Interviewee: John Compton
Interviewer: Ben Houston
Date: June 11, 2003
H: It is June 11, 2003. I am in the house of Professor John J. Compton. Professor
Compton, can we start off with you saying when and where you were born,
C: I was born in Chicago, Illinois, May 17, 1928, so that makes me seventy-five just
a little while ago.
H: How did you come to be a citizen of Nashville?
C: At a certain point in 1952, the then chancellor of Vanderbilt, Harvie Branscomb,
decided, rightly, that there needed to be a philosophy department. There had
been a joint philosophy and psychology department, as there were similarly in
many southeastern institutions. Psychologists had grown big and fat, and there
weren't enough philosophers around, so he started an independent department
in 1952. The man he appointed as chair called me up in my garret in New Haven
after he had done a little research and said, come down for an interview. That
was the spring of 1952, and I have been here since the fall.
H: When you got to Nashville, what were your impressions of the city? How would
you describe Nashville of that time to an outsider such as myself?
C: A largish country town. The population, as I recall, was about 250,000, in the city
limits. Coming from Ohio and Illinois, it struck me as a very southern small town.
H: How did the country part of it manifest itself, did you think?
C: In a certain sense, it still does, in its immediate access to farmland all around.
Beautiful hilly open country and, of course, country music. Of course, [it was] a
completely segregated society, which I had never seriously encountered before.
A small-town atmosphere, that's all.
H: So, you think that the country atmosphere perhaps lent itself to a certain, maybe,
provincialism in the mind set of Nashvilleans?
C: Sure. You could not buy liquor by the drink in any establishment. There were
very few restaurants, very few hotels. All the entertainment that people did or
one found typically and we were taken in, us Vanderbilt faculty, even young
ones, very warmly by Vanderbilt-related people was in people's homes. You
knew it was the state capital, all right, but then there was still and city and county
government, and that sort of tension existed on until the 1960s when the new
metro charter was developed. It felt like a small town in a dominantly rural
county. The interesting thing to me, coming from a small college and you
yourself having been at Rhodes would understand this [referring to interviewer's
undergraduate college] the institution with which I identified most immediately
was Fisk. Here was this small college that had an extraordinary music program,
had a college chapel. We went fairly regularly to the college chapel at Fisk. It had
an international student center with a cinema and movies every weekend.
Vanderbilt had none of these things. No music department, no chapel, no
movies, so we went to Fisk and developed a considerable friendship with many
faculty members over there, which was a very integrated faculty and a much
larger student body than there is today and in much better financial state. My dad
happened to be on the board of trustees, and so it made a natural home. But the
segregation did strike one visibly and tangibly and from the start, and it was a
source of anxiety when I first came. I didn't expect to stay, as a matter of fact.
H: What sort of anxieties? It was so pervasive, I am sure.
C: Just the idea of going into a racially segregated [society], totally segregated.
Obviously, I had grown up in the south side of Chicago, and there is urban
segregation, God knows. There were areas that I did not go into that were largely
black and poor. My bike would be stolen if I went in there, and you didn't mess
with that. But public-life segregation was utterly unfamiliar, and I didn't really
want to be a part of that. That was the anxiety. I didn't know whether I would
identify with the institution or my job or the environment. There were a lot of
uncertainties at the outset.
H: How did you come to be affiliated with the Tennessee Conference on Human
C: That is sort of a mystery to me. We took a year's sabbatical. I mean, you are
making me try to remember things that I cannot remember. As my wife says, I
am a myth-maker when I try to recall the historic past. We [went] on a sabbatical
in 1956-1957 to Europe, and the Nashville Human Relations Council was formed
well before that. I would have said around 1954, but I can't remember. You will
have these facts far more clearly than I will. I must have been involved with it well
before we left on that sabbatical with some Methodist church friends, I suppose.
The Methodist Board of Education, as I recall, we had some initial meetings over
there. It may have been through some Fisk friends, some town friends, church-
related friends. It was a small group trying to simply be a conversational group,
initially, of black and white people who would try to improve relationships just
among ourselves initially and then begin to have programs. I know we set
programs up in various churches with speakers, and this must have largely been
after 1954, after the school desegregation decision. That is probably what
evoked it. I cannot tell you in detail. But it seemed like a very natural thing to do
and not a terribly activist or politically aggressive thing to do. At that stage, my
sense is that it was a fairly easy enterprise to get people together, to get people
to come to programs in which you would have folks speak. But I don't remember
many details, to be honest with you.
H: Why don't we just go ahead and sort of pick through the TCHR and the events of
the 1950s and on to the 1960s.
C: Okay. You will have to jog my memory.
H: We will dredge up whatever we can, and perhaps after that I will ask you some
broader, wider questions about the context.
H: Do you have any awareness of what sort of precedents of groups came before
the TCHR in Nashville?
C: No, I do not. Clearly, the Nashville [Human Relations Council] came first and
then expanded into a wider Tennessee group. I remember a group of us were
involved in hiring Baxton Bryant as the first executive of the Tennessee Council. I
do not know whether our Nashville Human Relations Council had anything more
than.... I can't remember how it was even run. I'll bet it was quite informal. There
are some names that pop into my head. Predecessors, I really do not know of
any, at least not that I was in any way connected with.
H: In terms of your role in the TCHR, how did you figure into their activities?
C: All I remember doing was being a part of these conversational groups [and]
some sort of broad committees that worked to get people interested in the group,
to set up programs where people would speak, as I imagine, largely to the school
desegregation issue. I do not think we engaged anything more audacious than
that at that point. I do remember a number of these programs in different
churches that I helped arrange and some others that I attended, but I was not
anything that you would call a leader in these things. I was a foot-soldier and a
participant in some of the committees that did some arranging. That is about it.
H: You said that your earlier efforts were geared towards conversations. Can you
talk more about how that went and whether you felt that was effective in
[addressing] these interracial issues?
