Walking into History: The Beginning of School Desegregation in Nashville
|Grace McKinley takes Rita Buchanan and Linda McKinley to school among protesters, Nashville, TN, September 1957.|
In September 1957, three years after the US Supreme Court declared school segregation laws unconstitutional, the public schools of Nashville, Tennessee, implemented a "stairstep plan" that began with a select group of first-graders and added one grade a year until all twelve grades were desegregated. Nineteen black first-graders enrolled in eight previously all-white schools. Organized white protesters, led by John Kasper, appeared at most of the schools, but there was no violence. The night after desegregation began, a dynamite explosion destroyed a wing of Hattie Cotton Elementary School, where one black child had enrolled. The violent incident broke the back of the protest movement, and no further demonstrations marked the ensuing days as desegregation proceeded.
At high noon, Nashville time, on Monday, May 17, 1954, all nine justices of the United States Supreme Court in Washington joined in a declaration that legally-sanctioned racial segregation in the public schools is a violation of the US Constitution's promise of equal protection of the laws. The unanimous decision, covering five consolidated cases known collectively as Brown v. Board of Education (for plaintiff Oliver Brown and his daughter Linda of Topeka, Kansas), was to have enormous consequences in eleven southern states, where compulsory separation of the races carried the dual sanctions of law and social custom, as well as in ten other "border" states and the District of Columbia, where an inconsistent mish-mash of segregation laws remained in place. Eventually, public education systems throughout the country would be affected by the historic ruling.
It could be persuasively argued that Brown was the most important legal principle to be shaped by the Supreme Court in the twentieth century, because it ended for all time an unarticulated presumption that some Americans were more (or less) entitled to the legal rights of citizenship than others. Not just students seeking quality and equality in education, but citizens pursuing fair treatment in all walks of life have benefited from the court's interpretation of the US Constitution in Brown v. Board of Education.
Within hours of the 1954 decision, two Nashville attorneys representing the local chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) formally asked the city's Board of Education to end segregation forthwith. Z. Alexander Looby, the chief NAACP attorney in Tennessee and one of two black members of the Nashville City Council, had been practicing law in the city for more than twenty-five years. His young associate, Avon N. Williams Jr., would later become Tennessee's top civil rights lawyer and a standout state senator. They worked closely on racial discrimination cases with Thurgood Marshall, the NAACP's national legal director and lead attorney for the plaintiffs in Brown, who later to became a justice on the US Supreme Court.
Practically speaking, there were four public school systems in the Nashville metropolitan area in 1954: separate but overlapping districts for whites and blacks in the city proper, under Superintendent W. A. Bass, and similarly split districts in surrounding Davidson County, under Superintendent J. E. Moss. In round numbers, there were about ten thousand black students and twenty thousand whites in the city schools; enrollment in the county system was also about thirty thousand, and ninety percent were white. The city's overall population at mid-decade was estimated to be about 175,000 (eighty percent white) and falling; the county was near 150,000 and rising, and soon would be the larger of the two systems.
In each of the school systems, every facility that served blacks was clearly separate, but no fair-minded person would have called any of them equal to the schools reserved for whites. By almost any measure save one—the dedication of teachers—whites enjoyed special advantages: better buildings and equipment, newer textbooks, higher levels of teacher training, smaller pupil-teacher ratios, closer administrative and school board oversight.
Protesters in the street on the day Nashville schools were desegregated, Nashville, TN, September 1957.
The superintendents told Looby and Williams that they would study the Supreme Court ruling and await further instructions promised by the court. Nashville Mayor Ben West also wanted more time to digest the decision, but he offered a conciliatory response. "Our people are law-abiding citizens," he said. "We have no other thought except to conform to the law of the land." County Judge Beverly Briley expressed confidence that any problems brought about by the decision could be worked out in due course at the local level.
As the summer of 1954 passed, it became increasingly clear that no desegregation would take place in Nashville's public schools that fall. (The city's several Catholic schools did remove their racial barriers to admissions at that time, though, under a decree signed by the local bishop, and the demonstration school at George Peabody College for Teachers also desegregated promptly, but no other private schools followed suit.) A biracial and advisory Citizens Committee for Public Schools was formed, and various religious, educational, and civic groups expressed public support for the principle of equity. In late summer, two white professors at historically black Fisk University, the only unsegregated liberal arts college in the city, asked the school board to permit their children to enroll at black schools near the campus, but the board denied the request, saying that no cross-racial transfers would be approved until the Supreme Court issued more instructions.
Near the end of May, 1955, in a follow-up ruling that would be known as "Brown II," the Supreme Court gave school districts some latitude to work out their desegregation plans locally, "with all deliberate speed," under supervision of the federal district courts. The NAACP attorneys promptly petitioned Nashville's school officials to begin the desegregation process, but again, the Board of Education took no formal action. On the first day of the new term that fall, several black students attempted to enroll in white schools near their homes, but all were refused admission.
Soon thereafter, on September 23, 1955, Looby, Williams, and Marshall filed suit against the Nashville city schools on behalf of twenty-one African American children, one of whom was fourteen-year-old Robert W. Kelley, who had been turned away from East High School. His father, A. Z. Kelley, a barber, agreed to be listed as the lead plaintiff, so the case was named Kelley v. Board of Education. (By historical coincidence, this action came a hundred years after the opening of Nashville's first public school, Hume High and Grammar School, for white boys and girls, in September 1855; Trimble, the city's first school for blacks, was opened in 1870, during the post-Civil War Reconstruction era.)
After hearing the complaint from the NAACP lawyers and the schoolboard's plea for more time, Federal District Court Judge William E. Miller gave the schools six more months to draw up a plan that would comply with the Supreme Court's desegregation decrees. Then, in March of 1956, the school board offered for discussion a tentative plan that would begin desegregation in the first grade the following fall. The plaintiffs' attorneys responded by agreeing to the plan if the entire process could be completed within a fixed period—say, five years, as the Evansville, Indiana, school system had done in 1949–1954—but the Nashville board wanted a slower pace of one grade a year. With the two sides at an impasse, Judge Miller scheduled another hearing for later in the summer.
Emboldened by such delays in Nashville and elsewhere, segregationists were stepping up their opposition across the South. In the spring of 1956, nineteen of the twenty-two southern members of the US Senate (excepting only Lyndon Johnson of Texas and Tennessee's Estes Kefauver and Albert Gore Sr.) signed a manifesto in defiance of the Supreme Court’s desegregation rulings. State legislatures from Virginia to Texas passed a flurry of new laws aimed at tightening restrictions on black rights and shoring up the walls of white privilege. That fall, in a few upper-South communities, modest steps toward ending segregation were met with fierce resistance. The fight to preserve white supremacy was like a gathering storm that would eventually engulf the entire South. Tennessee, no less than the others, was bound to be caught in it.
The state legislature flirted with repeal of its compulsory school attendance laws, even though Governor Frank Clement warned that he would veto any such move. Prominent officials from the more openly rebellious Deep South states came to make fiery speeches in Nashville, exhorting Caucasians to rise up and defend their racial privileges at all costs. Units of the Ku Klux Klan and the newly-formed White Citizens' Council, a sort of white-collar Klan then springing up across the South, held well-publicized meetings in the city. In the forefront of opposition groups locally was the Tennessee Federation for Constitutional Government (TFCG), about which little was known except that it had close ties to the White Citizens' Council. Its chairman was a famed Vanderbilt University writer and English professor, Donald Davidson.
People crowd the room at a Nashville School Board hearing on desegregation, Nashville, TN, March 1956.
The local lines of division in this intensifying national debate were sharply drawn at a public hearing before the Nashville School Board in early March of 1956. An overflow crowd of intensely interested citizens (racially mixed), was told at the outset that the nine-member board had already decided it would not offer any specific desegregation plan at an upcoming hearing on the pending lawsuit in federal district court.
