Interviewee: Randall L. Falk
Interview: Ben Houston
Date of Interview: June 18, 2003
H: It is June 18, 2003. I am here with Rabbi Falk in Nashville, Tennessee. Thank
you very much for agreeing to meet with me on this project, sir. Can we start
with when and where you were born, please?
F: I was born in Little Rock, Arkansas, July 9, 1921.
H: How did you end up coming to Nashville and becoming a citizen of Nashville?
F: I was in Erie, Pennsylvania, for thirteen years as the rabbi of the temple there. I
received a call to the Nashville Temple in 1960, and after some conferences I
agreed to come.
H: Can you describe the Nashville of that time period. What was your impression of
the city when you first arrived here?
F: Well, being a southerner, I found it a very pleasant atmosphere. It seemed to be
a city that had a lot of advantages. It was the capital of the state; it had fourteen
universities and colleges, and I was interested in doing some work at Vanderbilt
toward my doctorate. And I found the people to be receptive to the kind of thing I
was interested in doing here at the temple and in the community.
H: What was your sense of how race relations in Nashville functioned?
F: That was one of the areas that I felt certainly needed some working on. When I
came in 1960, I found there was very little communication between the white and
black communities. One of the things that I felt would be a challenge here would
be to improve the communication and to try to do some things to integrate the
communities. When I came here in 1960, the buses, for example, the blacks
were asked to go to the rear of the bus. That kind of thing, I felt, needed
changes. Restaurants, for the most part, did not serve blacks. One of the early
challenges was to integrate the lunch counters at Woolworth's and at Grant's
stores downtown. There was a lot to be done here.
H: You said that communication was your key goal, how did you go about trying to
facilitate that interracial dialogue?
F: We tried to do it first through the two minister's groups. At that time, there was a
white minister's group and a black clergy group. We began to meet together
once a month to try to work out some of these problems. That was the
H: What were the names of those groups?
F: I don't know that they really had names. They were simply community clergy
H: Could we perhaps shift focus a little bit and talk about the Jewish community in
Nashville. What was your sense of the Jewish community when you got here?
F: It was a well-organized community. At the time that I came here, there were
three congregations: this one, which is Reform; the Conservative; and the
Orthodox. There was a Jewish Community Center, in which all three
congregations participated, and there was a Jewish Federation, which tried to
bring together the various organizations in the Jewish community. In addition to
the congregations, there was the Zionist organization; Hadassa, which was a
women's group; the National Council of Jewish Women; B'nai B'rith. Those
were the main organizations in the Jewish community.
H: Can you talk about how the Jewish community responded to the upheaval in
race relations at this time?
F: I think the Jewish community responded pretty much like the general community. There
were some in the Jewish community who were very interested in encouraging interracial
activity. One of the things that I was very pleased to see was that the first integration of
sales personnel in downtown stores came in the bookstores operated by the [Adele and
Bernard] Schweids and in a lady's ready-to-wear [store] operated by Mr. Rosenblum.
These were the beginnings of integration of the personnel in the downtown community.
H: Presumably, there were also some Jews that were maybe a little leery about desegregation
F: I think there were those who were leery about Jews taking too much leadership in the
integration process. There were certainly families who were third- and fourth-generation
here, who were used to certain patterns, who were concerned about any kind of change
taking place. But, for the most part, I found that the Jewish community was prepared to
go along with change and was certainly interested in the process of bringing the black
community into an equal status in the city. In terms of beings able to go into restaurants
and hotels, other public accommodations, this was something that most of the Jewish
community felt the time had come for that kind of integration to take place.
H: I know this was a little bit before you came to Nashville, but could you talk about your
sense of how the Jewish community was affected by the bombing of the Jewish
Community Center and John Kasper's [itinerant racial demagogue] actions?
F: Certainly there was a great deal of anxiety connected with the threatened bombing of the
Jewish Community Center. We had threats here at the Temple as well. I think that, by
and large, the Jewish community felt that we wanted to provide whatever protection was
necessary, but we weren't going to curtail any of our activities because of these threats.
There was a particular threat to the Temple of a bomb being placed here. There were a
woman and two men that came in a car one day, supposedly to place the bomb. We had
received advance notice about it and they were followed immediately by the Belle Meade
police, who came in with them and immediately took their car to the far end of the
parking lot. I watched it from my office window. That was the only immediate threat
that we had. They were the same people who had threatened bombing television station
Channel 4, who had a Jewish announcer on their staff.
H: This was in the 1960s or later?
F: No, this was in the 1960s.
H: Did you ever talk to Rabbi Silverman about the role that he played in that situation with
Kasper and the Jewish Community Center?