C: What it did initially, what this meant, was simply getting groups together over
lunch. I do remember periodically meeting at the Methodist Board of Education
for lunch. I am assuming some folks may have come from Fisk and Tennessee
State. It was largely the church and educational people, as I recall, and a few
townsfolk eventually. That became, of course, extremely important and much
more important as the actual pursuit of the school board and a Nashville plan for
desegregation was developed. That had to be a city-wide group. My memory is
the Jewish community had some very strong leaders in it. The Worthans were
always supportive. A number of marvelous women, quite southern women, were
vocal and determined to get this school desegregation thing underway.
H: Feel free to name-drop.
C: If I could remember any of those names, I would. I can see faces.
H: Perhaps some were affiliated with United Church Women?
C: That is quite possible. Just remarkable folks. They were long-time Nashville
residents, vocal, respected, civic-minded folks. What I meant by conversations is
simply getting to know one another and have a certain amount of confidence in
one another as a prerequisite to going out and trying to enlist other folks to
become a part of this group and to participate in programs and so on. That was
just sort of a step on the way.
H: It is interesting to me to think about these potential conversations. Were they
C: Probably more friendly and social. The basis, the assumption, was an agreement
on the need to move in race relations locally, in any respects we could. The
churches, of course, were totally segregated, and I think a great deal of this
energy, certainly the energy that I began to put into it, came from a
consciousness [that segregation in Christian churches was outrageously un-
Christian]. I was then a part of [a] Methodist church, Belmont United Methodist
Church, that was itself a totally segregated and chafing under this. The thing that
brought the group together was a shared conviction that this sort of situation had
to go. Frustration, embarrassment, and a real sense of loss about it. You did not
have to talk about that. What you talked about once people would come was,
you got acquainted with one another and found out what some of your common
experiences and interests were, and then get on with the business of trying to
show a public face of an integrated group that was interested in promoting, as
we were constantly were trying to say, desegregation, as well as integration, but
desegregation was the watch-word. Integration often meant to so many people a
far more social integration and intermarriage than they were prepared to accept.
That was what I remember of it.
H: Had you had interactions with African-Americans previous to Nashville that
perhaps gave you more of a comfort level?
C: Some, but I had nothing to overcome. I had been in school, I had been to college
with a few black students. I had one very good friend, a professor of French from
Talladega College, with whom I did a summer project while I was in college. I
had not known many black people, only one well, I suppose, but I had nothing to
overcome, and I had every reason to think that [segregation] was a total
aberration. My life had been lived asexually, so to speak, without any sense that
this was a part of the universe. My father was a college professor. I had been a
student all my life, raised on a college campus. Sure, [we had] prejudices of all
sorts, but nothing systematic and nothing directed towards black people. [We
had Asian, Indian, and European folks in and out of our house all my life. There
was just nothing there. In fact, I was eager and found that Fisk experience
opened up relationships with some black faculty that were very positive.
H: Talk some more about the school integration situation, in which I know that you
did take more of an activist role.
C: I eventually did. It was 1956 by the time I really had some involvement. I knew
that some of my colleagues in the English department at Vanderbilt were
members of the Citizens' Council, John Aden in particular, and Donald Davidson.
I had had some local debates with both of them in various faculty contexts. I
can't remember the chronology of these things. I would have said that the school
board meeting that I attended was in 1956, but I can't remember. I would have to
consult the paper to find out. I do know that one of the formative experiences I
had was quite independent of that. There were, in colleges and universities in
those days in the South, things called Religious Emphasis Weeks. In Religious
Emphasis Week, what you did was you made a team of people of different
disciplines, faculty members, and you invaded a campus, at their invitation, of
course, and you talked in classes and you had evening meetings, and all the
various denomination groups would set up things, and you sort of lived day and
night with students and stuff for three or four days. I did a number of these, and
the last one I did was at Mississippi State in Starkville. That was in about
February or March of 1956, and by then, the discussion about school
desegregation was very hot. Will Campbell had already organized a similar
Religious Emphasis Week with its own discussions and consequences at
[University of Mississippi in] Oxford before he fled. His was two or three months
[earlier]. Maybe it was even the fall [before]. Again, I can't remember dates, but
ours was in the spring. Besides my specialties in philosophy and the classes on
religious questions, race relations were the issues to be discussed. In effect,
[there was] a chain reaction. The state legislature [was] meeting [at the time],
and the governor was anxious that the state university not be embroiled in more
controversy, since Oxford had already been embroiled in it. He issued an edict to
the president of Mississippi State [President Hilbun] that we were to be told to
shut up about race matters while we were on the campus or we should very
nicely be asked to leave. We said, after hard [soul-]searching [in many] meetings
[that], of course, we can't shut up about these things. It is the most important
issue of the day, and a person imbued with any kind of religious ethics has got to
see that it has to be met head-on. So, we said, no, of course not; we are not
going to be silent about these matters, and we were, ushered [by the state
police] to the borders of Mississippi. Well, that was cool [laughs], and it was all
over the papers here [in Nashville]. I was just sort of amazed by all of this, and
educated, to be sure.
But the school board experience was sort of a similar thing. They were having
open meetings, and, again, I think it was 1956. Maybe I was encouraged by my
participation in the [Nashville] and Tennessee Conference groups. But [as] best I
remember, it was just my own initiative that said, hmm, I need to go down there
and say my bit. To my surprise, I saw Donald Davidson and John Aden, my
antagonists from the campus debates, on the other side of this table. I had my
chance to say my piece about how I thought Nashville had to move on this in a
forthright and rapid manner, as rapid as it could. This was [the] only tenable thing
to do. Then Donald gets up and says, no, this is not the thing to do. Then the
next morning, there it appears in the newspaper, double columns facing one
another, these pictures [one of Don Davidson and one of me] and these stories
on opposite sides on the front page. They just picked out a couple of people.