That stance was immediately endorsed from the floor by TFCG chairman Davidson, who asserted that under the doctrine of "states' rights," neither the school board nor the federal courts had any legal authority to override the Tennessee legislature's standing laws requiring strict segregation of the races. If such "defiant actions" were to be attempted, Davidson warned, "The capital city of Tennessee would become an uneasy island of integration surrounded by a tumultuous ocean of protest and discontent/."
But others of local prominence urged the board to move toward change. Attorney Whitworth Stokes, president of the Citizens Committee for Public Schools, said "a host of moderate-thinking people . . . will applaud you if you adopt this plan" of gradual desegregation beginning with the first grade. Another Vanderbilt professor, John Compton, said the question before the board was not whether but when to implement the order of the Supreme Court, "as a matter of justice that has been decided." No members of the school board offered any public response to the speakers.
Desegregation opponents decorate a car for a protest parade, Nashville, TN, March 1956.
A week later, in federal court, the board formally appealed for more time to study and prepare for orderly change. Over the objections of the plaintiffs, the court granted the request, which meant that another school year would begin without the first step being taken to desegregate the system. Seeing this third straight year of delay as a major victory, the fired-up opponents of desegregation celebrated with a motorcade through Nashville accented by blaring horns, Confederate flags, and signs reading:
SOUTHERN WHITES ARE
THE NEGROES' BEST FRIENDS . . .
BUT NO INTEGRATION.
The campaign of relentless pressure on school administrators and board members intensified through the summer, and the beleaguered officials were further vexed in the fall of 1956 when reports of violence at a desegregating high school in the east Tennessee town of Clinton grabbed national headlines.
Brown Comes to Tennessee
As late as 1950, one third of Tennessee's counties provided no high school instruction at all for black students; only those teenagers willing to pay tuition and commute daily to an all-black facility in another county had any chance of earning a high school diploma. To rectify this, a group of black parents in Clinton, the seat of Anderson County, sued the school board that year for their children's right to attend the local high school. (Their attorneys were Avon Williams and Z. Alexander Looby of the NAACP, who would file the Nashville desegregation suit five years later.)
As the Clinton case slowly worked its way through the trial and appeals stages, the Supreme Court was assembling for joint review the cases that would be decided in Brown v. Board of Education. Clinton might well have been one of those—but ironically, by the time desegregation was started there in 1956, it was not even the first school system in Anderson County to remove racial barriers. That happened in September 1955, when Oak Ridge, the sprawling nuclear research facility nearby (a federal installation not subject to state and local governance), merged its separate white and black schools into an integrated system.
Car at segregationist rally, Nashville, TN, March 1956.
Beyond the fact that both lawsuits were filed by the same team of attorneys, the Anderson County story is relevant to what was about to happen in Nashville for other reasons. First, Governor Frank Clement and his attorney general, Roy A. Beeler, supported compliance with the law in both places. (As early as August 1954, Beeler publicly proposed that desegregation in Tennessee schools be started without delay and carried out one grade at a time.)
Second, the character of the opposition was also consistent. In Clinton and Oak Ridge, as later in Nashville, the first sign of resistance came from white men who claimed to represent the Tennessee Federation for Constitutional Government, quickly followed by members of the Citizens' Council and the Ku Klux Klan.
And finally, the most dominant personality in both counties during their times of crisis was the same audacious outsider: Frederick John Kasper, a tall, handsome, twenty-six-year-old firebrand whose drawl and dress (white shirt and tie, tan suit with matching Texas-style hat) concealed his evolving identity as a well-traveled professional agitator from New Jersey.
The picture of Kasper that eventually emerged was a dense tangle of contradictions. At various times he claimed to be president of the Tennessee Citizens Council and an official of the TFCG. His "little black book" held the names and phone numbers of Klansmen and other racial extremists all over the eastern United States. He was said to have earned a degree from Columbia University, operated bookshops in New York and Washington, and befriended the radical poet Ezra Pound, then confined to a mental institution. Kasper, like Pound, was bluntly anti-Semitic—but for reasons unclear, he was openly supportive and friendly toward African Americans until the early 1950s, when a new and menacing personality seemed to take over: Kasper became a rabid racist, burning to make a niche for himself as a roving troublemaker whose mission it was "to protect and defend the purity of the white race."
John Kasper speaking to a crowd, Nashville, TN, September 1957.
In his first swing through the South in the spring of 1956, Kasper found receptive audiences for his message of militant white supremacy. That fall, as the approach of school desegregation in Tennessee was being reported in the national media, the young rebel hurried to Clinton. He almost succeeded in blocking the admission of a dozen black students to the high school there, but the local leadership was ready and willing to obey the law. And so, while Donald Davidson was sending TFCG lawyers into state court in Knoxville to press for restoration of segregation by legal means (a strategy that would prove fruitless), Kasper was out in the streets of Clinton, thirty miles away, stirring up fury among disgruntled whites eager to answer the law with brute force.
Within two days, this mob had taken on a life of its own. They soon overwhelmed the six-man Clinton police force and a hastily summoned auxiliary of deputized citizens. Governor Clement responded swiftly, first with scores of state troopers and finally, at the end of a chaotic week, with a battle-ready unit of over six hundred soldiers from the Tennessee National Guard. They quickly retook the town from the anarchists, staying on patrol there for almost two weeks. During this surreal encounter, Kasper and dozens of his followers were arrested, bailed out, arrested again, charged, tried, acquitted, indicted, charged again, convicted, sentenced, and released on bond while awaiting appeal. Meanwhile, the black students remained at Clinton High School, and the entire town seemed to drift unsteadily into a post-traumatic state of shock.
Eventually, some of the federal charges brought against Kasper—conspiracy, incitement to riot, contempt of court—would be made to stick, and he would be sent to prison for his east Tennessee misdeeds. Until then, he never lacked for money to post bail or appeal a conviction, and even the federal authorities found it hard to put him in jail and keep him there. From the time he first came to the state in the summer of 1956 until he was sent to a federal prison in Georgia in the spring of 1958, Kasper was usually in Tennessee but only rarely in custody. As a freelance provocateur, his services were in demand by one segregationist group or another—the TFCG, the Citizens Council, the Klan. He was living in Knoxville in the summer of 1957 when news came that a federal judge in the state capital was preparing a desegregation order for the local schools. The prospect proved irresistible to Kasper. Nashville was only a three-hour drive away.
The Nashville Plan
Anticipating Judge Miller's almost certain approval of a grade-a-year desegregation plan to begin in September 1957, Superintendent Bass was by then convinced that the time for change was at hand. The Supreme Court had twice ruled unanimously against segregation, yet three years of local argumentation had yielded nothing; if the Nashville school board sought any further delay, Bass reasoned, they would have both the plaintiffs and the courts to answer to. On the other hand, pushing ahead on desegregation was bound to stir the wrath of many white parents, and perhaps draw militant outside forces to the city.
The parents of six-year-old Sinclair Lee, Jr., lead their son to Glenn Elementary, Nashville, TN, September 1957.
Three years earlier, it had been moderate citizens of both races who seemed to be at the forefront of desegregation discussions, and the talk was mostly about when and how court orders should be honored. But over the months and years, the debate subtly shifted. People in the middle were being pulled to one side or the other, where the most extreme choices inevitably came down to just two: complete integration now, or total segregation forever. The former had no vocal constituency; the latter was being pushed hard by the now-familiar phalanx of radical white supremacists, all energized by a feeling of certitude that time was on their side.
William Bass was uncomfortable with such all-or-nothing polarity. His way was consensus—bringing people together, building mutual respect, and giving opponents room to work out their differences in a spirit of fairness and equity. Bass was looking ahead to his retirement at the end of 1957. His successor, already chosen, was to be Assistant Superintendent W. H. Oliver, who also served as principal of East High School. Through the fall and spring of the 1956-57 school year, the two men patiently guided the school board toward approval of a process by which desegregation would begin in the first grade in 1957 and extend to all twelve grades by 1968. Certain white elementary schools would be told to admit any black first graders who lived within their zones. (Nothing was said about how rezoning would affect the black schools to which those children would have gone, or about whites moving into black schools, or about other biracial elementary school zones not made a part of the desegregation plan.)
