Only this morning did I accidentally run across John Shearer's Brainerd High series, one that brought back more than a few memories. These involved the policemen in the hallways; the eating of lunches with spoons – as all the knives and forks had been taken away; spending 3-4 hours in Mr. Williams' 1st-period physics class as the whole school was in a lockdown; etc. Some were humorous, some, not so much.
On the humor side: In the lockdown case, the hours of sitting in place, the lack of any explanations – everything contributed to a heightened sense of tension.
It was broken when the intercom finally came on around hour four, and I heard, “Will David Shavin report to the main office?” A bunch of nervous laughter in my class – though I could not share in it.
However, there was an ugly side. The infamous fall 1969 ‘special meeting’ in the school auditorium, where the blacks were shunted over to the cafeteria, horrified me. White students were allowed to hurl vulgar comments, whipped up by Confederate flags. Your series refers to explanations about teenagers’ immaturity and about ‘just wanting to support traditions’ without any ill feelings toward any group. I’ve no doubt that there were elements of such – but, truth be known, there was an ugly whipping of sub-human, animalistic passions toward a minority.
Such ugliness might never have surfaced but for the deliberate whipping up of ugliness to oppose developments that, in particular, Dr. King had properly brought to the social consciousness. The United States could not be what it was constituted to be, unless it dealt with the type of small-mindedness (to put it politely) of pre-1776 peasants. The rapid descent into explicit racism in that school auditorium by a section of the white students was a mob psychology, one that aped the infamous Ole Miss football game just preceding the riots at Oxford, Ms., a few years before.
At the time, I had read some of Dr. King’s writings. (I had attended his funeral in Atlanta the year before.) That day, my notion of civil disobedience did not extend any further than being a lone white student walking out of the auditorium. I wasn’t sure where to go. The cafeteria meeting was never announced as 'all-black,' but I didn’t think it right to intrude. I ended up in the gymnasium, where I was very glad to be able to share some stories and thoughts with Albert Barnett. Thank you, Albert! (His parents and my parents had worked together on civil rights matters in Chattanooga.) And I was glad to learn from Greg Walton that it was Albert who Socratically posed the appropriate question(s) to him. Albert always struck me as one who, seemingly quiet, would get to the underlying point. That is, he ‘kept his eyes on the prize!’
It never should have been left to a handful of young black students to deal with what local politicians should have addressed earlier in the 1960s. Segregation of the schools was illegal. Once the process of integration of the schools had begun, any local politician of any merit would have pre-emptively dealt with the Confederate revivalism of the early 1960s; would have provided more uplifting symbols; and would have created a much more functional environment for Brainerd’s educational mission – the high school that was leading the way in Chattanooga’s desegregation.
The buried ugliness amongst a minority of white students would never have been stoked, and perhaps would have disappeared with growing maturity. The failure of local leadership to rise to the occasion made an impossible situation for Brainerd in 1969-70.
That said, we had an impressive football team that memorable fall. I was proud of my classmates – and always grateful that Gary Belk did not mash my face in during our boxing match in gym class.