There must have been twenty who testified, which you will find if you look at the
minutes. By 1957, Nashville had a desegregation plan. The school board went
ahead, and they were beginning the integration year-by-year with first grade and
going on. I think by the time they got through middle school, they may have done
high schools all at once, or after the first year of high school they finished out the
high schools all at once. I have forgotten the detailed history. But as I recall,
[before] we came back from our year of sabbatical in 1957, while we were gone
in the summer of 1957, just at the beginning of the school year, the Hattie Cotton
School was bombed. There had been a great deal of turmoil during the year we
were gone, as I understand it, and we came back, and things were really very
tense. My involvement, so far as the school board went, and so far as integration
of the schools went, was over essentially from then on. They had a plan, and
they were pursuing it. George Barrett, [was] a stalwart [in all this], by the way,
and probably one of the main figures I remember in the Nashville and
Tennessee Councils [he] is still here, and I am sure you have interviewed him or
will interview him.
C: A great guy. Has quite an interesting history here ever since. We have kept in
touch. It was the way we met.
H: Did you actively support the Nashville Plan? Did you see it as a feasible one?
C: Well, you know, one is never content with a plan that takes that long to
eventually [be implemented]. But basically I am an accommodationist. That is, if
we have a plan and if we are willing to see it through, let's do it. The chief
[opposition I felt] was to the school systems in Virginia and Mississippi and
elsewhere which were totally resistant to the change at all and had no plan and
did not want a plan and had to be forced to have a plan. I think I accepted it. I did
not fight it past a certain point, once it had been established as a plan.
H: Do you recall what your African-American friends thought about the Nashville
C: I am sure they thought it was too slow, of course, just as my white friends
thought it was too fast, the ones who would even do it at all. Just in terms of the
context [one has to remember that], Vanderbilt is a very conservative institution.
And the general white culture is conservative, was then, [and] still is, largely.
Being a Vanderbilt professor, I was welcomed, we were welcomed, and our
colleagues were welcomed, in quite a number of really very conservative
southern white homes. I remember one family in particular that we were very
close to [who] lived out on a wonderful farm in Williamson County. I remember
their guilt coupled with their resentment. To me, it was a very fascinating
combination. Yes, we are wrong, but, no, not yet, and above all, don't push us.
H: So, there was an awareness of the inequalities of segregation, but there wasn't a
commitment to overturning it.
C: Absolutely. It was classic, as I have come to read some of the history books
about this period and its tragedy. [This was] the classic expression of educated,
thoughtful, what you have to call in a way, white liberals, who were yet
conservatives. That is to say, we know this has to happen, but not now, or not so
fast, or not here; be patient. We feel badly about this, but it is a terrible thing to
go through. I developed quite an affection for these folks because I felt they were
really struggling. No, these are not the antagonists. [The real antagonists were]
Jack [Aden] and Don [Davidson], the White Citizens' Council people, were active
resisters and indeed in many cases, I suppose, encouraged, if they didn't
actually engage in, some kind of protests against it all. [But there were] many
right-minded civic folks who were just not ready for this. I guess if I had to
characterize many of the people I knew, they would be like this. It was a curious
combination of, and you can call it, a resistant liberal or a guilty conservative,
however you want to put it. But that combination, I found just fascinating as a
cultural reality, and many of the people I knew among the alumni were just like
this, among the Vanderbilt-related people in the community.
H: What about the more conservative folks? Do you think there was such a thing as
a thinking segregationist?
C: Absolutely. I mean, Davidson clearly was a thinking segregationist. He was a
white supremacist, very clearly [and] very articulate. Western culture is white,
and its integrity depends on the segregation of the races, culturally,
geographically, educationally and every other way. It was a very thoroughly
thought-through and articulated stance. Of course, at Vanderbilt, there is this
history of the Agrarian writers, of whom Don Davidson was one. Even though
many of them took a much more liberal stance on race relations than Don did,
they shared with him the sense of the necessity to keep white Western
civilization alive and well and felt it to be endangered, and that meant white
Western rural southern culture and civilization, and it was endangered, not so
much by aggressive integration or desegregation, but by industrialization and
technocracy and changes in the whole cultural patterns of human relations in the
South of which the changes in race relations were a kind of expression and
consequence. Have you ever read /'ll Take My Stand?
H: Parts of it.
C: Paradoxically, there are some wonderful things in there [about the sacredness of
the land] that I used to preach to my students in environmental studies. I mean,
they had some things right, though they had some other things wrong. But there
was a long intellectual tradition supportive, broadly speaking, of a kind of literary
southernism, out of which Davidson and Aden [came], and the English
Department had several folks I haven't spoken of. Our little ragtag bunch of
philosophers were taking them on [at] every step. We were all northerners, every
single one of us.
H: I am sure Davidson loved that.
C: Loved it, loved it.
H: Some scholars of the Agrarians have surmised that, because they felt that
culture was tied to the land, that was the basis of cultural difference between
whites and African-Americans, that because African-Americans have been torn
from their native land, that they inherently have no culture.
C: That is interesting. I don't remember that as the theme. I remember the positive
side of that, namely the white southerners were tied to the land. The native side,
honestly, it sounds plausible, but I don't remember hearing it.
H: I don't know that they said that, but that is what scholars looking back...
C: I don't remember hearing that preached. The fact is that they were thought to be
without culture of their own, and so [what you say] would entirely stand to
H: Those feelings that African-Americans were without culture extended even in the
face of this wonderful music that was available at Fisk and the chapel and the
religious traditions. All of that did not yet equate to some sort of cultural
C: Strangely, strangely.
H: Because Davidson loved music, for example.