To further soften the impact of these gradual changes, a liberal transfer policy would be introduced, allowing students whose race was in the minority in their newly assigned schools to opt for a majority-status alternative—that is, choose to remain in segregation. (This provision was later disallowed by the federal courts.)
With the only black member of the board, attorney Coyness Ennix, casting the lone dissenting vote, this plan was approved and presented to Judge Miller in the spring of 1957. The NAACP attorneys called it "completely inadequate," noting among other things that it would deny any relief to Robert Kelley and the named plaintiffs, because all were in higher grades. Judge Miller, while expressing reservations of his own, reluctantly ordered the plan to be implemented in September 1957, with more specific adjustments to be made later. The plaintiffs appealed, but no delay was permitted. (Two years later, the US Supreme Court would give its tacit consent to the Nashville "stair-step" plan; by then, it had become a model of sorts for some other southern school systems seeking a minimal approach to desegregation that would satisfy the court's "all deliberate speed" standard.)
Lajuanda Street and a new classmate at Glenn Elementary, Nashville, TN, September 1957.
As September approached, the school board and administration under Bass and Oliver seemed prepared for this first small step toward racial equity. They heard encouraging words from Governor Clement and Mayor West, who never wavered in their commitment to the rule of law. The all-white and segregation-minded Tennessee legislature passed several bills aimed at blocking desegregation, but most were either vetoed by Clement or declared unconstitutional by the courts. For all their vocal railing against any change in the racial status quo, the state lawmakers could find no effective means of stalling court-ordered desegregation, and neither the Nashville city council nor the Tennessee delegation in Congress actively attempted to prevent Nashville or any other school system in the state from going ahead with its plans.
Until late in July, there seemed to be a general expectation around the city that Nashville's schools—and the community at large—would eventually accept the judgment of the federal courts and quietly lower the barrier of segregation. To be sure, a great many white residents still objected to such a change, and enough of them had expressed their displeasure in public to leave the impression that they spoke for a majority. Those who favored desegregation, white and black alike, were less vocal, making their numbers appear smaller. There were no opinion polls to measure public sentiment—but the courts had spoken, and the political and educational leadership had quietly accepted that judgment. With the opening of schools just six weeks off, change seemed inevitable.
Nashville was almost 180 years old in 1957 (its founding had coincided with that of the American nation), and it wore its age with a certain patrician pride. Early in its frontier history, an admiring local citizen had dubbed it "the Athens of the West" (later remapped to the South by the Civil War and other changes of geography and perspective). Its leaders liked that image; it called to mind a place of reasonable and civic-minded people, of moderately progressive conservatives. In the war of rebellion, Nashville had spread its sympathies in both directions, sending hundreds of its own residents, white and black, to fight and die for the Union Blue as well as the Confederate Gray. It was not a place of extremes, but of the center. Had they been left to their own devices, some Nashvillians apparently believed, they could have worked out their racial problems amicably and equitably.
Such an opportunity for compromise and reconciliation never blossomed in the Nashville of that war-wracked era, and in the postwar Reconstruction era and beyond, the dream of full citizenship for former slaves soon turned to dust. Slavery was gone, but so was the promise of economic and political freedom; every southern state passed laws mandating racial segregation in a "separate but equal" society that assured Caucasians of perpetual advantage in every station of life—in political parties, civic agencies, hotels, theaters, trolleys and trains, from hospital rooms to schoolrooms to the workplace and even the graveyard.
But decades later, in the fall of 1957, a new opportunity was at hand. The elusive ideal of racial equality, often glimpsed but rarely grasped in the United States, was once again coming into focus for Nashvillians—and this time, it was going to be reflected in the quietly serious faces of a few brown-skinned six-year-olds. Powerful forces were rallying to one side or the other, for the children or against them. A fundamental principle of American democracy, as interpreted by the nation's highest court, was about to be applied, and Nashville would be an early testing ground—one of the first of the South's cities to put into motion a comprehensive plan for the desegregation of its public schools, and the only one to that date with a strategy of building from the bottom up, one grade at a time.
Resistance and Resolve
Protesters, reporters, and plainclothes police in front of Glenn Elementary, Nashville, TN, September 1957.
In the sultry heat of late July, more than a month before the beginning of the new school term in Nashville, John Kasper seemed to emerge out of nowhere as the sparkplug of a string of protest rallies in the city. He claimed to be president of the Tennessee Citizens Council, but reporters quickly learned that he was the "outside agitator" who had stirred up a rebellion in Clinton (where he was still causing turmoil with a "White Nationalist" newspaper called the Clinton-Knox County Stars and Bars). "I'm not through up there," Kasper told an audience in Alabama. "It may mean going back to jail, but I'm going back to fight." First, though, he turned toward Nashville, and soon the local rhetoric was as hot as the stifling summer air.
The school board's attorneys advised their clients on August 1 that there was no way to dodge the start of desegregation, saying in effect that it would be safer and wiser to begin—and shift the blame to "a meddling federal court"—than to refuse and risk being held in contempt by Judge Miller. The board and administration unanimously accepted this advice. Then, perhaps to placate their more vocal critics, they gave Kasper a forum at their meeting on August 8, and sat glumly as he read them a long list of criticisms and demands that included a call for the board's mass resignation in protest of the court order.
Kasper also announced that the Tennessee Citizens Council and units of the Ku Klux Klan would soon hold a mass rally in Centennial Park. By then even some of his former allies, including the TFCG, were becoming wary of Kasper. A local Klan leader, Emmett Carr, told a reporter that "one or all three of these things about him is true: He's an integrationist working backward, a government agent, or he hasn't got all his marbles."
Section from Tennessee White Citizens' Council Application, Davidson County, TN.
On another front, a delegation of more than a hundred people calling themselves the Parents School Preference Committee went to see Mayor West, telling him they intended to boycott the schools if desegregation was allowed, and demanding that he endorse their defiance. West not only refused, but told his visitors—with reporters present—that his six-year-old son, Jay, would enter the first grade that fall at Ransom School, in their home neighborhood. Ransom was one of fifteen schools on the published list of prospective desegregation sites.
The Nashville Community Relations Council, a biracial group of moderates and activists, published the names of almost a thousand people who pledged their support for the grade-a-year desegregation plan. In response, a coalition of white groups handed the school board stacks of pages containing an estimated six thousand signatures in opposition to any sort of desegregation. Some Protestant churches and civic clubs formally pledged support to one side or the other, but by far most such institutions and groups avoided taking a stand.
Through the weeks of emotional give and take, there was little doubt that most white Nashvillians opposed desegregation, but in the main, theirs was a "passive resistance" characterized by indirect action and foot-dragging tactics. It was rare in Nashville for deep and serious disagreement on social issues such as this to spill out into public displays of animosity or hostility. Elsewhere in the South, white reaction to the remotest prospect of racial change, especially in the public schools, tended to be more extreme and unrelenting. The commonly used descriptive term for such all-out hostility was "massive resistance."
Fred Stroud leads protest against desegregation, Nashville, TN, 1957.
A special pre-registration of first graders was announced for August 27. When a small number of black parents and their six-year-old children arrived at five soon-to-be desegregated schools, white demonstrators organized by Kasper were already marching around the buildings. Some of them carried signs proclaiming segregation to be "the will of God," a basic right of white people, and a patriotic duty under the flags of the United States and the old Confederacy. In this tense environment, only thirteen black children were registered. With Kasper, the Klan, the Citizens Council, and others of the same persuasion roaming the city under the watchful eyes of Nashville police—and with special security teams shadowing some public officials who had received anonymous threats—the countdown to September 9, the first day of school, proceeded in an atmosphere of mounting anxiety.