F: Yes, I knew Rabbi Silverman very well and I knew that he had been very vocal in the
community and had threats to his person, to his family. One of the things he told me was
that he went out to his mailbox one morning and found a dead pigeon in the box that had
been placed there as a threat to the family, to be careful of what he said. He was a very
courageous individual and didn't back away from the stands that he took. He certainly
was one of the leaders in the early integration process here.
H: There was a segregationist group in the 1950s called the Tennessee Federation for
Constitutional Government, I don't know if that rings any bells with you.
H: From what I understand in researching that group, there were some Jews who were
affiliated with that organization. Are you familiar with any Jewish people who were
segregationists and devoted to segregation?
F: No, to the best of my knowledge, none of the Jewish people that I had any contact with
were part of a segregation program.
H: Talk about how the Metropolitan Committee on Human Relations that you served on, the
city organization, talk about how you came to be involved with that.
F: I came to be involved because the mayor invited me to go on the commission. I was very
happy to accept. He assembled a fine group of citizens for his commission. It was
effective until a mayor came along that didn't include it in his budget, and so the
commission was temporarily out of commission. We had no funds to operate, but that
was for only a period of two years. Then the new mayor placed it back on his agenda and
placed it on his budget and it was reconstituted.
H: Which mayor did not fund it?
F: Mayor Briley.
H: What projects did the committee involve itself with, or what were tasks that the group
tried to accomplish?
F: I think that you can get much more of the day-to-day operation [from] Fred Cloud, who
was our first executive director; [he] was very effective in his role as executive. We
supported community resources that were used to integrate the restaurants, the hotels, all
of the public accommodations. Our commission removed the signs above water
fountains, for example, for blacks [and] for whites in the public buildings. I think that the
office did a great deal in working with the media to try to put in articles in the newspaper
and on programs on television, encouraging people to accept the process of integration.
H: How long did you serve with this group?
F: Actually, I'm still active.
H: Oh, it's still active.
F: Yeah, we still have the Human Relations Commission.
H: I didn't realize that.
F: Yeah, it's a very active commission. Rosalyn Carpenter was our executive until
recently she took another position. We have an office and the commission is still active.
H: How did your activities change over time, given that you've been with it for such a long
time. How did it change over the 1960s and 1970s?
F: Well, I guess the early years were concentrated on getting an ordinance through the
Metropolitan Council requiring [that] public accommodations in the city be integrated.
This ordinance finally was passed. That was the early thrust, which got the enforcement
procedure in place. Since then, it's been a matter really of encouraging community
organizations to participate in integrated programs for employment and for housing.
Those have been the two areas of focus once we got public accommodations out of the
way. We've been very successful in integrating employment opportunities, both in public
and in private organizations. Certainly the city has completely integrated its work force.
I think you'll find, today, that work force in most of the major retail establishments is
now integrated. The remaining challenge in integration is in housing, in getting
integrated housing throughout the community. This has been accomplished to some
small degree. We have a lot of work to do on that yet. Many of the major apartment
buildings are now integrated. With the exception of certain areas, in which there are
gentlemen's agreements, the housing is pretty much integrated throughout the city. There
has even been some integration in Belle Meade and in Hillwood, not a lot, but a
H: Talk about how Nashville reacted to the issue of busing, because even though that's about
schools, I think it plays into housing, in terms of neighborhood schools and zones.
F: Well, I can tell you how we reacted. Our daughter, in fifth grade, was bused across town
in order to be in an integrated fifth-grade situation. By and large, those who were being
bussed were very cooperative. It wasn't an easy thing because, for example, my daughter
had to be out on the street waiting for her bus at seven o'clock in the morning in order to
get over to north Nashville to the school there. Those who participated did it in a very
good spirit. The PTA over in the north Nashville school was very effective in helping to
undergird the integration process. The principal of the school in north Nashville was an
excellent black principal who helped his faculty, that was integrated, and the students
adjust to the new arrangements. I would say that on the whole, the integration process in
the schools went very well, so that by the time our daughter, for example, was ready for
high school, Hillwood High School was integrated. It happened without great trauma.
H: Do you remember how Nashville reacted to the rise of Black Power in the 1960s,
especially the white community?
F: I think it was very fortunate that Nashville had a well-educated, sophisticated black
population because of the Meharry Medical College, because of Fisk University, and
because of Tennessee State University. There had been some relationship on the
academic level for some time. This enabled the process to go forward fairly smoothly.
