Originally published in Flagpole Magazine
When I started school outside Atlanta, I had some of the very same teachers who had taught my father years before, in the same oiled-floor buildings. Jonesboro was a small town with a big new highway, and was quickly “developing.” Just like everywhere else in the South, the only blacks at my school were janitors or lunchroom workers. Whites and blacks had never attended school together in the South before 1954, when the U.S. Supreme Court declared school segregation illegal.
Blacks were largely a servant class when they intersected with the white world. Not only were the schools separate; there were separate “colored” restrooms, waiting rooms, even separate entrances to some buildings. The facilities for blacks were never as well maintained as the ones for whites, it seemed. Better-off whites hired black women as household “maids” and often entrusted them to help raise white children like myself. Just like white homes, black homes in Jonesboro ran from squalid to neat, but none were grand.
My father had a political and social sense that seemed to me shrewd and innate. He could have followed some of his family into banking, but he wanted to farm. Some of Jonesboro’s most solid citizens, he said, lived on Mill Street – all black-owned homes.
The 1954 Supreme Court decision did not make many Southern whites happy, for they had been raised with the “nigger” as convenient target or scapegoat for meanness, diversion or the frustrations of life. Among many whites, insulting and berating blacks – not usually outright in their presence – was second nature. For white children (and many adults) it was the insult for all occasions: “you dirty nigger,” “you nigger-lover.” This was playground talk when I grew up. (I was taught never to use that word; “Negro” or “colored” were the proper terms.)
“Martinlutherking” – everybody said his name like one word, but with very different feeling. Blacks absolutely trusted him, even revered him, while many whites reviled, mocked and feared him and his movement. He was going too far, too fast, they would say. “You can’t legislate morality,” they’d say. “States’ rights!” Signs in some restaurants read, “We reserve the right to refuse service to anyone.”
Douglas was bigger than me, a year ahead in school, dark-eyed, unctuous; I didn’t know him well, but at high school one day he said teasingly the Klan had burned a cross on my lawn. I didn’t know what he was talking about, but later that day mentioned it to my dad.
“How did he know?” was his wry reply. We went to the edge of our yard where my father pointed out a charred figure in the grass. It didn’t look like anything at all to me; perhaps some gasoline had been burned on the ground. Of course my father knew who these people were; he grew up when everyone in the county knew everybody else. If he was afraid of them, I never sensed it; I think he knew them too well for that.
It was a tense time. After the Supreme Court’s unanimous decision, the South was under federal pressure to end racial segregation in its public schools. Some state legislators were threatening to close down the schools rather than integrate them. (Public schools were closed for a time in both Alabama and Mississippi.) Defending segregation was a politically popular stance, taken by Alabama’s governor George Wallace (who apologized years later) and Georgia’s Senator Herman Talmadge, among many other Southern politicians. Georgia Governor Ernest Vandiver was more moderate. Many sensible whites recognized the rightness of the Supreme Court’s decision, yet dreaded the difficulties they knew it would bring.
Georgia law required closing any school that integrated the races. Under federal pressure, Governor Vandiver proposed to change that law, but still make closing schools (rather than integrating them) a local option. Such a loophole made the bitter pill more acceptable to the segregationists. Ultimately, Georgia’s legislators would vote to accept integration rather than to close any schools. But first they created the Sibley Commission, which went around the state to hear from the public. The commission’s purpose may have been more to defuse public sentiment than to really decide anything – and to cover the backsides of the legislators who “were elected on a pledge to maintain segregated schools at all costs,” as the resolution that established the commission said. (After all, it said, “there has been ingrained forever in the hearts and minds of all Georgians the custom of segregation of the races in the schools of the state” a custom that “still meets with the virtually unanimous approval of all but a few persons of each race.”)
Speaking out for keeping the schools open was controversial. The state PTA declined to take a stand. Sympathetic business people were afraid they’d lose customers if they spoke out. Some people were supportive, but wouldn’t take a public stand for fear of losing their jobs. My parents reasoned that their livelihood – raising cattle – wasn’t affected by public opinion. They formed a local chapter of a state group – HOPE, for “Help Our Public Education” – to encourage citizens to speak before the Sibley Commission.
The local Ku Klux Klan, no doubt believing that things could fall either way, paid close attention to HOPE’s activities, which mostly consisted of sponsoring information meetings. Klansmen (not in costume) came to some of the meetings and tried to disrupt or outvote those present. When the Sibley Commission came to Clayton County, Klansmen were lining the exit stairs after the hearing. One HOPE insider later turned out to be a Klan informant. That was all right: the Klan itself had been infiltrated by the county police, as the police chief assured my father. My parents took comfort in the fact that the local police were not Klan-dominated, as they were in some places.
Jonesboro was a small town, but not a backwater. It was on the railroad and the main highway to Florida, and had played roles in the twin epics of the Civil War and Gone With the Wind. While the place had no apparent history of racial violence, it seemed to be something of a center for Klan activity.
“I kind of felt like they tried to use intimidation more than violence,” remembered Philo McKinnon, a Presbyterian minister active in HOPE who was interviewed years later by my mother. “I tried to treat everybody alike,” he said. “If I met a Klan member and knew he was a Klan member, I tried to treat him like everybody else… They tried to intimidate you in different ways rather than really confront you. I felt like if you stood your ground, you’d get along all right.”
McKinnon never had a cross burned in his yard, but most HOPE members did. My parents had several. Following one information program at a PTA meeting, 19 crosses were burned in the county, McKinnon said. One day, my mother was shouldered sharply in the grocery store by a woman whom she didn’t recognize. “Communist!” the woman hissed. “Nigger-lover!”
After HOPE’s first public meeting, my parents were closing up the Presbyterian church where the meeting was held, when a dozen Klansmen appeared outside, one in full costume. A group of them surrounded my parents’ car. My mother is not sure if the little church didn’t have a phone, or they just never thought about calling local police. But she was terrified, and they might have stayed at the church except for their children, who were at home with a babysitter. They headed for the car.
“I remember looking at the KKK,” my mother later wrote, “and thinking, ‘All right, you Klansmen, you are the ones who have talked so much about how you are the protectors of Southern Womanhood and how you always protect Southern ladies from danger. Well, I’ll show you who’s a Southern Lady!’” She reached into her purse, and pulled out “the white gloves that women in the 1950s always carried. I pull on my white gloves, raise my head up in the air, and walk straight toward the KKK just as if I can’t see them.” The Klansmen moved aside.
“The very next night,” my mother wrote, “the Klan came back and burned our first cross by the driveway right in front of our house.” The Klan may have been right to fear the seemingly innocuous activities of the HOPE group. “It swayed public opinion,” according to my mother.
“Because of meetings like this, things began to kind of turn around,” agreed Rev. McKinnon.
The Sibley Commission heard testimony from 1600 white citizens and 200 black citizens. “A three-to-two majority of the witnesses favored maintaining segregation even at the cost of abolishing public schools,” the Commission’s report said. The majority hadn’t favored keeping the schools open, but neither was it a shutout. Many public officials wanted to save the schools, and they could now point to significant public support for their position.
The alternative that had been put forth to integrating Georgia’s schools was for the state to finance privately run, segregated schools. That didn’t happen, but privately financed “segregation academies” sprang up anyway. Until that time, private schools were almost unknown in the South.
In the end, as in most other places, the integration of Jonesboro Senior High by two brave black students was anticlimactic. The new students were shunned by most, but they were not attacked. I knew the parents of certain of my friends to be staunch segregationists – one even talked of moving to South Africa where apartheid still ruled – but mostly their own children were less hostile than they were.