And, to make matters worse, trouble was also brewing elsewhere in the South. On September 4, Governor Orval Faubus precipitated a major crisis when he called out the Arkansas National Guard to prevent nine black students from enrolling at all-white Central High School in Little Rock. Before that conflict ended, the President of the United States would have to nationalize the guard and send additional US Army troops to the beleaguered school to protect the new enrollees from raging mobs of whites. On the same day desegregation began in Nashville, a combined total of twelve black teenagers gained admission to previously all-white high schools in the North Carolina cities of Charlotte, Greensboro, and Winston-Salem, in spite of disruptive opposition. And in Birmingham that day, a black minister and his wife, with their teenage daughters, were set upon by a mob of white men outside the segregated high school to which they had gone hoping to enroll the two girls. Police were present but did nothing to protect the Reverend Fred Shuttlesworth and his family, who barely managed to escape without serious injury.
Nashville's power structure—its political and economic elite, exclusively male and Caucasian—saw themselves and their city in a different light: as segregationists, to be sure, and as champions of white privilege, but not as militant, violent reactionaries prepared to abandon the rule of law in order to perpetuate the many racial inequities that supported their "Southern way of life." Official Nashville was not willing to defy the federal courts; instead, it was offering, three years after the Brown decree, a modestly crafted desegregation plan that was the essence of tokenism—and its school leaders, politicians, police officials, and opinion makers (including the morning Tennessean and the more conservative Nashville Banner) reacted with varying degrees of acquiescence.
Out of an estimated fourteen hundred black children expected to begin the first grade, only 126—not even one in a hundred—had been declared eligible for rezoning to fifteen all-white elementary schools closer to their homes than the nearest all-black one—and more than three-fourths of those families eventually requested transfers to avoid the change. Some black parents received anonymous threats on the phone or in the mail; others were told that their jobs would be in jeopardy if they sent their children to white schools. The success or failure of Nashville's first step on the long road of desegregation would depend in the end not on white acceptance but on black courage. When Monday, September 9, 1957, finally rolled around, only nineteen apprehensive black six-year-olds walked with their adult escorts past agitated crowds of whites to present themselves for admission at seven previously all-white elementary schools.1
Police and reporters surround parents and children at Fehr Elementary, Nashville, TN, September 1957.
In the waning days and hours before that Monday, the loudest voice in town belonged to John Kasper, the outsider. He had enlisted the help of a defrocked Presbyterian minister named Fred Stroud for a last-ditch effort to stop desegregation in its tracks at the schoolhouse door. Stroud, previously dismissed by one Nashville congregation, had started another called Bible Presbyterian Church. To him, segregation was the binding will of God, and his mission was to preserve it or die trying. Kasper had no such religious or messianic motivations, but he saw Stroud as an indispensable ally among the local white citizenry.
A few blacks may have been registered, Kasper told a crowd of about three hundred followers outside the War Memorial Building on the eve of school opening, but "blood will run in the streets of Nashville if nigra children go to school with whites!" A rallying cry swelled up from the crowd: "Not one, not now, not ever!" Police officers, including some in plain clothes, were scattered throughout, stone-faced in response to the fiery rhetoric but alert to any signs of violence. Kasper saved his most provocative words for rump sessions after the Capitol Hill crowd had dispersed.
"Our country was born in violence," he told them. "Tomorrow is the day. Every blow that you strike will be a blow for freedom." In another context, he was more explicit: "I say that integration can be reversed. It has got to be a pressure down here which is more or less like a lit stick of dynamite, and you throw it in their laps and let them catch it, and then they can do what they want with it—let them worry about that."
Police Chief Douglas Hosse issued a general warning that disorderly conduct would not be tolerated anywhere near the schools, and he stressed that "all parents can be assured of their children's safety." Hosse cancelled all personnel leaves and assigned two hundred officers—nearly two-thirds of the entire force—to work twelve-hour shifts in the vicinity of the desegregating schools. Mayor West expressed confidence that all would go as intended. Superintendents Bass and Oliver urged "kindness and fairness for all," calling on teachers and school employees to "carry out the mandate of the federal court with the highest respect for law and order . . . and the welfare of every little child, white and black."
Writing in the Sunday New York Times, reporter Robert Alden sketched a city holding its breath. "No one knows what is going to happen tomorrow, or how much support the segregationists will be able to draw from the general white population." But Nashville, he wrote, "is by nature a law-abiding city."
Harold Street walks his daughter Lajuanda (right) and Jacqueline Griffith (left) to Glenn Elementary School, Nashville, TN, September 1957.
A late-night thunderstorm swept across the city, leaving the air dense with humidity, and Monday dawned gray and sultry as Kasper and his followers emerged from the gloom to take up their stations at three schools north of downtown and three more east of the Cumberland River. The special police units were soon in place around the same schools.
It was principally at these six—Buena Vista, Jones, and Fehr on the north side and Bailey, Caldwell, and Glenn on the east—that public attention was focused, due in part to extensive advance coverage by the city's newspapers. Two more elementary schools also were desegregated that morning—Clemons, south of downtown, and Hattie Cotton, to the northeast—but they had not been listed in the papers and thus drew no sign-waving protesters.
Each of these eight schools had its own distinctive set of circumstances to address. To get a clear picture of the Nashville scene in a larger context on that first day of historic change, it is useful to review the opening-day activity at these schools, one by one. The eight had several things in common: All were elementary schools in working-class neighborhoods, serving white children in grades one through six (no kindergarten or preschool programs were provided in the city then). They were selected for change because African American families with first grade children were known to live within their zones, closer to them than to the nearest black schools.
The three first graders who desegregated Buena Vista School, in the 1500 block of Ninth Avenue North—Erroll Groves, Ethel Mai Carr, and Patricia Guthrie—had all visited the school with their parents in late August for early registration. A few whites had been clustered outside on the front sidewalk that day, passing out pro-segregation handbills, but there were no disturbances. Two weeks later, a far different scene unfolded.
"I was young myself, in my early twenties," recalled Iridell Groves, Erroll's mother, fifty years later, "and it really wasn't that big of a deal to me. We just lived around the corner from the school, and some of these little white kids, they were our neighbors. Erroll played with them. I guess I couldn't understand why if they played together, they couldn't go to school together.
"So that first morning, after my husband went to work, I got out some new clothes I had bought for my son—blue jeans and a Roy Rogers shirt—and I got dressed up too, wanted us to look nice, and we started out. Well, we rounded the corner down there, and I couldn't figure out what was going on—all these people hollering, waving signs, calling us names and everything. I held his hand real tight and kept walking, up the steps and past everybody and straight in the door. And as soon as we got inside, people were waiting there, talking nice to us, telling us everything was going to be all right."
Close behind Mrs. Groves and her son came the Carr and Guthrie parents with their children. All made it safely inside the school, with the noisy crowd of about a hundred protesters hounding them along the sidewalk. John Kasper put in a brief appearance to stir up the assembly, but most of the agitation was the work of Fred Stroud, who thundered doom and damnation upon the heads of all who failed to heed his segregationist message. The presence of several photographers and news reporters lent an air of drama to the scene, and for their benefit the demonstrators waved their signs to pulsing, vociferous bursts of indignation. But the police were out in force too, and at the sight of them, the crowd's threatening behavior was edged with enough caution to keep even the most foolhardy from physical contact.
Half a mile north along Ninth Avenue, a similar encounter was taking place in front of Jones School, where four black first graders, three of whom had pre-registered, arrived with their parents and other adult escorts. Barbara Jean Watson, Marvin Moore, Charles Edward Battles, and the newest child, Cecil Ray Jr., were not attacked physically, but the protesters were loud and abusive—some crowding the sidewalk, others riding past in cars emblazoned with KKK signs, Bible quotations, Confederate flags, and other messages. (The same vehicles were also seen cruising around Buena Vista and Fehr, the third North Nashville school, as well as in East Nashville, during the day.)