There had been the relationship already established on the academic level. There was
some resistance to it, [but,] by and large, I think integration went forward in Nashville
much better than in most of the southern communities. Nashville was almost like
Cincinnati; it was a border community. We didn't have nearly the problems in our
integration that they had in Memphis and Birmingham, even in Atlanta. We were very
fortunate that ours in Nashville did not have a great deal of strong resistance to it.
H: Talk about why you think that was the case in Nashville. Why Nashville?
F: I think, number one, because, as I said, Nashville was a border community and there had
been enough influx into Nashville, through industry and through educated black
leadership, that the black leadership in the community was respected and had been
accepted. I think that Vanderbilt helped tremendously, because Vanderbilt went into the
integration process very quickly, both in its students and in its faculty. There was good
leadership both from the white and the black community. The fact that we had a Meharry
College and Fisk, and had the kind of respected black leadership, made a big difference.
H: You said that it was a border-state and, as such, had a different sort of mentality about
race relations. You think that there is a different mentality than in Memphis or
Mississippi or Alabama? What do those differences entail, to you?
F: I think that Memphis, for example, being in the Mississippi Delta, had a much different
approach, because of their dependence on cheap labor in the agricultural community and
in other areas. Nashville didn't have that same kind of dependence on cheap labor. The
black community had enough professionals, enough academics, that there had been an
established relationship, so that there was a basis on which the integration process could
H: Nashville, at this time period, prided itself on its moderation. Can you explain what that
word means to you? It's a word that you see all the time, but people don't always talk
about what it means.
F: I guess moderation meant, to most people, that they were able to accept a gradual
development of the race relation process. Moderation meant that there was an acceptance
of a gradual process of integration.
H: How did that differ from racial conservatism and racial liberalism, the two extremes?
F: Well, it differed from the conservatism in that there wasn't the strong opposition to the
integration process. While there were those who wouldn't be involved in it, there was
very little real conservative opposition to the process. By the same token, those on the
liberal side were willing to work with the moderates to let the process come, a little more
gradually than we would have liked, but in order to get a firm basis for the integration, we
would work with the moderates.
H: As a leader in the religious community of Nashville, discuss the influence you think that
church groups had in terms of Nashville and Nashville's race relations.
F: Fortunately, there were some Protestant clergy who were willing to take some leadership
and who were respected. Bill Barnes, for example, was a native Nashvillean, had good
roots here, and was able to provide some very good leadership that was respected by the
general community because he was a native. I thin that the leadership that was given also
by the Divinity School at Vanderbilt was very, very helpful, because there was respected
religious leadership there. They took a very active part. The Divinity School took a
leadership role in integrating Vanderbilt. The Divinity School was the first of all of the
schools at Vanderbilt that admitted a black student. So I think that the Protestant
community took a lot of its patterns from the leadership it was given by the Divinity
School at Vanderbilt. I think that the Catholic Church also was very helpful in
integrating the religious life. Catholic Churches were among the first to integrate their
membership. This was very, very helpful. Bishop Niedergesee has been a tremendously
[important] influence in the Catholic community.
H: You said that Vanderbilt Divinity School played a leadership role, was that the case, even
when considered the famous Lawson expulsion case in 1960?
F: Lawson was the first black student admitted into Vanderbilt. The chancellor at that time
was not very helpful in supporting that, and it became quite a cause celebre. Eventually,
Lawson himself decided that he had had enough of it, and he transferred to Boston to get
his degree. A few years ago, he was invited to return and there was a luncheon in which
the chancellor, as well as the Divinity School faculty, honored him and expressed their
appreciation for the position he had taken and welcomed his return. While he wasn't
given an honorary degree, he was honored by the school for the role he had played.
H: So given that this was such a controversy, how do you think the Divinity School took
leadership in the wider interracial movement?
F: I think that the faculty of the Divinity School had great influence on many of the
Protestant churches in the community. They occupied pulpits as guest speakers with the
message of integration being a primary concern that they shared with the congregations. I
think that the Methodist Church across from Vanderbilt was influenced greatly by the
Divinity School and took a leadership role in integrating membership. I think that the
effectiveness of it is that today there's no problem in any of the churches where there is a
desire for integration. While by and large the black community has preferred to remain
with its own churches, with its own culture and so forth, not only Edgehill Methodist, but
a number of the churches have become well integrated. There are even some white
members of First Baptist Capital Hill, which is predominantly a black church.
H: If we can go back to your work on the Metropolitan Commission, did you work with
other community groups in your capacity on the Metropolitan Council?
F: Yeah, we tried to work with many of the civic groups. We worked with a number of the
luncheon groups to get them integrated so that our work with Rotary Club, for example,
was successful in integrating it first. We integrated Rotary with the president of
Tennessee State, the president from Meharry Medical College, and one other, coming into
Rotary. Kiwanis followed very quickly. Today, all of these luncheon groups are
integrated with no problem.
