John Shearer: Rev. Paul McDaniel Recalls Lessons Learned From 1971 Local Racial Crisis

Tuesday, June 15, 2021 - by John Shearer
Reverend Paul McDaniel
Reverend Paul McDaniel

In terms of civil rights work over the years, the Rev. Paul McDaniel could be considered a highly decorated veteran.


Now 90 years old, the retired local minister and former Hamilton County commissioner has witnessed up close such events as Selma, where he was on the ground helping with the work leading up to the famous voting rights march of March 1965.

He also participated in the final day of the famous trek to the Alabama capitol in Montgomery that resulted in federal voting rights legislation.


And while at Morehouse College, he became acquainted with an older student and future civil rights leader, with whom he would have continued contact and periodic conversations through the years. The man was Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.


But perhaps nothing prepared him for what took place 50 years ago this spring in Chattanooga, when a canceled Wilson Pickett concert at Memorial Auditorium resulted in a tense local time as blacks protested over larger frustrations during those early days of equal rights protection.


Respected local attorney and civic volunteer Robert Kirk Walker had only begun serving as mayor about a month earlier, and chaos ensued locally with property and fire destruction in what might have been the city’s most tense racial crisis to date.


As was chronicled in part 1 of this series, the situation became so dire with unruly behavior in part over the quality of life for many black Chattanoogans that Mayor Walker had to call for help from the National Guard.


“He wasn’t ready for it, and none of us was ready for it,” Rev. McDaniel recalled of that time. “He was not really equipped to deal with a situation like this.”


During a recent interview at the Gunbarrel Road Panera looking back at that time of a half century ago and what positive lessons can be gleaned from it today, Rev. McDaniel said he had arrived in Chattanooga in 1966 and had become involved with the Unity Group. 


The group had come together in 1969 to push for black-related causes, including electing black Chattanoogans to office. The work had resulted in the election of John Franklin in 1971 as the first black city commissioner.


Through that and his work as the pastor at Second Missionary Baptist Church and his overall interest in the cause of civil rights, he found himself arriving late at a Saturday gathering of black leaders and youth at the Rev. Loyd Edwards’ Cosmopolitan Community Church on Third Street. This was the night after the Pickett concert cancellation and some riotous behavior had begun in protest over ticket money refund questions.


Rev. McDaniel realized that Saturday morning that the situation in Chattanooga was not going to calm anytime soon.


“By the time I got to (the meeting), they were dismissing,” he recalled. “Some of us, including John Franklin and Franklin McCallie, were out on the sidewalk across the street talking about it.


“The young fellows were disturbed still. One of them looked down and saw a rock. There was one car in front of us, and this fellow took the rock and hit the car.”


Inside was a white couple, and 50 years later Rev. McDaniel has still not forgotten the frightened looked on their faces, nor his feeling of hurt at how this couple became innocent and undeserved victims of the mounting violence over the black frustrations.


He soon heard sirens coming toward this new hotspot of violence in Chattanooga in late May 1971, and since Franklin McCallie, a white man who enjoyed a career teaching at Howard and other black schools, was with him, he figured he better get him out rather than stay around.


He was able to safely give him a ride up to McCallie School, where his father, Spencer McCallie Jr., was the headmaster. 


Rev. McDaniel also recalled that a Morehouse College friend, Samuel Ramsey, was in town for a family outing in Alton Park, and Rev. McDaniel was unable to meet him there due to a curfew that had been put in place.


Rev. McDaniel cannot remember what all took place or what he said during his sermon the next day at Second Missionary Baptist Church, but he remembered meeting with some elected officials early on to try and quell the situation. 


He recalled that Mayor Walker initially seemed kind of negative toward the black adult leaders, but he grew to appreciate him more as time passed. One of his church members worked for the Walker family, he said, and Mr. Walker supported Rev. McDaniel later in an important court case.


The local black leaders also met and decided to go on patrol in different areas to keep an eye on the situation and see what they could do to ease the tenseness, and Rev. McDaniel was assigned to the area around Howard High School.


On a lighter note during the early days of the tense situation, he said that one of his church members had a business on what was then Ninth Street and went to close it up to keep it from being damaged, and the police arrested him.


Rev. McDaniel said that his parents went to get him out of jail and did not see him among the black prisoners, but he was found in the group of white prisoners when the inmates were separated. The reason he was with them, Rev. McDaniel said, was because he had lighter skin and had apparently been mistaken for a white person.


The biggest tragedy during the first few days was when a young black man named Leon Anderson was shot and killed in Alton Park following a confrontation with police. Rev. McDaniel recalled that the Unity Group tried to help with the situation.


“We tried to get some money to help the family and made a presentation to the family somewhere at Central Avenue and 38th Street,” he said.


The longtime minister added that his group primarily worked to calm the situation that went on for days in late May and into early June, but he knew that in a situation like that, a group might lose their rational approaches and simply deal with the emotion of the moment.