C: Absolutely, and poetry. What I don't know is how much of African-American
poetry, even of the Harlem Renaissance, for example, which he should have
known, of the 1920s and 1930s, he even knew. I mean, here was a guy who
taught regularly at Breadloaf [summer institute for writers held at Middlebury
College] in the summers up in Vermont and must have had a much broader
acquaintance, at least with [the] literature of black folks, than his attitudes and
articulated beliefs would lead you to think. I just don't know. In any case, you
know how this logic works. These are exceptions, folks. Of course, we are going
to have individuals who cross these lines, and we are going to have some little
islands here. [You see], I never got from either Davidson or Aden or any of these
others a profoundly anti-black attitude at all. Separatism and white supremacy,
and let the other folks do what they can do and as much as they can do, but they
do it on their own terms and not in a way to endanger the survival and the
flourishing of white literary culture. That is mainly what I got. It was [those,] more
positive terms, but it was clearly a resistance to these movements for integration.
H: You alluded to the very palpable tension that accompanied the integration of
Nashville schools around 1957. What do you remember about John Kasper?
C: Not a thing. Just a name in the newspaper. Sorry. I guess he is the guy who was
supposed to have done the bombing, but I don't know. It happened, you see,
when we were out of the country. It happened in middle-August, maybe early
September, of 1957. We were either not in the country or had just returned. So,
what is going on? It was just confusion, as far as I can remember.
H: What sense did you get of the TCHR's involvement with the school
desegregation situation, during the community-wide crisis?
C: I can't tell you except that we were promoting programs to promote integration of
H: More conversations, in a sense.
C: They were public forums, and we had speakers and invited people to come,
trying to influence a broader range of public opinion. Then there would be
statements in the newspapers and pictures, and the idea was to, as I said,
present a kind of public face of an integrated group. It was encouraging support
of desegregation and to get as much news about the programs, which often were
moderately attended, get as much news out of those programs as we could into
the newspapers in order to beat the drums. It was public relations. That is what is
was, basically, an effort, to be a voice, to have a voice out there. They were
serious programs in their own way. They were just small, and I don't credit [them
with enormous influence]. I just don't know. George [Barnett], of course, he had
a longer history. He had a long history of involvement with desegregation in
Nashville, being the lawyer for Tennessee State [University], I think, most
recently. It didn't make any difference to me to identify the Human Relations
Council, the Tennessee Council, as having great effects. You did what you
could. You tried to get the voice out there and have as much public coverage as
you could and just saw things going along. I really never stopped to think, is this
having great effects or not? It was just part of the mix.
H: Do you think that sort of tepid effectiveness was connected to the fact that, as
you said, it was by no means an activist organization? It was very gradual.
C: [They were generally] genteel public discussions. Some of them got heated, and
people attended who would get up and denounce the whole process. But I [just]
have no way of crediting those meetings and the discussions among various of
our groups and committees as having had a pervasive influence. Somebody else
may have written this up. Maybe the newspapers have some account of it.
Maybe George Barrett or somebody else like that has a memory that can link it
more effectively to the changes that took place than I can. I hope so for your
benefit, but I can't. To me, you see, the really intense time in this whole business
didn't come until the 1960s, and then I was head-over-heels involved in the lunch
counter business. But that is something else.
H: And a very important topic in and of itself. I am going to take this chance to
switch the tape over, and then we will jump into those events of the 1960s.
[End of side A1]
H: [Regarding] Donald Davidson, would you use the word rationalist in describing him?
C: Yes. I am trying to reconstruct a discussion we had very early on in a faculty meeting at
Vanderbilt. It had something to do, as [faculty debates so often do,] with requirements for
the undergraduate degree. Us young whippersnappers were all for liberalizing some of the
ancient requirements, and he was down on it. He was citing some recently published book
by a then self-described conservative academic, [Russell Kirk], speaking about how
important standards were and [rigorous requirements]. We must not allow ourselves to be
led astray by those who want a laissez-faire education program, and so on. It had nothing
to do with the wider integration debate, but everything to do with his standing for what he
saw as white Western literary culture, against the flood of change of all sorts. [He was
saying, "This is] going to come to Vanderbilt and affect our educational program, and I'm
going to speak against it."
H: He was very much defensive about these sorts of issues.
C: Hm-mm [yes], and he was a minority view. We made the changes.
H: That is fascinating.
C: And he had a lot of respect, and I had a lot of respect for him. I just thought he was deeply
caught in a time warp that he ought not to be caught in. That's all.
H: You said earlier that your involvement in racial issues began to heat up in the 1960s. Can
you detail that, please?
C: Well, you don't need to know the entire story, because you can read about it. You know
the history of the Vanderbilt Divinity School.
H: Yes, sir.
C: Okay. Do you know their published history, recently?
H: That just came out in 2001, I think. You told me about it on the phone.
C: Well, I can refer you to the middle chapter of that book, which is a detailed account by
some of the survivors, including me, of the back-and-forth and the ins-and-outs and the
people and issues involved in Jim Lawson's being dismissed by Chancellor [Harvie]
Branscomb and his eventual reinstatement, even though he went on to complete his
degree at Boston University instead of coming back. The faculty resignations and all of
that. That did embroil me a good bit, because, although [my interests] are broadly in
philosophy in the sciences, science and religion had been a long-time concern of mine.
[So,] I had a lot to do with the theological faculty, then and since. Students from their
programs would come to the philosophy department, and our's would go over to their's. I
was aware of the student demonstrations [in downtown Nashville], of course. I barely
knew Jim Lawson at the time, but when he was dismissed after the demonstrations had
been going on for a week or two, it did embroil the whole campus, because here was a
unilateral action by the chancellor to dismiss a student from a school without [consulting]
the faculty of that school, much less [securing their] approval. It was a scandalous
performance in an academic institution, quite apart from the wider context of race
relations. Over a period of months, a number of us were in constant touch with our
Divinity colleagues. They resigned, and many of the medical faculty did as well, or
offered their resignations in any case. Those of us [in the college] who were still very
young and relatively powerless [had] more of a survival mentality. We said, no, we can't
do that. We have no leverage whatsoever. The folks who had leverage were the ones with
big grants, in medicine and in physics particularly. So, we wrote letters, talked to people
[and], berated the chancellor who was, again, a good friend.
