by James Summerville.
The 1896 Supreme Court, in Plessy v. Ferguson, upheld the constitutionality of social segregation, ruling that state laws which required the separation of the races did not imply the inferiority of either. Yet separate was not equal in Tennessee. A 1930 study of Nashville schools called attention to dilapidated buildings, unsanitary outhouses, and inadequate lighting. Twenty years later, some black students still had to walk half a mile for a drink of water.
On May 17, 1954, the Supreme Court reversed Plessy, which had been used by many states to justify public segregation. Brown v. Board of Education held that “separate educational facilities” were “inherently unequal” because segregation denied black students equal protection under the law, a violation of the Fourteenth Amendment. A year later, the high court issued its implementation order, directing district federal courts to bring about compliance with the Brown decision. This was to be accomplished “with all deliberate speed,” an oxymoron which suggested that lower courts could show flexibility.
Nashville’s Board of Education appointed a committee to consider its options. Matters would have lingered in committee forever except for the lawsuit filed by Alfred Z. Kelley, an East Nashville barber. Kelley could not see why his son Robert had to commute across town to Pearl High School when the family lived within walking distance of East High School. The simple answer was that East was all white, and the Kelleys were black.
Lawyer Z. Alexander Looby and his partner Avon Williams Jr. carried Kelley v. Board of Education into federal district court. In time, Judge William E. Miller found for the plaintiff and directed the school board to prepare a plan for desegregation and submit it to the court by January 1957.
The educators stressed “deliberate” rather than “speed” and proposed that one grade per year be integrated, beginning with the first grade that next fall. At the same time, their plan allowed parents of either race to transfer a child out of a school where the other race predominated. In their final act, the board redrew the bounds of school zones so that only about 115 black first-graders, out of 1,500 eligible, could enter all-white schools come September.
Despite its novel evasions, the school board had acceded to the Brown decision. Diehards were left with unpalatable choices: resistance in public protests or keeping their children out of school.
Some black parents, worried about segregationists’ threats, took advantage of the school board’s transfer privilege. In the end, the burden of bringing down Jim Crow in public education in Nashville fell on 19 boys and girls. Twelve of them and their parents arrived at six elementary schools on the morning of September 9, 1957. So did knots of jeering white adults and teenagers. Police escorted the youngsters safely inside, but the day passed uneasily.
A few minutes after midnight, a bomb demolished a wing of East Nashville’s Hattie Cotton School. The police cracked down on persons carrying weapons, and jailed an agitator, John Kaspar, who had come to town to promote resistance to school desegregation.
The handful of black youngsters who brought down the “walls of Jericho” adapted well, as did their white peers. Ironically, militants like Kaspar led the city to declare itself a peaceful, law-abiding community. Although support for the idea of racial equality was equivocal, the issue was now public order, for which there was universal support. The number of black students in formerly all-white schools grew from a few in 1957 to more than 700 by 1963. This was hardly a social revolution, but it did preface the gradual acceptance by Nashville parents, black and white, that the old days of separate and unequal schools were finished.