As the morning wore on, the crowd at Jones was aroused by a grandmotherly white woman who refused to give her name but mesmerized her listeners with spellbinding oratory. She exhorted the parents to go into the school and remove their children, and about a dozen promptly did so, giving unexpected energy to a boycott strategy that Kasper had advocated and all the active pro-segregation groups in the city seemed to support. As with those at Buena Vista, all the black parents and their first graders at Jones managed to walk safely to and from school that day, a bit shaken but unharmed.
"Most of our neighbors—the black ones or the white ones—didn't want us to take Barbara Jean down there to Jones," said Mary Louise Watson years later. "And we had people calling, saying if we did carry her, they would kidnap her or burn our house down or whatever. But my husband had talked to his cousin, who was a school principal, and he urged us to go on and do it, so we did. Once we had made up our minds, there was no turning back. It was scary, oh yes, plenty of times—but we never doubted it was the right thing to do. We went back the next day, even though some of the other black children and most of the white ones stayed at home."
A mile or so from Jones, on Fifth Avenue North, four children crossed the segregation line: two girls, Linda McKinley and Rita Buchanan, and two boys, Charles Elbert Ridley and Willis Edgar Lewis Jr. All four had registered early. A fifth child, Bobby Cabknor, had pre-registered but was not in attendance on opening day. The school census had indicated that eighteen black first graders were living in the Fehr zone.
Twenty-one-year-old Grace McKinley and her daughter Linda lived with Mrs. McKinley's parents and her invalid brother in a four-room house just around the corner and a block away from Fehr; the nearest all-black school, Elliott, was about a mile south, on Jefferson Street.
"I remember a lot about that morning," said the mother (now Mrs. Grace Lillard), fifty years later. "I heard they had better books at Fehr, and it was a lot closer than Elliott, and when they said Linda could go there, I made up my mind to do it. So on the early registration day, this nice lady, Mrs. C. E. Hayes, came to the house and walked down there with us. Linda had a friend, Rita Buchanan, who went too, her and her mother. There was some white people down there hollering, but they didn't bother us.
"The day school started, I got Linda up, we got dressed, ate something. We must have been nervous. My mama said, 'Don't go down there with an attitude,' and I didn't, but my daddy was walking right behind me—to help me stay calm, I guess. Rita went with us that morning. Her mother said she was afraid to go. I never was afraid to stand up for my rights."
When they turned the corner onto Garfield Street, a block from the school, they could see and hear the crowd: sign-waving demonstrators, police officers, curious neighbors (white and black), parents arriving with their children, school personnel, reporters and photographers—more than two hundred people in all. Having been warmed up by Kasper and Stroud, the protesters released a flood of epithets upon the mother and the two little girls; clutching their hands, she steered a path to the front door and entered.
"It was a lot calmer inside," Mrs. Lillard recalled. "We never did have any trouble with the teachers or the principal. Some of the white parents were nice, too—but those women out in front, they were bad." Two of the women were arrested that morning, and booked on charges of disorderly conduct.
When school was dismissed at noon, the girls and Linda's mother tried to avoid the crowd by leaving through a side door, but rocks and bottles were thrown at them, and Mrs. Lillard reacted defensively, raising a fingernail file she had pulled from her dress pocket. Quickly, she was arrested and taken away to be charged, leaving the crying girls in the care of friends and family.
About half of the 370 white children expected at Fehr that morning did not come. The ones who did, white and black, may have wished not to be there themselves. Even the black custodian would have reasons for regret. Returning to the building in late afternoon to take down the American flag, he was assaulted by a roving band of white bullies. Beaten and bloodied, the man ran for his life, leaving his car. The thugs promptly slashed its tires.
Across the river but still not far from downtown Nashville, Bailey School on East Greenwood Avenue was one of three expecting black enrollees. One black girl, Era May Bailey, had been pre-registered for the first grade there. Several dozen white protesters waited for an hour past the opening for her to appear, and then left to join demonstrations at Caldwell and Glenn schools nearby. It was later reported that the Bailey child's grandparents (her legal guardians), after being besieged with phoned threats against her life, had decided to enroll her elsewhere. (The same also happened in the case of Richard Rucker, who was pre-registered at Jones but never attended the school. Bobby Cabknor, who was pre-registered at Fehr but not present on opening day, did subsequently attend; he later transferred to Jones.)
A jeering crowd of more than a hundred white protesters met three black children and their parents as they approached Caldwell School on Meridian Street. None of the three had registered earlier, but the school census indicated that thirteen black first graders lived within the zone, and at the sight of three of them, the restless crowd was soon transformed into a mob. A policeman and a black parent were struck with rocks, the parents and children were spat upon and cursed, and soon after they entered the building, the mob rushed in too, and went rampaging from room to room in search of the black families. The police detail, momentarily caught off guard, quickly pursued and routed the marauders, detaining several of them.
The three children, meanwhile, were sheltered in the principal's office, where it was determined that their transfer papers to Caldwell were not in order. The principal, Jack Stanfill, helped the distraught families leave the building by the back door, but they were pursued to their cars, and police again had to step in. Stanfill, saying he intended "to keep personalities out of this," refused to divulge the applicants' names.
If there was one school above all the others where both pro- and anti-desegregation forces expected trouble, it was probably Glenn, on Cleveland Street in East Nashville. The census indicated that twenty-five black six-year-olds lived in the zone. Kasper, fearing disaster for his side if many or all of the children enrolled, spent more time at Glenn than anywhere else that morning, rallying and firing up the ragtag army of more than two hundred demonstrators and troublemakers massed there. "We've got to defy this thing!" he shouted. "They don't have enough jails to hold all of us!" Waiting feverishly for the blacks to arrive, they were a mob in the making, goading the stoic police detail and threatening a full-blown boycott.
Finally, right at eight o'clock, three black children appeared with their parents. Two—Jacqueline Griffith and Lajuanda Street—had registered early; the third, Sinclair Lee Jr., was there for the first time. They were roughly jostled as they threaded through the milling mob, and when a policeman cleared a path for them, his effort was met with cries of outrage. "I would turn in my uniform before I'd do what you're doing!" one man told the officer. Another protester shouted to Superintendent Bass, "What about our states' rights?" He replied calmly, "We lost those at Appomattox in 1865."
Once inside the building, the three families were hospitably received, though registration of the Lee child was deferred for lack of final transfer documents (he subsequently was enrolled elsewhere). In retaliation, frustrated whites began to withdraw their children, and by noon more than eighty had exited. All told, roughly half of Glenn's expected enrollment of five hundred was absent on the first day of school.
Another five hundred white students were projected for Emma Clemons School on Twelfth Avenue South, together with just four black first graders—and none of those four had registered early. The white opposition decided, based on these figures, that there was no need to send protesters there. Curiously, local newspapers and the relatively new medium of television, with its limited news-gathering capacity, made a similar decision with regard to reporters.
No one paid much notice, then, as six-year-old Joy Smith, holding the hand of her father, Kelly Miller Smith—pastor of one of Nashville's most historic black churches, First Baptist Capitol Hill, and president of the local NAACP chapter—walked up the steps at Clemons and into the venerable building where she was to receive the first six years of her education. There were no incidents. At home that evening, Joy's father, after fending off several anonymous and threatening calls, warily answered one more and, to his surprise, heard a familiar voice: "Reverend Smith, this is Ben West. I just wanted to be sure that you and your family are all right."
One more school was desegregated that morning: Hattie Cotton, on West Greenwood Avenue, northeast of the city center. No black children had pre-registered, but a few were known to live nearby. One of them, Patricia Watson, appeared that morning with her mother to be enrolled, and quietly joined a first grade class. Not a single white demonstrator had been there when she entered, but word spread during the morning, and several carloads of men drove up, waiting for the noontime dismissal.
Margaret Cate, the principal at Cotton, observed a few odd occurrences during the morning: first, enrollment was close to the expected total of about four hundred, but more than twenty mothers came in one by one and quietly withdrew their children; then, cars with segregationist banners and symbols were seen driving slowly around the school; and finally, when classes were dismissed, several cars full of men were parked around the driveway entrance. Minutes earlier, a taxi had pulled up near the cars, and then driven away.
