Few Louisvillians in recent memory possessed more moxie than Rev. Louis Coleman.
The perennial protester, usually dressed in casual gear, armed with a bullhorn and flanked by a small but committed group of like-minded souls, was a familiar sight around Louisville for decades. He put a lot of miles on his well-worn sneakers, marching around constructions sites, factories, neighborhoods and government buildings, all for the purpose of bringing justice to the downtrodden, oppressed and voiceless. And Coleman’s bullhorn – literally and figuratively – made that voice pretty loud and difficult to ignore. In the 1990s, the Courier-Journal mentioned him and his causes 1,706 times.
Perhaps his most significant legacy is his efforts to clean up Louisville’s once famously polluted air. For years, predominantly poor residents in Louisville’s Rubbertown neighborhood endured noxious odors, burning eyes, and breathing difficulties due to the emissions from nearby chemical plants. For 15 years Coleman and crew marched, agitated and aggravated until Louisville’s Strategic Toxic Air Reduction (STAR) was launched in 2005.
Since the program was instituted, air concentrations of the human carcinogen 1,3-butadiene have fallen more than 85 percent. The program is now a national model, and has been lauded by the Environmental Protection Agency for its effectiveness.
Coleman didn’t get to breathe the cleaner air he fought so hard to achieve for the residents of Rubbertown. He died on July 5, 2008, at the age of 64.
A few lessons I draw from Coleman’s life and legacy:
People aren’t necessarily going to understand you, like you, or respect you. By design, Coleman was controversial. He believed that getting attention was the first step towards getting a problem solved, and he wasn’t shy about speaking his mind quickly and loudly.
For that reason, long-time Courier-Journal reporter Larry Muhammad saw Coleman as a rather “ridiculous” Don Quixote-style character, rushing off to tilt at windmills. His view of Coleman changed as he began to work on “Buster!” a play about the life of the activist.
Others’ view of Coleman was even darker, with some suggesting his activism was a racket aimed at pumping money from corporations interested in smoothing the way for their projects into his own Justice Resource Center.
When you take bold action, expect a bold response. Some will laugh you off, others will see you as a threat. Neither seemed to deter Coleman.
Motivation to do something big often comes from something bigger than yourself. For Rev. Louis Coleman, motivation and empowerment for his activism were rooted in his understanding of the Bible. Coleman was a long-time pastor, and cited his faith as the reason he was so committed to social justice. When he read scripture, he saw Jesus repeatedly challenge authority and take up for the underdog. He thought the Christian church should do the same.
Faith in something or someone bigger than yourself is often a theme in the lives of people with moxie. Cultivating that faith, connecting to community and seeking purpose seems key to living a life that is bold and impactful.
Persistence pays off. Coleman and his band of protestors marched around smokestacks in the West End for more than a decade before STAR launched.
People with moxie persist, long after most others give up.
There’s always more to do. Coleman would likely remain unsatisfied with the air quality in Rubbertown and much of the West End of Louisville, which remains worse than the more affluent East End. It’s not difficult to imagine him lacing up his running shoes, grabbing his bullhorn, and leading a small crowd in a rousing chorus of “No justice, no peace.”
People with moxie always look for new challenges to overcome, new ways to make the world a better place, new opportunities to make a mark. They are never satisfied with the status quo, but are always seeking what’s next.