Tennessee's Role In Civil Rights

Tuesday, June 2, 2020

While Tennessee has an imperfect track record on the issue of civil rights, we should be proud of our state. Because we know that while our citizens may argue amongst ourselves, debate issues, and drag our feet, in the end, we usually get it right. It was almost 100 years ago that Tennessee provided the 36th and final state needed to ratify the landmark 19th amendment to the U.S. Constitution, giving millions of women the right to vote. If not for the economy and COVID-19 crisis we would be celebrating that centennial event this August.

George Floyd, an African-American man, was murdered in Minneapolis, Mn. on May 25, 2020. This unnecessary homicide has sparked national riots. A legitimate, peaceful protest to raise awareness in cities across America soon escalated to violent protests when many people not even connected to the issue began using it as an excuse to engage in looting and destruction. It is a teachable moment when we can discuss the treatment of our fellow citizens. President John F. Kennedy said in a speech in Nashville on May 18, 1963 “only a respect for the law makes it possible for free men to dwell together in peace and progress.” Kennedy’s words were as timely then as they are now.

Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated in Memphis in 1968, over 52 years ago. Few know of the significance that Tennessee has played in Civil Rights. First, Tennessee played a pivotal role in the passage of the 19th Amendment, which granted women the right to vote in 1920. This year marks the centennial of the ratification of the 19th Amendment. Second, Tennessee was at the forefront of Civil Rights and integrating America. We should remind ourselves of this history on Martin Luther King Jr. Day in 2020.

The groundbreaking 1954 Supreme Court case Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka was the case in which the Supreme Court Justices ruled unanimously that racial segregation of children in public schools was unconstitutional. It signaled the rightful end of the “separate but equal” principle outlined in the 1896 Plessy v. Ferguson case. The Ferguson case constitutionally allowed laws barring African Americans from sharing the same buses, schools, and other public facilities as whites — known as “Jim Crow” laws — and established the separate but equal doctrine that would stand for the next six decades.

Linda Brown, then a nine-year-old girl, became the face of the issue. Ms. Brown died at age 75 on March 25, 2018. Her national legacy in Civil Rights went far beyond public education. Brown said in a 1985 interview: “I feel that after 30 years, looking back on Brown v. The Board of Education has made an impact on all facets of life for minorities throughout the land. I really think of it in terms of what it has done for our young people, in taking away that feeling of second-class citizenship. I think it has made the dreams, hopes, and aspirations of our young people greater, today.”

Few people know the role Tennessee played in Civil Rights and public education. Avon Williams, Jr., a Knoxville native, became a cooperating attorney for the NAACP Legal Defense Fund in 1949 and began a long career in civil rights activism. In 1950, four years before the Supreme Court outlawed school segregation in Brown v. Board of Education, Williams filed Tennessee’s first public school desegregation suit case when he sued to integrate the public schools in Anderson County, Tennessee. (McSwain v. Board of Anderson County).

Williams’ first cousin, Thurgood Marshall, was the chief lawyer for the Legal Defense and Educational Fund of the NAACP. Marshall later became the first African-American to serve on the U.S. Supreme Court. Williams and Marshall worked closely on racial discrimination cases. Williams went before the Supreme Court seven times to argue cases involving discrimination in public schools, public housing or other public accommodations. In 1955, Williams, Marshall and Z. Alexander Looby, a fellow African American lawyer focused on civil rights, filed suit Kelley v. Board of Education against the Nashville city schools on behalf of African American children.
Looby and Williams were without a doubt the most prominent civil rights attorneys in Tennessee during their lifetime.

The Journal of African American History stated that “Looby and Williams’s work in school desegregation cases alone encompassed every major case in the state (with the exception of Northcross v. Board of Education) and entered the highest realms of legal activity. Federal judges at the circuit, appeals, and U.S. Supreme Court levels cited and considered many of their cases as the post-Brown v. Board of Education (1954) litigation world unfolded.”

In 1968, Avon Williams, Jr. was elected to the Tennessee State Senate. He was one of the first African-Americans to serve in that body since the Civil War. As a senator, he worked to put guidance counselors in elementary schools and to establish kindergarten classes in Tennessee. The state has a proud, but often untold, history in Civil Rights, which greatly enhanced education in our state.

Racism, bigotry, and vitriolic hate have no place in modern culture. All children are created in the image of God. Martin Luther King, Jr. poignantly stated: “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.” Does character still matter? Of course, it does.

For centuries, our country has attracted people in search of a share of “the American dream” from all corners of the world. E Pluribus Unum (From Many, One) remains the national motto, yet it appears that there is no longer a consensus about what that should mean. If you step into our public schools today, the many different cultures are on full display.

Americans like Martin Luther King Jr., Linda Brown, Avon Williams, Alexander Looby, and Thurgood Marshall helped integrate America, and move the nation past the old paradigms and backward thinking that dominated our society. We need to remember and reflect on that history. More importantly, we need to fulfill our destiny as a nation where all citizens can realize the benefits of integration and equality of opportunity regardless of the color of their skin. The dream of Martin Luther King, Jr. did not die in Memphis in 1968, it is still alive in 2020.

JC Bowman
Executive Director of Professional Educators of Tennessee


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