H: You think that that process went smoothly of integrating those sorts of groups?
F: Yeah, it was slow, but it went smoothly.
H: That's an interesting question that I would like for you to talk about. Given that you've
been here for forty-some years now, how do you think that race relations have changed in
an informal sense not just sort of this school or this church has black members but on
sort of a day-to-day level?
F: Well, I think that one of the ways they've changed is it is very acceptable for blacks and
whites to have lunch together at any of the restaurants in town. I think that you find
informal social relationships in the homes today without there being any particular
concentration on it. I think that because of the relationships that have come
professionally and commercially, social relationships have come about as well. Today it
is not unusual to find a luncheon group at Belle Meade Country Club in which there are
black participants. The same thing is true at Hillwood Country Club. While there are
[not] large numbers of [black] members at the country clubs, there are some members,
just as, for example, there aren't large numbers of Jewish members of Belle Meade
Country Club, [but] there are some Jewish members. Hillwood is much more open in
that respect. I don't think there are any areas in which there hasn't been at least some
token integration in the social world, as well as the business and professional world.
H: When we were talking earlier about racial moderation and racial liberalism, it sounds like
you would place yourself more in the liberal camp.
H: Would that be safe to say?
F: Very definitely.
H: Because you're coming from that perspective, you seem to feel like there's a lot to be
proud of, in terms of Nashville's race history. Is that safe to say, even as a racial liberal
and not a moderate?
F: Yeah, I think that we've come a long way. We still have a way to go to completely
integrate the community, but I'm very proud of the fact that, in almost every area of
Nashville, integration has been accepted. While there is only token integration in some of
the areas socially, in terms of professional and business relationships, I think there are
very easy integrated relationships now.
H: In your work on the Metropolitan [Commission], did you work with businesses and
Chamber of Commerce, in terms of race relations? How did that process work?
F: Chamber of Commerce turned out to be very helpful. Again, it was a slow process and it
couldn't happen all at once, but the Chamber was helpful and the Junior Chamber was
particularly helpful. They really took more of an early leadership [role] than the Chamber
did. I think that, considering Nashville was still a southern-oriented community, we made
progress much more quickly than other southern cities.
H: You said that resistance from the business community, for example, was kind of slow in
the beginning. Talk about why you think that might have been.
F: Only because they were concerned as to how it would affect them economically. I think
when the business community saw that integration did not adversely affect their
businesses, they were relieved and were much more ready to accept it. For example, the
department stores had one time had lunch-rooms. When they saw that having black
patrons in the restaurants did not stop the white people from coming, they were much
relieved and it became wide-open. Same thing was true with a place like the cafeteria
downtown. They were very reluctant to accept black patrons because they thought it
would stop the whites from coming, but once we had these sit-ins and forced the
integration at the cafeteria and they saw that it did not deter the whites from continuing to
come, their resistance evaporated.
H: I know that you are pressed for time, so I just want to wrap it up.
F: We've got about fifteen minutes left.
H: Let me just ask you, in studying Nashville's race relations, is there anything that I haven't
asked you that I should have asked you about race relations in the 1960s and 1970s?
F: No, I think you've covered it very well, because I think that we have seen the professional
groups integrate very satisfactorily. For example, you find now black physicians on the
staff at all of the hospitals. I think that in the academic field there is very easy integration
today. There is a good working relationship between Meharry and Vanderbilt School of
Medicine that we're very pleased with. This is something that has been worked on and
has developed quite well. I don't think that there are any areas that are still closed to
integration. Some are working more slowly than others, but there are no closed areas
today. I think that in the commercial areas there's great openness. I really think that
integration has progressed to the point in Nashville that there are no real problem-areas. I
think that our [Metropolitan] Human Relations Commission has been very effective in
opening the doors.
H: It's interesting, because you think of the 1960s as the [time] of sit-ins and the Civil Right
Movement, and yet there was the sort of work that you were doing with this city/county
board and working with businesses. Talk about the different dynamic in those two
different spheres. There was the Movement and there was the sit-ins, and then there was
the actual city council and Chamber of Commerce and the sort of board that you worked
on and those circles. How did those dynamics connect and how were they different?
F: I think they work very well together. I don't think there are any barriers that have to be
broken down anymore. I think the Chamber of Commerce, for example, has very good
black participation, some leadership, in the Chamber of Commerce. I don't know any
areas in the community today in which we do not have acceptance of the integration
process. If there are any areas that we still have some problems, it may be in housing.
[End of Interview.]