When most of the children were gone, Miss Cate saw that no one had come for Patricia Watson. "I decided to take the child home in my own car," she later told police. "As I paused before backing into the street, one of the men standing beside the car verbally protested my transporting a Negro child." At the home, she learned that the mother, too frightened to walk back and meet her daughter inside the school, had called the taxi to pick her up.
At dawn the next morning, Miss Cate's phone rang at home. When she picked up the receiver, she heard a woman's voice, cold and menacing: "Well, now you won't be carrying the little nigger home any more!"
The Witching Hour
Fred Stroud rails against integration, Nashville, TN, September 1957.
For a few hours after the half-day session had ended and Nashville's first venture into school desegregation was an accomplished fact, the prevailing mood among parents and children, school personnel, city officials and the police was a profound sense of relief. With white rage simmering just beneath the surface on that sultry late-summer morning, voices of raw anger and hatred had spilled out into the streets. Sticks, stones and bottles had been hurled at a handful of African Americans seeking the full benefits and services of public education. They had been spat upon, cursed, threatened—but with quiet courage and admirable restraint, the parents and children had kept on walking. Miraculously, no blood had been spilled, and that alone seemed reason enough to pause and be grateful.
Mayor West, who was away from the city, called back to praise Chief Hosse and the police force for allowing orderly protest while protecting the children and preventing violence. The Parents School Preference Committee, having earlier harangued the mayor to defy the Supreme Court, chose this day to call on Governor Clement, demanding that he use national guard troops to block desegregation, as Governor Faubus was doing in Arkansas—but Clement firmly rebuffed them, as West had done earlier.
Registration day at Glenn Elementary School, Nashville, TN, August 1957.
Superintendent Bass expressed mild disappointment that attendance was down by about one third in four of the six schools that were desegregated, but he applauded the efforts of school principals and teachers, the black families, and the police. Referring to the escalating conflict in Arkansas, he said, "We are caught in the backwash of . . . Little Rock, [which] has given the impression of possible victory to those who would like to defeat the Supreme Court decision."
In their different ways, the leaders of Nashville were claiming progress—but not total victory—in the campaign to desegregate the schools. They were on the side of the law, but they knew that a great many whites, perhaps a majority, wanted to cling to segregation, and the most avid racists among them would continue to fight change with every weapon at their disposal. The first day of desegregation was over, but it was just one day in what was likely to be a long and bitter domestic war.
John Kasper was still in town to lead the segregationists' offensive. The racists had lost every round in court, but Kasper was still their weapon of last resort. Kasper was the Bomb. They knew that he could not be trusted, but he had the skill to fire up a crowd as few men could. Through him, they might still build an underground army that could draw manpower and money from across the economic spectrum in Nashville and beyond; without him, their chances were slim—or nonexistent.
In the fading light that evening, about three hundred whites gathered on the steps of the War Memorial Building to witness another Kasper performance. He had vowed earlier that no black child would get past the iron curtain of segregation—but sixteen had done so, and about a dozen of them were now permanently enrolled in their new schools. He had assured his followers that a white boycott of the system would shut it down, but that had not happened. He could argue that the hole the government had poked in the solid wall of segregation was no bigger than the eye of a needle—only a handful of black first-graders out of fourteen hundred had squeezed through—but the slogans of defiance now echoed in his ears: "Not one, not now, not ever!"
Private worries also dogged the man. Rumors were circulating that his personal associations back East, far from signifying "white purity," had been interracial and at times intimate. His earlier conviction in the federal court in Knoxville was still under appeal. His tolerance factor among Nashville law enforcement and court officials was nearing zero. And, perhaps worst of all for him, his money sources (none of them known publicly) were swiftly drying up as the Tennessee Federation for Constitutional Government, the Citizens' Councils, the Parents Committee for School Preference, and even the Ku Klux Klan began to distance themselves from him.
With what seemed like a mixture of confidence and desperation, Kasper stood before his audience that Monday evening and slowly heated his rhetoric to the boiling point. Using language laced with dehumanizing epithets and images of violence, he pressed once again the emotional buttons of defiance and menace that had always seemed to work for him in the past: communism, atheism, mongrelization, rape, mayhem. The crowd was on his leash, waiting to be led. He told them they had a constitutional right to carry weapons, and the time had come for them to arm themselves and get into the fight.
A demonstrator shouts from a traffic light post, Nashville, TN, September 1957.
They moved across Charlotte Avenue to the steps of the State Capitol, with Kasper in the lead. "We say no peace!" he shouted. "We say, attack, attack, attack!" Then, brandishing a rope, the Jersey racist with his newly-acquired Southern accent closed with a final flourish: "This is Dixie! Who do they think they're playing with? We're the greatest race on the face of the earth! Let's for once show what a white man can do!" Standing gaunt and grim-faced, Kasper absorbed the frenzied crowd's deafening roar of approval. He looked for all the world like the leader of a lynch mob.
The throng began to thin out quickly when Kasper sent ten men out among them to take up a collection in their doffed hats. Minutes later, an effigy in blackface was seen swinging from a stoplight on Church Street, two blocks south of the capitol. "This could be you!" the sign on it read.
It was dark by then, and two miles to the north, another mob of four or five hundred was roaming the streets around Fehr School. Boldness crept in with the shadows, and soon the violence escalated. Two outbuildings in the back yard of Grace McKinley's family on Sixth Avenue burst into flames. Crosses were torched outside the darkened houses of black families in the neighborhood. Young men hurled rocks at passing cars and vandalized more property. All of this happened in a few harrowing minutes of anarchy. When the police moved in, the perpetrators scattered and fled ahead of them like a flock of birds. An eerie silence hung in the night air. Later, remnants of the two mobs regrouped in small pockets around the city, their energy for marauding still not spent. From their midst came a whispered rumor that Fehr would be blown up at midnight.
The Turning Point
Officials survey the wreckage of Hattie Cotton Elementary School, Nashville, TN, September 1957.
Joe Casey, a young patrolman in his fifth year on the force, got home after midnight from his twelve-hour shift in the Fehr School neighborhood. It had been a long day, and a rough night. As was his habit, he put away his hat and holster on the high shelf of the closet by the front door, where his pistol would be safely out of the sight and reach of his young children. Then, as he was walking through the living room toward the kitchen, an explosive shockwave blew him like a wooden toy against the far wall.
A block away, billows of black smoke rolled up from the east wing of Hattie Cotton School. Casey retrieved his gun and dashed out the door. A light rain was falling as he and others from the neighborhood arrived at the scene. Soon a patrol car roared up, lights flashing, and then a siren announced the approach of a fire engine. Whoever had placed the explosives (probably a one hundred-stick case of dynamite, investigators later surmised) and ignited them from a safe distance had long since disappeared.
An officer displays a clock stopped at the time of the bomb blast, Nashville, TN, September 1957.
A stopped electric clock in the school had recorded the precise time of the blast—12:33. Less than ten minutes after that, two officers who had been on a stakeout to monitor Kasper's movements entered his temporary residence on Scott Avenue, less than a mile from the bombed school. Armed with a warrant that he had sworn out earlier, based on Kasper's Monday activities, Constable Floyd Peek and his partner rousted Kasper out of bed and took him to the downtown police station, where he was charged with disturbing the peace. A night court judge ordered him held without bond.
Chief Hosse, awakened within minutes of the Cotton blast, had given the order for Kasper to be picked up. On previous occasions, lawyers and bail bondsmen had managed to spring the gangly agitator from jail, but now a new strategy was in force: As soon as his bond was met for one charge, he was hit with another, and another—a total of four that Tuesday morning, the last being a ticket for parking his car in a restricted area. Throughout the week, Kasper was passed back and forth between state and local courtrooms and jails. One way or another, it became clear, he was going to remain behind bars for the time being.
Well over half of the city's police officers were in the station when Hosse walked in at 6:30 for the morning roll call. "This has gotten beyond integration," he said, anger rising in his voice. "These people who are following Kasper around have turned violent, blowing up our schools, destroying our property. The law must be enforced, regardless of who is violating it. We've got to get the job done! How many of you are ready to go out there and do it?" Every officer raised his hand.