H: This was Branscomb?
C: Yes. He had hired me, in effect. I then came to know Jim [Lawson] and understand
something of what he was going through and followed that history very closely. Then
eventually, I began participating in the demonstrations myself in front of various cafes
and cafeterias. This was after the downtown folks had given up [when] Ben West [finally]
urged that they do so, and the lunch counters were desegregated. It was fascinating. It [all]
started downtown. Okay, we will desegregate those lunch counters. But everything sort
of had to go incrementally out [from there], as if moving out from the center, and by the
time it came out to the area around the university, there were still folks [for instance,]
Morrison's Cafeteria [and] what was then called [The] Campus Grill, right next to where
my office was, in Wesley Hall. We picketed and marched and sat in at the tables. It was
chicken-feed by comparison to what the Fisk and [Tennessee A & I; the forerunner to
today's Tennessee State University] and Baptist students had done. That was courage.
You have read The Children [by David Halberstam regarding the 1960s sit-ins in
Nashville], I take it.
C: Actually, Halberstam writes at one point about the Divinity School, about a meeting he
attended in this living room, because this was the house of the then Divinity dean, and it
was when his resignation was ultimately accepted and the rest of the faculty's sent back
that he put his house up for sale. Marjorie was at the front door we knew them very well
and secured an agreement to buy their house if we could scrape up the funds. [We]
managed to do so, and we have been in it ever since. I have been in touch with Bob
Nelson on and off over the years ever since then.
H: We are sitting amidst history as we are talking.
C: [In this room, there] are shades of meetings of the Divinity faculty and some college
faculty members who were supporting them, who were go-betweens between them and
the chancellor of the Board of Trustees. Halberstam apparently was here in on one of
them and wrote up a story for the Times, I guess, the next day. That was sort of cool.
H: Talk a little more about your involvement with the picketing and the sit-ins. What was
that like for you, civil disobedience and protesting?
C: This had to have been by then 1962 or 1963, It was well after the downtown episodes in
1960. I mean, the war had been won. [But] there were still some battles. It was sort of like
Iraq. The war had been won, and there was still some cleaning up to do. That's all it was.
H: Last pockets of resistance.
C: Last pockets of resistance. It was basically faculty and student groups. I don't know how I
got into the Morrison's Cafeteria picket line, and I sat at their tables until they closed it up
and shooed us out. But it seemed, if I am honest, if I am really forthright, it seemed like
acting a part. It had all been done, and it was, gee, it is about time that we finish it up. It
did not feel like any great crusade. It was just about time. It may have been that there
were vestiges of the Tennessee Council on Human Relations that organized it. I can't tell
you. But what did it feel like? It felt good. It was actually a formative experience. Look,
academics like me are basically, well, you do your thing until you are forced out of it. I
mean, political activity isn't a part of life; it is something you do around the edges. But
[thanks to this experience with the civil rights protests] it didn't take as long. That is one
of the fascinating things to me. These things sort of lead into one another. [At first,] you
may put your body on the line late in [the process] when it just has to be done, when other
people have done most of the work. But then Vietnam comes around and it is a little
sooner, and you begin to feel, hmm, maybe turmoil is much more a part of academic life
than you thought. That is the experience I had, anyway. Then, the women's revolution
begins and the environmental revolution begins in the 1970s, and you say, my God, this is
the state of nature. I do feel a very clear personal evolution in my sense of what a person
involved in education and academic life is called upon to do, from those early days in
which it was just sort of an ethical conviction and [chiefly] talk through [to] a sense that
[what was required was] institutional and cultural change that. [Changing values] were
transforming the environment and the university and, of course, my own field of
philosophy in the process. During many of these years, I was the executive of my
[division of the] National Philosophical Association [which was] going through turmoil.
Everything was politicized. Racial issues were politicized, and we had to have [special
committees on] African-American [affairs]. The Vietnam War politicized things, and we
had [anti-war] protests and votes on the war. Feminist [issues surfaced as well].
Everything in academic life suddenly became a part of the political world. That was really
H: Was the philosophical society integrated?
C: Oh, yes. It had always been integrated. But the more black voices there were, the more
calls there were for direct attention to black issues in the profession and in education in
the institutions where they were teaching. This was a professional organization, and it
was supposed to be concerned with the well-being of professional philosophers. If there
was segregation anywhere or if there was a failure to appreciate African-American
philosophy as legitimate, which, of course, is a long and interesting discussion in its own
right, [there were professional issues to be dealt with].
H: Just a point of clarification, did you say Nashville or national philosophical society?
C: It was the American Philosophical Association. There are three divisions, East, West and
Pacific. The Eastern division is the oldest and essentially the national meeting ground,
and I was the Executive Secretary of that bunch. The American Philosophical
Association, Eastern Division. It was the focus of an awful lot of turmoil, and these fifty
years have been just a revolution in academic life. You know that. To see it happen
cumulatively, bit by bit, wave upon wave, has really been rather exciting. A lot of
tensions but a lot of excitement.
H: Do you feel that this book that just came out on the history of the Divinity School and
that specific chapter....
C: That little chapter is as good a history as you will get of that [Lawson affair].
H: That squares with your memory, as you recall it.
C: Yes. Well, it better. I helped form the chapter. You will see it is done in dialogue form. It
is done on a basis of two and a half days of sitting around and trying to recall [the events
that took place]. It is oral history, basically [edited to form a coherent narrative]. The
editor, Dale Johnson, who is a historian, thank God, interpolated, [a] chronology and
names and places and times and so on [to give it structure]. [But all of us have our] little
speeches [in there]. Jim Lawson was there. He was a participant [along with] several
other Divinity faculty and some former Divinity students [and] some college faculty like
H: Do you feel that this tension about race relations in academia extended to other colleges
in the vicinity, given that Nashville is such a city geared to education?
