In the late spring and early summer of 1971, Franklin McCallie found himself as a very up-close observer of the chaotic situation in Chattanooga.
In what was probably the tensest racial crisis in the city during the 20th century, angry black citizens upset over a canceled Wilson Pickett concert as well as their larger plight of limited opportunities commenced to loot and burn parts of Chattanooga.
The National Guard even had to be called to try and restore order.
McCallie has never forgotten attending a very tense meeting the next day, one that resulted in the damaging of passing cars and the harming of innocent passersby on Third Street. It was a scene that he admitted moved him to tears as someone who ideally pushed for racial harmony.
“I’d never seen a riot,” recalled Mr. McCallie, the tenseness of the time still evident in his voice. “I had never seen people out of control.”
As this series begins to wind down looking at the unstable situation that took place 50 years ago this year and tries to find any positive lessons that can be learned going forward, a look at Mr. McCallie’s memories shows someone who took a very active part in trying to bring healing. And that was despite being a white man.
“It was a vivid time for me,’ he said.
This man whose vocation and avocation have involved helping mostly minorities as an educator and in recent years building better relations among blacks and whites through formal gatherings said he was in his third year at Howard High School.
It was an unlikely place for Mr. McCallie, who graduated from McCallie School in 1958 at a time when it was an all-white, all-male military preparatory school headed by his father, Spencer McCallie Jr. But some interactions while at what is now Rhodes College in Memphis began to change his perspectives, and they continued to evolve while in the Navy and during additional school at Harvard before getting a job at Howard.
One of a small number of white teachers at the then all-black school, he was completing his first year as an assistant principal after teaching English there the previous two years. That year he had also been the speechwriter for John Franklin’s successful campaign to become the city’s first black commissioner. It was a race that had to go to a runoff due to a third candidate’s entry that drew only a few votes but kept Mr. Franklin from initially reaching 50 percent of the votes.
Although he was not at the scheduled Wilson Pickett concert at Memorial Auditorium on the night of May 28, 1971, a few weeks after Commissioner Franklin had begun serving along with new mayor Robert Kirk Walker, Mr. McCallie recalled hearing first-hand stories about it later.
He remembered learning that Mr. Pickett had earlier not appeared at a concert in New Jersey, possibly Paterson, after not being paid in full beforehand as well, and some protests had occurred there, too.
After someone announced to the audience following some warmup acts that Mr. Pickett’s concert would not take place, most began heading to the lobby box office to get their money back. With only a limited amount of cash on site, the auditorium workers under longtime manager Clyde Hawkins knew they would not be able to refund everyone.
Police and Fire Commissioner Gene Roberts, who had also just been elected, was on hand, probably after getting word of possible trouble, and he made the quick decision or was asked to try and find some more money to provide refunds and help diffuse the situation. He decided to go across the river to the now-razed Fehn’s restaurant, located on the west side of the current Girls Preparatory School’s tennis and track facility that was built later.
“Gene Roberts goes to Fehn’s and asks the manager (or possibly a Fehn family member) for $25,000” on an emergency borrowing basis, said Mr. McCallie. “So, (the restaurant official) goes into the safe and gets $25,000 and (Commissioner Roberts) takes it back.”
While they had some money, they didn’t have order, as young people were pushing and beginning to damage parts of the box office. And because Mr. McCallie said he thinks different-colored tickets were issued depending on whether tickets were purchased before or on the day of the show, several stubs were thrown on the ground after people received refunds.
As a result, some were using tickets for refunds that were not theirs.
“It was chaos, so they stopped ticket sale refunds,” Mr. McCallie said.
That resulted in more turmoil, and youngsters took to the streets in anger, vandalizing nearby businesses and buildings around downtown apparently in large part out of frustration.
While that was bad enough, Mr. McCallie believes the worst action that created an uproar was a tactical decision that came about later that night. Someone at probably the Chattanooga Police Department administrative level made the decision to close the nightclubs and bars in the black neighborhoods of Chattanooga, perhaps thinking that would somehow keep the riot from getting even worse.