Straight from the station house, police units fanned out to all eight of the schools on the desegregation list. They set up roadblocks to keep cruising cars at least a block away, and only parents with children would be allowed to walk past. A few Kasper brigades, hoping to gain momentum from the bombing and the current of fear arising from it, first encountered the barricades at about 7:15 at Caldwell School, where the only three black applicants had been denied admission the previous day. An aggressive band of about a hundred whites pressed up to the barricade, seemingly intent on generating a popular force that would keep the school all-white. Suddenly, they were encircled by motorcycle patrolmen, and a paddy wagon rolled up to receive any who chose to remain belligerent. Ten did; to the shocked cries of their families, they were subdued and driven away to jail. Those who remained grew quiet. No other disturbances were reported at any of the desegregated schools during the day.
In addition to Kasper, several other men suspected of involvement in the bombing had been picked up by nine a.m. By the time school was out and the children had all gone home without incident, a total of thirty white males had been arrested and either released on bail or bound over, like Kasper, to face additional legal proceedings.
Arrested, John Kasper shields himself from photographers, Nashville, TN, September 1957.
The segregationist strategy of using violence to generate more white resistance was having the opposite effect. Earlier, there had been a semblance of unity among the various groups—but some of them, apparently, were not willing to resort to violence, especially if it carried with it the danger of public exposure. It was one thing to be militantly opposed to racial equality, but it was something else altogether to commit violent acts—and face the personal consequences of doing so. Ironically, when the bomb went off, the open revolt of the racist forces was over.
During the morning, Criminal Court Judge Charles Gilbert showed deep indignation as he instructed the county grand jury to investigate the bombing and bring "the midnight assassins" to justice. Noting that he had "lived in this peaceful community most of my life," Gilbert said he "never dreamed or imagined a horrible thing like this" could ever happen. The question at hand now, he told the jurors, "is not whether we are to have integration or segregation. The question now is, Are we to have a reign or terrorism and anarchy or are we to have law and order?"
The afternoon edition of the Nashville Banner displayed a front page editorial by its arch-conservative publisher, James M. Stahlman, characterizing John Kasper as "a lawless renegade interloper" and "an uninvited evangel of mischief [who] has sown the malevolent seed for this harvest of terrorism." Stahlman put up a $1,000 reward for information leading to prosecution of the dynamiters; the state and other parties soon boosted the amount to $7,000. The Tennessee Federation for Constitutional Government, having previously worked hand in glove with Kasper, formally released its grip. One of its local officers, Jack Kershaw, said he might "join Mr. Stahlman in making a reward offer" and added, "Kasper is held up by the carpetbag press [the Tennessean, presumably] as being typical" of the white opposition to racial equality. But, said Kershaw emphatically, the New Jersey extremist "is not a symbol of Southern resistance."
John Kasper in police custody, Nashville, TN, September 1957.
On Friday, Kasper was indicted by the Davidson County Grand Jury on a state charge of inciting a riot, and was bound over for trial in criminal court. No one, it seemed, any longer wished to see him and his rebellious companions roaming free out in public. School officials asked Federal Judge William Miller—and Miller promptly agreed—to issue an order restraining twelve named individuals, Kasper foremost among them, from interfering in any way with desegregation in Nashville. The investigation into the bombing was proceeding in secrecy, with state and federal officials being called in by the city police to assist. Six men were in custody in connection with the crime.
Newspapers across the country, network television, and magazines such as Time and Newsweek gave Nashville even-handed but unwelcome exposure as "the other" trouble spot, along with Little Rock, in the South's excruciating encounter with social reform. On the whole, the Tennessee capital came off looking reasonably good—especially in contrast to most other cities in the region, where school desegregation, even on a scale as modest as Nashville's, was still a few years away. Nevertheless, a school bombing was certainly the wrong reason to be the talk of the nation—and, had it not been for Little Rock, the exposure might have been much more extensive.
The political miscalculation of Arkansas Governor Orval Faubus, a Democrat, and the inevitable response of President Dwight Eisenhower, a Republican, brought about a confrontation of historic proportions in 1957. The century-old debate about national authority versus states' rights—a conflict decided but not settled by the outcome of the Civil War—was renewed with vigor by Brown v. Board of Education, and all the battlefields to follow. Little Rock was among the first. What began as a local issue quickly ballooned to state, national, and international proportions. Today, the Little Rock Nine—black students who faced the wrath of white mobs at Central High School—are remembered in the history books, on television, and in the movies. Type in "Little Rock Nine" on the search line of the Google website and you will find over eleven million sources listed.
But the sixteen black first graders who were admitted to six previously all-white elementary schools in Nashville on September 9, 1957, did not long remain in the public eye. Eleven returned on the second day, after the bombing of Hattie Cotton, and eleven would remain in desegregated schools all year. There would be no further disturbances. Before September ended, the heavy thunder of late-summer protest had given way to placid autumn schooldays unmarred by hot disputes over race. Even as the Little Rock crisis escalated to a high-stakes showdown, Nashville was learning that recovery from trauma, followed by limited success and a predictable normality, was not news and not history—it was just the way things were supposed to be. And so it happened that the little trailblazers of desegregation, along with their white classmates, eventually slipped quietly back into the anonymity of childhood.
A Long Road Ahead
On Tuesday, September 10, news of the bombing of Hattie Cotton kept Patricia Watson and all her classmates out of school for a week. Repairs to the building proceeded on a fast track, and classes resumed there on the 17th, but Patricia Watson had transferred by then to an all-black school.
At Clemons School on the 10th, Joy Smith was back, along with almost all of the five hundred white students. By the time she finished the sixth grade there and moved on to high school, black enrollment had risen substantially.
Linda McKinley and Willis Lewis, Jr., at Fehr Elementary School, Nashville, TN, September 1957.
Caldwell and Bailey schools remained segregated in 1957–1958, but not for much longer. At Glenn, Lajuanda Street and Jacqueline Griffith returned the second day and most every day that year; fewer than a hundred white students were present on Tuesday, but within a week, the normal enrollment of five hundred had been attained. Barbara Jean Watson, Marvin Moore, Charles Battles and Cecil Ray Jr. went back to Jones the second day, and three of them remained all year. Erroll Groves and Ethel Mai Carr also returned to Buena Vista on Tuesday, and both would stay there all the way through the sixth grade.
At Fehr, perhaps the most buffeted by protest of all the schools, the three boys—Charles Ridley, Willis Lewis, and Bobby Cabknor—were in class on one or more days that week, but all of them, along with Rita Buchanan, one of the two black girls, eventually transferred. Only Linda Gail McKinley remained as a trailblazer at Fehr, staying four years. The pictures of her and her friend Rita, clinging to Linda's mother, Grace McKinley, still capture the emotion and drama of those momentous days fifty years ago, when the courage of a handful of unsung heroes marked Nashville's start along the rocky road up and out of legalized racial segregation.
Linda McKinley and Rita Buchanan hold hands as Grace McKinley walks ahead and supporters walk behind, Nashville, TN, September 1957.
One curious footnote from those initial days of challenge and response should be added. As the black children and their parents approached the schools each morning, a few well-dressed strangers—African American men and women, for the most part, plus two or three whites—quietly fell in step behind them. They were not relatives, not even acquaintances of the families, but volunteers called in by several organizations: the local chapters of the NAACP and the Congress of Racial Equality, the involuntarily segregated "Negro Parent-Teacher Association," and a few churches. They walked with dignity in order to witness—simply put, to be present—and to lend moral support to the ones upon whom the burden of change was falling.
"It was something positive we could do," recalled ninety-two-year-old JohnEtta Hayes modestly, a half-century on. Mrs. Hayes, who was later to serve as the first woman president of the NAACP in Nashville, was photographed with Grace McKinley on the day of early registration at Fehr School. Linda was between the two women, holding hands with them. They were all smiling warily as they walked toward the entrance.