C: I am sure it did, but I hardly was aware of it. Branscomb had this view that he was going
to desegregate Vanderbilt step-by- step, starting with the Divinity School, which is the
irony. Jim Lawson was, [I think] the second Divinity student. The first, a man named
Joseph Johnson, became a bishop over at the African Methodist Church. He was first. Jim
was second, recruited to be a part of the entering wedge integrating Vanderbilt through
the Divinity School. Then [it was to go to the] professional schools and then eventually
the college. The irony is, of course, that Branscomb invented this plan out of his,
basically, southern liberal but-go-slow-under-my-control mentality, but it was taken out
of his hands by Jim and the folks [Jim] was training to do these demonstrations. I am
sorry. I have sort of lost the question you asked me.
H: It is in terms of fallout from the Lawson incident sort of spreading out to other schools
and colleges in Nashville.
C: I just don't have much [connection with the other schools]. I didn't then, and even now I
don't. Belmont was a very small Baptist college. Lipscomb, a Church of Christ School,
very small. Trebecca [Nazarene], very small. The big fight over whether or not the
creation of a branch of the University of Tennessee in Nashville would become
independent and a [branch] of the University of Tennessee or would be assigned to
Tennessee State, that hadn't even surfaced. I am just not aware of those wider
ramifications. My [focus] was by and large inward to Vanderbilt and my own work at that
point. I was not aware of what was happening out in those other schools.
H: Did your involvement in the Vanderbilt situation and the sit-ins and the picketing, did
that correspond with more activity with regards to the TCHR as well?
C: See, that, I can't tell you. My sense is, by then...
H: Your name shows up on the letterhead increasingly throughout the 1960s as a member of
the board, if that makes any difference, and at one point, you are listed as vice president,
but there wasn't a date.
C: I would have said that by the middle or late 1960s, it didn't have much to do anymore, but
I just don't know, and there I am.
H: Certainly, I know Baxton Bryant ended up being a very controversial figure. Can you
elaborate on that situation?
C: Not really. I don't know why it is, Ben. I just don't remember anything about the
controversy over Baxton Bryant. I know only that his role was supposed to be to spread
out around the state. I honestly don't remember. The thing that bothers me or puzzles me
is I don't know why I don't remember. My sense is that by then, if I had to register an
impression of those times, it would be that the work of that group, to the extent that there
was an effective work, had been done and that history had passed it by. I mean, by then,
we were having black students taking their lives into their own hands. They did not need
little groups of...
H: Coffee and conversation.
C: Coffee and conversation or public forums to tell the world that there was a cultural
revolution going on. Those public forums may have helped ten years before that. I think I
simply didn't feel myself engaged except nominally anymore.
H: If this doesn't jog your memory, that's fine, but it seems like part of the problem that
Bryant created was his hiring of Moran and Associates as, I think, independent fund-
raisers. I don't know if that clicks with you.
C: I have no notion whatsoever.
H: Fair enough. Some of the projects that they at least nominally involved themselves with
were the North and South Nashville Projects.
C: Can't tell you a thing.
H: In the National Voter Education Project?
C: That is familiar, all right. Of course, we were beginning to try to register a lot of voters.
Now, that makes sense. That was the next phase, wasn't it? Pushing voter registration,
sure. Very important. Yes, I remember that portion. I had very little active part of it, but I
remember it. There, I would have to say, okay, that is a new phase, and there the group
probably played a role in ways that I just am not able to describe to you.
H: So, you feel that this change over time throughout the 1960s, the TCHR perhaps lagged
behind in some way?
C: Well, yes. The agenda would have changed. School desegregation was no longer the
issue, although at a certain point, high school desegregation did become an issue and then
later Tennessee State. But the shift to voter registration, now that you remind me, would
have been a shift in direction and required a lot of door-to-door work, and I am just not
familiar with it who did it, how it was organized, the extent to which the national and
Tennessee state groups were involved in it, what they did. I can't tell you.
H: Okay. Why don't we shift now to some of these broader questions about the TCHR, and
you can just answer within your own experiences to the extent that you feel comfortable.
How do you feel that the TCHR was affected by the anti- communism Cold War hysteria
of the time period? Did that have real world ramifications on the local level?
C: It probably did. I'll bet there were those of us who were called communists by somebody,
but I can't remember.
H: And even if not just the Cold War context, but the massive resistance aspect. Certainly,
you have talked about your interaction with segregationists. Did that spill over into the
group as a whole?
C: A consciousness that it was there and that we were standing for something that others
resisted, you bet. But I felt that it wasn't so much defending against either the charges of
overzealous communists or overzealous massive resistance, it was that we were
struggling with lethargy and with a cultural pattern and modes of thinking and attitudes
and practices that were just so ingrained that the presumption was always in favor of the
status quo. It was that which seemed to me to be the problem, never really some sort of
focused or vocal external critics. Now, I am just speaking for myself. The problem
seemed to me to be far more pervasive and deeper and more difficult than that.
H: That makes sense. It sounds in a lot of ways, your perception of the TCHR is that it was
reacting rather than leading to a certain extent. Is that a safe generalization?
C: That is fair. But "both and" is what I would be inclined to say. That is, you take certain
steps and you put yourself out front, [but it is] in response to situations which had been
created for you which you did not create. There was clearly a sense that you were
engaged in active work and important work. I guess I want to say two things. From the
inside, a sense that this was important, this was something you could do. You knew how
to try to speak out, to create a voice, to get a public forum going and to have some
positive support for integration. But looking back from the other side and looking at it in
terms of the forces that actually brought the change about, I mean [it was the] school
boards [which were under] terrific stress and strain. Whatever you think of the Nashville
Plan, they ultimately had to decide to do it. That was a political act. They were under
terrific fire, if you ask them, I am sure. When it came to the 1960s and the sit-ins and
other kinds of demonstrations, students were taking these actions into their hands and
making a difference. To me, the changes that came about through the Supreme Court
decision, its implementation through school boards, the legal actions that were involved
in forcing school boards to do what they had to do, ultimately the protests and
demonstrations on the part of the black students and others themselves, these are the
forces that produced these changes. What groups like the Tennessee and the Nashville
Human Relations Councils managed to do was to provide, I would say, some facilitation,
some vocal support and some public discussion that would encourage the process. That is
something, but it ain't much by comparison. That is what I would say.
