I mentioned yesterday the debt I owe to the NAACP, which this year is celebrating its 100-year anniversary. Today I will talk about some of my past history with the organization, along with a discussion of how Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird helped me in some difficult years during the Civil Rights era.
I’ve mentioned in an earlier blog how, during the early 1960’s, my brothers and I were among the plaintiffs in a suit brought by four black families and four white families against the Franklin County (Tennessee) Board of Education asserting that their children’s rights to attend integrated schools (as ruled by Brown vs. Board of Education) were being violated. Here is some more background on that.
In 1958 or 1959, my father was one of four individuals, two black and two white, who founded the Franklin County chapter of the NAACP. He joined Septima Clark, an African American woman who was the Education Director at Highlander Folk School (located at that time about 10 miles from my home, in Monteagle, Tennessee); Mrs. Johnnie Fowler, a remarkable African American woman who was a hairdresser and a teacher of hairdressers in Winchester, Tennessee; and Mikey Marlowe, a white secretary at Highlander. Highlander was (and is) an extraordinary organization dedicated to grass roots community action—at the time it was one of the few places in the south where blacks and whites could meet together, and the meetings included people like Rosa Parks (who would go on to trigger the Montgomery bus boycott), Martin Luther King, and others. The chapter was formed at Septima’s suggestion, Mrs. Marlowe was the first president, and Mrs. Folwler was the first vice-president.
My father always talked about Mrs. Fowler as a force of nature, and that’s how I experienced her when I was a reporter for the Franklin County newspaper (the Winchester Herald Chronicle) and wrote a profile on her. My newspaper quashed my story (more on that below) but I was lucky to have an extended talk with her.
The chapter set its sights on desegregating Sewanee Public School, where I was a fifth grader. They contacted a remarkable black lawyer in Nashville, Avon Williams, who recommended that they bring suit. He promised to serve as prosecuting attorney.
The chapter surveyed Sewanee’s African American community, which was called the St. Mark’s community (it was called niggertown by some of my white classmates) because of the black St. Mark’s two-room school (for grades 1-8), which doubled as the black St. Mark’s Episcopal Church. There was very high support for integration if violence could be avoided.
The national NAACP paid for the suit, which lasted from 1962-64. One of my most vivid memories—this is one place where To Kill a Mockingbird comes in—was seeing my father being grilled on the witness stand. I remember the defense attorney asking him, “Aren’t you associated with that communist organization Highlander Folk School?” and Avon Williams leaping to his feet to object. I also remember Mrs. Staten, one of the black mothers, talking about how her kids weren’t getting algebra in St. Mark’s School and the defense attorney telling her they probably weren’t getting algebra at Sewanee Public School (grades 1-8) either. Since I had been told we would be studying algebra later in the year, I mentioned that to Nita Goodstein, history professor at the College and one of the parents bringing the suit. She in turn contacted Avon Williams to see whether I should be put on the stand, but it was probably too small a point to make. In any event, I wasn’t called.
If you’ve seen To Kill a Mockingbird, you will get a general sense of the courtroom. The African Americans were upstairs in the balcony, the whites down below.
We got as good a decision as we could have hoped. The federal judge ruled that the black schools should be closed, the white schools integrated, and, particularly important, the black teachers should be brought over to teach in the system. Unfortunately, of the 30 who came over, only 10 ended up staying as the school system found ways to get rid of the rest. I don’t know the full story behind that.
Our NAACP chapter made a smart strategic decision in desegregating the schools. Students in the county could go to whatever school they wanted to. In Sewanee, which is on top of a mountain, there was only one school and not very many African American children so there wasn’t much commotion. But down in the valley, for a while there was de facto segregation. This took some of the immediate sting out of the ruling for segregationists, and then the whiter schools began envying the black-heavy schools their athletic prowess (especially in football) and eventually progress was made at evening things out.
