burney, Sr. was a friend of mine, in that way that a regular customer becomes a friend. I’m not sure he’d have remembered my name. But I certainly knew his. I got to know George some years ago when I was working at a long-departed print shop on Main Street, across from the Kentucky Center for the Arts. He was a smallish man and balding on top, the type of man you knew had been very fit in his youth and his care for his body had served him well in his age – he was past 70 when we met, and still moving very well. He was always dressed in the cream-and-brown hues typical of a black man of his age, dress shirts and slacks, and soft brown dress shoes – unlike the usual elderly man, this man had no pain in his legs that he would let on. He spoke in clear, determined tones, and he met your eyes when he talked to you. George Burney was dignified in the way of a man who had the courage of his convictions.
I met George largely because of my coworker’s scorn. Our storefront was entirely glass, and at the front counter, she and I could see our customers coming from a distance. This could often be advantageous – regular customers tend to have similar orders and we could be prepared for them. But it often led to situations where one or the other of us would avoid certain folks. Let’s be clear – I detested this woman. She was a tall, thin, snotty bitch who looked down on others and acted as if her time was too important for small things – she had Important Work to do. On the day I met George Burney, she saw him first and dismissed him with a sigh and an eye-roll before he even reached for the door. “Will you take care of him? Ugh.”
Of course. I’m a customer service representative. It’s my job to take care of him and everybody else. That’s what Mr. Hurt pays me to do.
A lot of times, elderly customers require a little more time and patience. They come from a different time, a time of more personal care and a slower pace of things, where getting as much done as possible wasn’t as important as doing what’s in front of you really well. It’s my opinion that elderly folks are exactly right about that. And sometimes they just want someone to talk to. George didn’t need people to talk to – he had lots of friends. But he was a talker, just the same. And I soon found out why.
The reason that Philaine didn’t want to help George is that his work was largely what we called onesies – single copies of documents that had to be hand-placed on the glass of a copy machine, color copies of photographs that required delicate handling, things like that. She was wrong to feel that way – not only is that work lucrative (it’s expensive) but you never know what a customer will bring in next. One day it’s a few family photos, the next it’s ten-thousand copies of promotional material. Even if not, your customer is trusting you with precious memories, and it’s our job to treat them and their documents with care and respect. That’s just how you treat people.
So, part of handling these documents with care is that you have to look at them. And I began to discover an amazing story.
George Burney was the World’s Greatest Dancer.
I guess he had been cleaning out some old boxes or the like, and preserving these photos and articles for his family. But I began to read and look, and I was blown away. Photos of George with James Brown and Muhammad Ali and Wilson Pickett. Photos of George on the Tonight Show, leaping over a row of 15 folding chairs under a banner that said “World’s Greatest Flashdancer!” Photos of George performing at the Apollo, and laughing with Duke Ellington. Onstage with Bob Hope.
At some point the photos changed.
Photos of George at a Woolworth’s lunch counter in Seattle. There was a news clipping with that one.
A photo of George at the Louisville Greyhound station, being spit on by a white man. That one came from the Courier-Journal. He and his friends integrated the bus terminal that day, he said.
A photo of George Burney and Fred Shuttlesworth. One with AD King. You know his brother, Martin. They marched on Frankfort together in 1964, and in 1968, Kentucky was the first Southern state to pass a Civil Rights Act.
And slowly the photos began to change again. Photos of the annual Martin Luther King Motorcade. Photos with the police chief, and Dr. Kevin Cosby, judges and politicians. And always George Burney.
It didn’t matter why he was documenting these things and preserving these photos. Doesn’t matter who sees them. I got to see this amazing life, and hear these stories directly from the man who lived it. I got to be friends with George Burney.
One day during one of our photo-copying sessions, George asked me if his tax-exempt certificate was on file with our business. I asked Philaine, and she scoffed. “Why would George be tax exempt? Those old pictures?” So I told him no, but if he would bring me a copy, I’d be glad to file it and enter it into our system so he wouldn’t pay sales tax anymore. The next time I saw him, George was carrying his tax certificate, and a different file folder.
George wasn’t just the world’s greatest old dancer. He was the president of PRIDE, Inc. PRIDE stands for “People’s Rights In Demanding Equality.” PRIDE raises funds and distributes help to disadvantaged folks in Louisville. Not like the big organizations that build community centers and renovate things and pay their people a ton of money. PRIDE donates turkey dinners to nursing homes and Easter candy and Christmas presents to families. When George or one of the other seven volunteers (who make up the entire staff of PRIDE) found out a family was hungry, there was a Kroger giftcard or a Walmart giftcard to mysteriously appear in their hands. That kind of help. PRIDE has a yearly budget of $6,000.
That year I got to photocopy the fliers for PRIDE’s involvement in the Martin Luther King Motorcade. And I started to hear other stories, from other folks. How he never really had an official assignment in the Jefferson County courthouse, but he was a ‘volunteer courthouse liaison’ – he found ways for victims to be heard, and found ways for families to post bond for young people who had made life mistakes. How he recruited Attorney General Jack Conway to be the Grand Marshal of the motorcade, and how he went from volunteer to coordinator of the motorcade itself. And in 2015, how his own movement became the theme of the motorcade: Stop The Killing.
Not bad for the World’s Greatest Dancer. And certainly worthy of my time and effort to help him. George Burney was my friend, and I hope he knew how much I respected him and how memorable he was to me. I would never have known, if I had rolled my eyes, if I had been in a hurry to dismiss an old man to get to my important work. George’s work was more important than anything I’ve ever done.
George L. Burney, Sr. passed away on the morning of Wednesday, June 28, 2017, at 89 years old. He was the first black Disc Jockey at WLOU-FM and a member of the Kentucky Commission on Human Rights’ Hall of Fame. He was the President of PRIDE, Inc., a founder of the Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Annual Motorcade, and a member of King Solomon Missionary Baptist Church. His beloved hometown of Louisville, Kentucky has resolved that the segment of Hill Street between 22nd St. and Wilson Avenue shall be renamed “George L. Burney, Sr. Way” in his honor.
In lieu of flowers the family has requested donations be made to PRIDE, Inc., 2708 Allston Ave., Louisville, KY 40210.