Thursday, September 08, 2011

The 54th anniversary of the dynamite bombing of Hattie Cotton Elementary

In just a couple of hours Nashville will observe, even if not consciously so, the infamous 54th anniversary of the dynamite bombing of Hattie Cotton Elementary School in East Nashville. Unindicted, but not unsuspected segregationists, who were never charged or brought to justice, bombed the public school on September 9, 1957 for the obviously heinous crime of enrolling one little black girl under a Supreme Court order to desegregate public education.

A local Klansman surrendered to the FBI a few days later and he told Nashville police that he and New Jersey segregationist John Kasper had hidden dynamite in an abandoned house the night before the Hattie Cotton attack and that the explosives had gone missing. There was not enough evidence to hold any suspects, and the bombing had an effect opposite of what the terrorists intended:

[Will] Campbell: ... the dynamiting of the Hattie Cotton [Elementary] School that night [in September 1957] would go back to a kind of climate of hate.

[Benjamin] Houston: A lot of people have said that, in their opinion, the violence at the Hattie Cotton School and then later the bombing of [Z. Alexander] Looby's home drew the battle lines and solidified Nashville's resolution to comply so as to avoid violence. Would you agree with that?

Campbell: I think that was certainly part of it. I don't know that it was the act that solidified it, but more people were changing. . . . Mr. Looby, my God, he was a Republican. He wasn't a dangerous radical. He wasn't American, you know. He was from one of the [Caribbean] Islands .... But Mr. Looby was a widely respected man, and except for the color of his skin, ... he would have been president of the Rotary Club or the City Club or whatever. But just because of that, he was in the background, but he was respected, and people, even a lot of the racists, would say, now, "dynamiting a man's home, you know, that's his castle." That did help some. And the dynamiting of Hattie Cotton School did as well.

But when you start dynamiting schools, well, you are hitting the white folks' pocketbooks. Schools were built with tax funds. And we're not going to let some dumb son of a bitch like John Kasper [itinerant racial demagogue who encouraged violent acts to resist integration in Nashville] come down from the north. In fact, Kasper probably did more to desegregate Nashville than any one person, just by being such a jerk.

To its credit, Nashville did not flinch, but carried on with desegregation. Within a week school attendance returned to normal levels. To its disadvantage, Nashville's situation was no longer sensationalistic enough for the news media, which turned its attention to the now iconic disputations in Little Rock, Arkansas.

Despite its lower visibility, the Nashville chapter of the plan to desegregate public schools remains vital to the civil rights saga.

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