H: That says it pretty well. Do you have any sense of the relationship that the TCHR had
with other organizations such as SCLC or SNCC?
H: How about other Nashville organizations, labor groups or the Chamber of Commerce,
city groups, that sort of thing?
C: There were some labor representatives in the group. Again, George Barrett will have the
names of them. I used to know these people. I can still see one guy who was a union head
and also chair or head of a consortium of unions, a labor temple in Nashville [Matt
Lynch]. But actually, the relationships to the groups is hard for me to tell. There were
individuals representing them, a varied group of folks, in these Human Relations
Councils. They were sought out, I am sure, and encouraged to participate to give a
broader face to this, but organizationally, I can't tell you.
H: These individuals were sort of conduits from network to network rather than any sort of
formal working relationship.
C: That is my impression.
H: You can answer this specifically and also in terms of the TCHR if you feel comfortable,
what was the response to the rise of Black Power?
C: I can't say organizationally at all. I have my own experiences and opinions, but I don't
know anything structural or organizational responses at all. It would have been about
1964 that Stokely Carmichael came to town, a very interesting session at Vanderbilt. I
was commissioned to interview him, and the interview was put out over the campus radio
station. That focuses my experience in it. Angela Davis came in and out numerous times.
Fisk and Tennessee State were very turbulent in those early 1960s, and Black Power
proponents were coming in and out of town and doing their thing. I remember this
interview with Stokely Carmichael very well because he had been a philosophy major in
college, had studied Jean-Paul Sartre, who happens to be one of my interests as well. The
way Carmichael put it to me was very convincing. He said, Negroes are defined by
whites. They invented this name. They have decided who we are. It fits the Sartrean
model of interpersonal conflict very beautifully. Each person in a duality tries to, in
effect, dominate and define the other. That is Sartre's model. He thinks all human
relations are essentially relations of conflict. So, he said, that is the way it is, and what
Black Power means is that we will not be named and described by you white folk any
longer; we will name ourselves. That is what Black Power is. It is not necessarily
machine guns. He didn't rule that out. But the point is not violence. The point is defining
your own life and the meaning of your own blackness. So, instead of Negro or __
blacks, Black Power means naming ourselves who we are. I thought that was very
interesting. I think it is right. There had to have been among good white liberals a lot of
anxiety over Black Power because it was not [saying], we want to coexist and do so in a
desegregated society; it was [saying], we want power over our own lives, and if that
means conflict with you, we are willing to conflict with you, thank you. That conflictual
stance isn't the liberal way of doing things. So, I am confident that at the time I was very
nervous about it and so were most other good ole young white liberals. But I can't tell
you what the organizational response was. I think, as I have probably conveyed, my sense
of identification with the group by then was pretty minimal. If my name was on the
literature as the vice president, it would have been very honorary.
H: I sometimes wonder if, setting aside the obvious difference, do you see that there is
perhaps a natural similarity between advocates of Black Power and someone like Donald
Davidson, that they are far more anxious to remove themselves from remaking a society
to some sort of higher model and [instead] just concentrate on their own cultural
integrities, in a sense?
C: That is interesting. I mean, if one were to be Hegelian [or Marxist] about it, you would
see the genesis going that way. That is, a hard self-identification on one side evokes
eventually the similar self-identification and insistence on self-definition on the other
side, as well. Whether that is a law of history, I doubt. I don't think there are laws in
history. But I wouldn't be surprised that there is something to that notion. In any struggle
where there is, and I think there is every reason to use the word oppressed, where there
are oppressed people, whether it is a labor group or a female group or a racial group in
this case, there has to be a movement towards distancing and self-integrity. It had gone on
in the history of black culture for a long time, in the 1920s and 1930s and 1940s and
1950s, but unknown to the rest of the white culture around it, virtually unknown, and this
is when it sort of became politically evident. It has to be a part of the process, yes. And
isn't it interesting that it has largely fallen away, in good part because of political and
economic advances over the last thirty or forty years.
H: It, meaning?
C: Along African-Americans. One of my dear friends here is minister of the Metropolitan
Interdenominational Church over in north Nashville, [one of] the biggest. blackest, most
powerful persons, physically and mentally, I have ever known. Ed Sanders. He used to be
a member of the Black Panthers. I can remember him sitting right here telling the story.
He grew up in Memphis. He [had been] in Jim Lawson's church. But, for a while, he was
a black militant. He has gone so far as to run for governor of Tennessee in the last
election. His evolution is sort of a perfect example.
H: Would you comment, please, on the school busing issue and how you saw it affecting
Nashville in the 1970s?
C: Gosh. By now, you will have the picture. I am not a political activist. I see things going
on around me and every now and then I am drawn into them. That is it. Busing became
part of the Nashville Plan for the desegregation of the schools and become an issue. It
was inevitable that you go through that, it seemed to me, and I supported it as a part of the
desegregation plan. My kids struggled with it in school. There is a personal side to this.