Instead, closing might have opened something else – deep-seeded anger from blacks frustrated about perceived limited opportunities and rights, despite the passage a few years earlier of civil rights and voting rights laws.
“There wasn’t anybody in the clubs who had anything to do with the riot,” Mr. McCallie said. “Closing the places down helped it spread.”
That was in part because someone who had been at one of the clubs was a deejay at a black radio station, and he got on the radio afterward angrily discussing how the club where he was had been closed for no apparent reason. Not only that, but he was also talking about a meeting being held Saturday to discuss this and other grievances by an angry black community.
“His words were that all concerned citizens should come to this meeting,” Mr. McCallie said.
Mr. McCallie had found out that the afternoon meeting was going to be at the Cosmopolitan Community Church on Third Street, not far from his home in the integrated neighborhood of Glenwood, where he and wife Tresa had deliberately chosen to live. He decided he should go both due to his job and his concern for the community.
He ended up going with local black civil rights advocate Johnny Holloway, and he has not forgotten walking into the Quonset-hut like building and sitting on the 10th row. He said it filled to around 200 people, all the rest of whom were black, male and in their 20s and older. He quickly sensed it was an angry group frustrated with the treatment of blacks in Chattanooga.
“From the first it was a rowdy meeting,” he said. “Different people came up and said what had happened and people shouted, ‘What are we going to do.’ But no one was giving a good solution to what they were going to do.
“More of it was that all black people are treated wrongly. There was not a whole lot about Wilson Pickett. It was ‘this is how they treat black people.’ ”
Eventually, new Commissioner John Franklin spoke, and Mr. McCallie has not forgotten watching him walk up to the podium, with Mr. McCallie realizing this would be his first real test as a commissioner.
Unfortunately, neither he nor the Cosmopolitan Community Church pastor, the Rev. Loyd Edwards, nor any other older or more-level-headed black leaders, could calm or offer more constructive advice to the group.
As a result, the meeting soon ended, but the problems were just beginning.
Mr. McCallie said that when he went outside after talking with some people following the meeting, all chaos had broken out.
“I saw the scariest scene I had ever seen in my life,” he said. “I was at the top of the stairs standing and young black men were throwing rocks and bricks at any white car coming down Third Street.
“I remember seeing one brick going through a white female’s car. A child was in the car, and she was screaming and angry. It was rough. There were no police there. It was out of hand.”
While he was thinking he should do something like go up the street and warn the white people driving down the street, the Rev. Paul McDaniel soon came up to him. Saying he was a lighter-skinned black man and that Mr. McCallie was the only white person there, he thought they should leave before any trouble started with them. So, they went and found Rev. McDaniel’s car.
As Mr. McDaniel was taking him up to McCallie School where a family gathering was taking place, the reality of what he had witnessed suddenly hit Mr. McCallie.
“I started crying, and I never cried like that before,” he said of witnessing the actions that resulted in the woman and her child being attacked.
“He let me out (at McCallie School) and I went in there and started crying uncontrollably. Nobody could stop me from crying. I cried for several hours.”
His idealistic efforts toward and desire for racial reconciliation, peace and harmony after coming back to Chattanooga to work had been given a shocking blow.
Later, however, tears were replaced with a sudden feeling of responsibility. After watching the news that night and waking up the next morning, he was overwhelmed with the thought that he needed to share as the only white witness what had taken place at the meeting and why the blacks were so frustrated over the sudden closing of the innocent nightclubs, etc.
He first went to Sunday school at Pilgrim Congregational Church where he and his wife were then attending and explained what had happened, and then he went to his boyhood church of Central Presbyterian Church on McCallie Avenue. By the time he arrived there, the service had just started, but he wrote a note on a church bulletin asking to speak to the congregation, and he gave it to an usher.
He eventually convinced the usher to hand it to the pastor, the Rev. Matt McGowan, who let him speak, even though that went against typical protocol during a Presbyterian church service, and Mr. McCallie could see the pastor seeming to pray over the request.