Rev. McDaniel also remembered that the Unity Group and others called for some improvements like better relations between blacks and the police, but he is not sure if the changes can be measured or noticed today after some initial steps were taken. 


He also remembered that the Unity Group about that time had applied for a grant, and then-U.S. Sen. Bill Brock even announced they were receiving it, but somehow it ended up getting canceled somewhere along the way, he said.


Mayor Walker had also announced a new position to help in the area of black and white relations.


While the 1971 unrest was Chattanooga’s biggest racial crisis after World War II and trumped some minor tenseness during the sit-in movement of 1960 and the situation after Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in 1968, Rev. McDaniel had already experienced plenty.


From South Carolina, he suffered from asthma as a youngster, but remembered being mostly healed of any future problems after a brief stint with a German doctor in Columbia, S.C., where his aunt lived.


The incident helped him so much that he decided right then he was going to be a minister one day. But while he had solved his heavenly direction at such a young age, the ways of the world still had a few hurdles for him to overcome.


He remembered that the doctor called a cab to take him back to his aunt’s, but the white driver refused to take him there after realizing it was in a black area. The doctor cussed the driver out, he remembered, and he eventually got to his relative’s home and was on the road to an interesting life.  


He went to Morehouse College, where Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was an older student and Rev. King Sr. was a trustee, and then followed the future noted civil rights leader up to the Colgate Rochester Crozer Divinity School.


He remembered that Dr. King was a smart person, and they would occasionally cross paths. Dr. King even recommended the Rev. McDaniel for a church pastorate one time. 


Rev. McDaniel also recalled hearing him speak on one occasion, and later getting on the same plane with him and conversing with him in the airport afterward.


As the nation’s big civil rights events were taking place and the Rev. McDaniel was participating as best as he could, he was in Montgomery for the final day of the Selma voting rights march. 


“It was interesting because you had people on the sidelines picking at you and calling you names,” he recalled. “And the guards (from the National Guard) spit on us after the march.”


Rev. McDaniel said he ended up in Chattanooga the next year after 10 years as a minister in New Jersey. “One of my friends from Morehouse came up there. He had married a girl from Chattanooga, and she was speaking at the church I served and told me about the search for a pastor,” he recalled.


He began serving at Second Missionary Baptist Church in 1966 and did not retire until 2014. After his first wife, Edna, died in 1990, this son of a pastor later married Dr. Linda McDaniel, who went on to serve as associate pastor at Brainerd United Methodist Church and First-Centenary United Methodist Church in downtown Chattanooga until her retirement in 2020.


Rev. McDaniel also went on to serve as a Hamilton County commissioner from 1978-98 after initially wanting to be a delegate to the 1977 Tennessee Constitutional Convention, but questions arose due to the fact it said ministers could not serve in the state legislature. A U.S. Supreme Court ruling in his favor in 1978 in a case where he went against local attorney Selma Cash Paty paved the way for ministers in elected office.


Rev. McDaniel recalled being pleased that former Mayor Walker, who went on to do lobbyist work, had supported him in this measure.


As a county commissioner, Rev. McDaniel was not afraid to occasionally put aside his normal calm and amicable manner to speak out against something he perceived as wrong.


After the scars of 1971 began to move into the past, if not be completely healed, he was also involved in other Chattanooga civil rights battles, including the 1980 case in which some white men with Ku Klux Klan affiliations were found not guilty or were convicted on minor charges. They had been accused of shooting and injuring some black women on Ninth Street.


Additional protests and a few tense days took place then, too, but black leaders, including Rev. McDaniel, came away with one positive legacy in that Ninth Street was renamed one year later in memory of Dr. King.


Like many, Rev. McDaniel said he realized how far America still has to go to be made racially whole after what took place with the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis last year while in police custody.


“That was such a tragic, inhumane and horrible thing for children to see a policeman treating a man like that,” he said. “We don’t know what that will mean for years to come.”


While a small number of white citizens were involved in the civil rights battles of the 1960s, Rev. McDaniel was touched at how many white young people he saw here and elsewhere take part in the marches along with blacks to protest the Floyd killing.


As for the future of Chattanooga in race relations, he is cautiously hopeful for the future based on the initial attitude of new Mayor Tim Kelly. He said that, even though he knows black and white ministers aren’t out front together as much as in the past, despite the efforts by such groups as Kingdom Partners, he is still trying to be optimistic.


“I think we are continuing in the process to be made whole, and the administration has spoken in such a manner that gives us hope for a still better Chattanooga,” he said.


“Chattanooga is improved, but there is still a lot of hostility in the community, and it has been reflected in the political system, and a lot of it is lost in rationality.”


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This is the second story looking at the 1971 racial crisis in Chattanooga and its aftermath 50 years later. To see the first story, read here:


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