Two of my kids were taken out of their high schools, one in his junior year and one in her
senior year, and sent to another school they had [had] nothing to do with. An all-black
school. They were in the white minority. I supported it. They supported it, even though it
was a great disruption and a source of real anxiety and frustration to them. But they
approved it, too. They said, we've got to do this. [End of Side 2, Tape A.] ...to achieve
some kind of combination of the student populations, black and white. No one likes to
spend time on the bus. Since the busing fell disproportionately on the black students who
were shipped to white schools, I know it was a great source of controversy in the black
community, but a lot of white kids were bused, too, and some considerable distances. I
felt that was right, and so I supposed if you supported the whole enterprise, you had to
support that. Other than these sort of personal views, I don't think I followed it as an
ongoing debate until the point where Nashville was trying to get itself out from under the
court order. Then you have to ask yourself, just how much integration of student bodies
have you achieved and what are now the objectives? I think the transition that I see and
the thing that I have felt very strongly since the mid-1960s, certainly by the 1970s, [was
that] I rarely went back to Fisk. They didn't want white folks anymore. After this long
period of busing, the black community became disenchanted with the business and
became very anxious to maintain certain dominantly black schools with their own cultural
identity, at Fisk, at Tennessee State and then in the public school system. So, the tables
get reversed. Now, the debates over those issues are debates over whether or not you
shouldn't, in a certain sense, keep the majority of black schools intact, just for the sake of
the black community and their identification with them. A complete reversal of attitudes.
I can understand that, but I can see it as a complete change of course, and maybe another
phase that one has to go through.
H: How did you feel about this connection to Fisk being cut?
C: Oh, very distressed. Again, those young people and the kind of thing that [particular]
college represents are educationally where I live, and I feel cut off from it. Now, I have
re-established a few connections, but it is nothing like it was, and it won't be, and I feel
bereft, because that was a real connection, a real window, a real relationship that just isn't
H: I get the sense that Nashville prided itself on its moderation, and I was wondering if you
could sort of explain what that word means to you and how you felt, why you felt
Nashville plugged into it so firmly?
C: That is interesting. I think it is a good word for Nashville, the Nashville response to the
civil rights and educational desegregation changes. Do I have a way of understanding
that? In part, I would start with speaking to the black population in Nashville, which has
been, thanks to Fisk and Tennessee State and the American Baptist Theological Society
and others, a well-educated and, to a certain extent, economically developed middle-class.
In terms of percentage of the population, very small, twenty percent. Generally well-
educated and generally economically well-off. That is not a hotbed of racial divisiveness,
to start. The Nashville white community that I was introduced to and became aware of
over the years, this is not a plantation economy. This is commercial where business
counts, customers count. Black people were customers in the downtown stores for years.
That is where north Nashville shopped. That is one of the sources for the paradox and the
contradiction of the lunch counters. We can buy from the store, but we can't sit here. It is
a commercial center. It is a place where business and commerce is up front-and-center.
Not highly industrialized. The white community is pretty well-educated. I don't know
enough of the history of this region to know, but this isn't Memphis, nor is it Knoxville.
This is middle Tennessee, and middle Tennessee, economically, it was never big cotton
country. It was never a big slave-holding area. It has always been mildly Democratic,
politically. You have got state government here. My sense is that, you know, the three
parts of Tennessee, the two extremes, the Republican East and the Dixiecrat West and
Memphis, and this was in the middle. It is precisely in the middle, and everything about it
is sort of middle.
H: It blends the two extremes.
C: It is middle-class. There is not much history of a radical division, and a lot of these other
features of the black communities and the white communities are such as to make for
fairly good communication, basically. You would have to study the politics better than I
have to know something of the history of black/white political life, but there have always
been black political leaders here who have had influence in the city. That is all very
impressionistic, but there are a lot of features that just seem to add up to that sort of
moderation description. It makes sense to me. I can't begin to give you a full explanation
H: When you were talking about the African-American community, did you get the sense
that there were some African-Americans who were opposed to the civil rights movement?
C: Oh, definitely. School desegregation, I don't know. I imagine that was very broadly
supported. Clearly, in the sit-ins the kids went against the parents in not every but almost
every case. As Halberstam says, that was the children's revolution, the children's crusade.
The parents may have tolerated it, many of them opposed it, but I would have said,
without ever having done a sampling of it, the vast majority of black people would have
been pulled along exactly as the whites were.
H: Perhaps this is a good a place as any to wrap up. Looking back at this broad spectrum of
time that you have lived through, how do you feel that informal race relations have
changed in contrast to the sort of institutional integration that we have been talking about,
schools and lunch counters and so on and so forth?
C: What is curious, I see two contrasting changes. Person-to-person informal relationships
are easy. Students still sit by themselves if they are black, white, all of that. [But
individual black-white] relationships seem to work. There have been some marvelous
institutional big-scale cooperative ventures between Vanderbilt and Meharry [Medical
College], between the city and Meharry, establishing Meharry Hospital as the city
hospital. Remarkable. Vanderbilt probably had something to do with that, and helped
staff it. But as a group, blacks and whites are as separate and as segregated as they ever
were, not only geographically where they live, but socially. There is this strange mixture
of what I feel to be individual relationships that work [and] some institutional ones
[together with a still-segregated] society socially and geographically. Again, [there are]
exceptions. My house was lived in by a black colleague's family when we were away on
sabbatical. [And] we have got a black family down the street. There is a little bit of
movement of that sort, but by and large, they are socially separate racial groups, and there
isn't much bringing them together. Churches, little bits of integration here and there, but
by-and-large separate. We have sort of fallen back into a kind of de facto social
segregation, I would say. So, the idea of integrated society functions to a certain extent
politically much better than it did with votes and officials and representatives and so on
of black and white. There are some institutional connections that are good, but basically, I
feel less in touch with black or African-American the word shifts attitudes, frames of
mind, people, community broadly, less in touch than I was fifty years ago. I have more
individual black friends, and I see more institutional connections, but I feel the black
social and cultural world is a world apart, and my world broadly, white culture, is a world
apart from them. It is odd.
H: Very good. I know that you are pressed for time, so I thank you for your time. This
concludes the interview.
[End of Interview.]