The coming of school desegregation to this self-styled Athens of the South amounted to a small beginning, not an end in itself. There would be major conflicts and crises in the years ahead—most notably, the "cross-town busing" controversy of the 1970s. Kelley v. Board of Education, the lawsuit filed in Nashville in 1955, would not be finally settled until 1998. Even now, vestiges of the old inequities spawned by segregation still cast shadows in this city, across the South, and around the nation. The "more perfect Union" remains a work in progress.
Mother and children leaving Glenn School, Nashville, TN, September 1957.
But those are stories for another time and place. This one ends here, with eleven little six-year-old children and their parents having secured, by their courage and persistence (and with the support of others), the right to all the educational privileges freely made available to white children—and secured that right not just for themselves, but for all who have come after them. Numerically, theirs was a small gain—but symbolically, it was immeasurable.
With the passage of time, accounts of their valor have faded, and the story of school desegregation in Nashville has slipped into the cobwebbed corners of history. But it is never too late to recover it and to remember the children, for the edification and inspiration of us all. The fewer who stand and deliver, the greater their contribution becomes.
About the Author
John Egerton was born in Atlanta, Georgia, June 14, 1935, the son of William G. Egerton, a traveling salesman, and his wife, Rebecca White Egerton. The family settled in Cadiz, Kentucky, where John remained until leaving to attend Western Kentucky University, 1953–1954. From 1954 until 1956, he served in the United States Army. He earned a B.A. at the University of Kentucky in 1958 and an M.A. in 1960.
Between 1958 and 1960, Egerton was with the Public Relations Department of the University of Kentucky, and from 1960 to 1965, he was the Director of Public Information for the University of South Florida. He was a staff writer forSouthern Education Report, 1965–1969, and for Race Relations Reporter, 1969–1971.
In 1971, Egerton began his career as a free-lance reporter. He was a contributing editor for Saturday Review of Education (1972–1973), Race Relations Reporter (1973–1974), and Southern Voices (1974–1975). From 1973–1975, he was a writer for Atlanta's Southern Regional Council. In 1977–1978, he was journalist-in-residence at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University. Egerton has written or edited eleven non-fiction books and contributed over two-hundred articles to periodicals. He has also been a participant in and writer for many projects or conferences dealing with desegregation and civil rights.
Thanks to Elizabeth Odle of the Nashville Public Library for her painstaking assistance, and to the Nashville Banner Archives, Special Collections, Nashville Public Library for granting permission for all photographs.
Appendix A: Beginning of School Desegregation in Nashville, September 1957
The African American children named below were the first to enroll in formerly all-white public schools in the city. Sixteen were admitted to the first grade at six elementary schools when the fall term began on September 9, and three others could not enroll at a seventh school for technical reasons; another three had pre-registered on August 27, but were not present on opening day.
Appendix B: Nashville and Metro Public School Enrollment Statistics
Appendix C: Nashville by the Numbers, A Time Table
1957: Eleven black children establish permanent desegregation of Nashville public schools when they enroll at the first grade level in five elementary schools; the Nashville and Davidson County schools systems enroll approximately 60,000 students, (80% white, 20% black).
1963: Nashville and Davidson County governments merge, creating one political jurisdiction of 400,000 people (83% white, 17% black) and one unified (though still largely segregated) school system with about 85,000 students (79% white, 22% black, 1% "other").
1969: Twelve years into desegregation, Nashville’s public schools have failed to eliminate segregation; total enrollment is at a new record high of 96,000 (74,000 white, 21,000 black, 1,000 "other"), but more than nine of every ten black students attend all-black schools; the federal courts mandate accelerated changes to begin in the fall of 1970.
1970: In the decennial census, Metro Nashville has 448,000 residents, racially identified as 83% white and 17% black; court-ordered busing is delayed for another year, but white enrollment drops sharply to 62,000 (73%); blacks (21,000) and "others" (2,000), bring the total to 85,000.
1971: A federal judge orders Nashville schools to begin busing students to reduce racial segregation and isolation; many whites protest, some boycott, and another 12,000 leave the school system for other options; white enrollment falls to 50,000, while blacks and others remain steady and total enrollment falls to 74,000.
1980: Metro Nashville population reaches 470,000 in the 1980 census, and the white-black ratio remains stable at 83-17 ("others," whose numbers remain small, are mostly identified as either white or black). White flight continues in the school system, as another 10,000 opt out; there are now 40,000 whites, 22,000 blacks, and 4,000 others, totaling 66,000; during the decade, enrollment will slide further, approaching the 60,000 total of the mid-1950s.
1990: As the city's population continues to grow, exceeding 510,000 in this census, the school system continues to lose whites (another 5,000 for a total of 35,000), but a small increase in black students (to 24,000) and a substantial rise in "others" (to 8,000) due to immigration, stabilizes the total public school population at 67,000.
2000: Metro Nashville grows to 570,000 people in the millennial census—66% white, 19% African American, 15% others; the schools enroll 68,000 students (44% white, 41% African American, 16% other).
2007: Fall enrollment approaches 75,000 students—23,000 white (30%), 37,000 black (50%), 15,000 others (20%); Metro Nashville's population is estimated at 615,000; the school system has sustained a net loss of over 50,000 white students in the past forty years, even though the white population over that time has remained steady; overall population has grown at a modest rate of about 1% per year.
Ashmore, Harry S. The Negro and the Schools. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1954.
Daugherity, Brian J. and Charles C. Bolton, eds. With All Deliberate Speed: Implementing Brown v. Board of Education. Fayetteville: University of Arkansas Press, 2008.
Egerton, John. Nashville: the Faces of Two Centuries, 1780-1980. Nashville, TN: PlusMedia, 1979.
———. Promise of Progress: Memphis School Desegregation, 1972-1973. Atlanta: Southern Regional Council, 1973.
Egerton, John and E. Thomas Wood, eds. Nashville: An American Self Portrait. Nashville, TN: Beaten Biscuit Press, 2005.
Lovett, Bobby L. The Civil Rights Movement in Tennessee: A Narrative History. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 2005.
Muse, Benjamin. Ten Years of Prelude: The Story of Integration Since The Supreme Court's 1954 Decision. New York: Viking Press, 1964.
Sarratt, Reed. The Ordeal of Desegregation: The First Decade. New York: Harper & Row, 1966.
Shoemaker, Don, ed. With All Deliberate Speed: Segregation-Desegregation in Southern Schools. New York: Harper & Brothers, 1957.
Southern Education Foundation. On the Right Side of History: Lessons from Brown. Atlanta, GA: Southern Education Foundation, 2004.
Appleby, David. Hoxie: The First Stand. University of Memphis, 2003.
Elwood, William. The Road to Brown. Charlottesville, VA: University of Virginia, 1990.
Jersey, Bill and William R. Grant. The Rise and Fall of Jim Crow. New York: Quest Productions, VideoLine Productions and Thirteen/WNET New York, 2002.
Ten Years after Brown: The Courts and the Schools. "The Civil Rights Movement: Primary Sources" series. New York: CBS News, 1964.
With All Deliberate Speed: The Legacy of Brown v. Board of Education. Wilmington, Delaware: Teleduction, Inc. in partnership with Delaware State University, 2003.
The Brown Foundation for Educational Equity, Excellence and Research
Brown@Fifty: Fulfilling the Promise. Howard University School of Law.
Brown v. Board of Education Digital Archive. University of Michigan.
"With an Even Hand": Brown v. Board at Fifty. Library of Congress.
Related Southern Spaces Publications
Egerton, John. "A Mind to Stay Here," Southern Spaces, 29 November 2006.
- 1. Earlier that summer, administrators released a list of fifteen white elementary schools identified as having six-year-old black children living within their zones. Later, based on pre-registration and canvassing data, only six of those were categorized as schools where desegregation was "probable" on opening day; by that date, the number had risen to eight. See statistical data in Appendix.