That being said, these were tough times. Franklin County is on the Alabama border, a red-dirt, cotton-growing area, and I’ve heard it said that Franklin County threatened to secede from Tennessee if Tennessee didn’t secede from the Union during the Civil War. Franklin County High School’s nickname is the Rebels, and during the Civil Rights days I think the school stopped playing “The Star Spangled Banner” at football games, substituting “Dixie” instead. Playing “Dixie” after every touchdown continued up into the 1990’s, when the black football players finally threatened a boycott—no small thing given how important football is in the black community there.
During the suit my parents would get late night hate calls. But Sewanee being so small, they figured the calls could only be from the owner of the all-night taxi cab. They finally took to leaving the phone off the hook after he called, thereby tying up his line for the rest of the night. After that, the calls stopped.
When I saw To Kill a Mockingbird and then read the book, I identified completely with the Finch kids. We had poor whites who lived in the forested areas around Sewanee, places like Sherwood, Midway, and Tickbush. We called their kids “bus kids” because they rode the school bus. (The kids of Sewanee faculty and professionals, by contrast, walked, rode their bikes, or were driven to school.) We also called them “covites,” a classist term (akin to redneck), indicating that they lived in the mountain coves (and therefore wouldn’t have running water). I remember one of these bus kids calling me a “nigger lover,” as occurs in Harper Lee’s book. I remember the men in their blue coveralls and looking straight out of the movie. I remember thinking that my father was an Atticus Finch, standing up for what is right in the face of racism. I remember the respect that he got from, and the respect that returned to, members of the black community. A woman who helped with our housekeeping, and whose house we would sometimes visit so we could watch Superman on her television, once talked about my father as a great man. I determined that I would respect others the way he did and would work to earn respect in return.
White liberals, however, weren’t getting much respect from blacks at Carleton College, which I attended in 1969. In fact, Lee’s book could well have been seen as racist liberal paternalism, although admittedly I didn’t hear anyone make this claim. In fact, I didn’t hear anyone mention the book at all. Instead, people were reading The Autobiography of Malcolm X and Eldridge’s Cleaver’s Soul on Ice and James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time. (My political science professor Paul Wellstone assigned some of these books.) There was a different feel between the urban north (many of Carleton’s African American students were from Chicago) and the rural south. Whites certainly weren’t being given credit for working with the NAACP. It was a shock to encounter the race separatism of the black militancy movement after having been involved in attempts to overcome separation earlier on. I sort of understood why it was happening but it was still hard.
Five years later, after I had finished up at Carleton College, my wife and I moved back to live close to my parents before I went to graduate school. I worked at the Winchester Herald Chronicle and suddenly heard “nigger” practically everyday from the publisher of the paper. I heard violent diatribes against affirmative action. And I had two of my articles cut.
One was the profile I wrote on the local NAACP and on Mrs. Fowler. The other, a “where are they now?” article, was on Highlander Folk School, which was expelled from Monteagle in 1961, its land illegally confiscated (well, technically legally because the courts did it). I remember the owner of the paper calling me up and yelling at me for writing the piece.
So I grew up with a deep respect for the NAACP. I think about the organization when I walk into a classroom and see my white and black students sitting together as though it is the most natural thing in the world. It still feels miraculous to me that they can take it for granted. When I get depressed about the state of the world, I think of how something that I thought would never change—during my childhood segregation seemed carved into stone—did in fact change. That helps keep me going.
I have a confession to make, however. In the earlier post I link to, I tell the story of how I acted somewhat heroically when Sewanee Public School was integrated, coming to the friendship of Sammy Staten in seventh grade when he was the only black kid in the class. I didn’t do so well with Jeffrey Patton at Sewanee Military Academy. He entered the school as a freshman when I was a senior, the school’s first black student, and while I was friendly with him, I didn’t particularly reach out. I was caught up in my own alienation from the school and didn’t realize that it might have made a difference if I had talked more with him. My failure there is something that I am ashamed of, especially since he had a rough time and ended up dropping out.