“It was very emotional,” recalled Mr. McCallie. “I think I spoke for 20 minutes, and I tried to say the reason it broke into a riot.
“I didn’t want white people to be angry at black people for being destructive in the streets without cause, because there was cause that they – the white people – would not know about. I knew the reason because I heard it discussed (vehemently argued about is more accurate) for several hours’ time at that meeting at the church on Third Street Saturday afternoon.”
Mr. McCallie also said he did not try to make white people believe that any destruction that black people engaged in on the streets was good. He just wanted white people to understand why it was happening, where the anger was coming from, he said.
He then sat down, the pastor thanked him and then continued with his scheduled sermon. But as soon as the service ended, everyone there came up to Mr. McCallie and thanked him for his heartfelt sharing.
That included his parents, who, he admitted, were shocked to see him there speaking.
Looking back, Mr. McCallie is grateful for Rev. McGowan’s decision to let him speak. “I do not doubt that the decision Matt McGowan made that day was an important one in his pastoral career,” he said. “In fact, it was courageous in my opinion.”
While chaos and tenseness continued around Chattanooga that Sunday, Mr. McCallie went on to his work at Howard High the next day, much to the surprise of his white friends. School was winding down in those days when classes went into the first week of June, and he remembered walking around the school with principal Clifford Hendrix.
They would see groups of students out of class, but instead of scolding them and telling them to go back to class immediately, they would try to talk with them and empathize with them and their frustrations and settle them down. It was a step he felt comfortable taking after having tried to build a positive relationship with the students over the previous three years.
“I was accepted because they knew me,” Mr. McCallie said of the all-black student body that would see its first few white students arrive in the fall of 1971 after he left.
And the situation remained in control at Howard High that week during school hours, despite the continued disturbances around town that had resulted in the National Guard having to patrol the streets of Chattanooga for a few days.
Mr. McCallie said he was sitting in the main office at Howard the Thursday of that week about the time school had ended and heard a knock on the window. It was a local black man who said the blacks were ready to stop the violence over their frustrations but were wanting a meeting with the mayor, Robert Kirk Walker, and thought Mr. McCallie could help. The man also told Mr. McCallie that they had not bothered him at the tense Saturday meeting, thinking he could possibly help them later.
Mr. McCallie then went over to City Hall and was able to talk with the mayor, who said that, yes, he would be glad to meet with any protest leaders. So, a meeting was hastily arranged for that day. Mr. McCallie also while at City Hall ran into Commissioner Franklin, who said he had been at the Bethlehem Center in Alton Park, and he was approached about a meeting as well.
Mr. McCallie did not sit in on the meeting, but left City Hall feeling that the meeting would maybe be a key first step toward ending the rioting and vandalism that had taken place over several days.
Mr. McCallie’s work in Chattanooga would soon end, at least for a few decades, but his fight for civil rights as a white man would continue uninterrupted. He had learned that spring that he was receiving a Ford Fellowship to study at the University of Chicago, so he and wife Tresa left for the Windy City within a few days.
He later became a popular and beloved school administrator in the St. Louis suburb of Kirkwood before returning to his roots of Chattanooga. Since back in town, he has gained positive attention again in recent years for his efforts to bring whites and blacks together over interracial dessert conversations at his and his wife’s Read Avenue home in the Southside.
He has not stopped working toward racial wholeness and connectedness that seemed so elusive and far off in 1971. While he has seen some gains in that realm since that time of 50 years ago, with many blacks in more responsible jobs today and making more money and slightly more racial interaction taking place, he thinks the city, like many communities, still has a way to go.
“When you look at affordable housing, we are no better, and the wages are no better,” he said. “And the number of black people who know white people is not that many. We don’t have enough individual interactions trying to get together and heal black and white tensions.”
As a result, he is still inspired to continue working for a better and more harmonious Chattanooga, even in his early 80s.
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To see the previous story in this series, read here.
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