September 9, 1957 – Civil Rights Triumph and Tragedy

Crowd in the street after Hattie Cotton School bombing, September, 1957. Photo: Nashville Public Library and Emory University Libraries.

 

On September 9, 1957, two earth-shaking events occurred in the history of American civil rights.

In Washington, DC, President Dwight D. Eisenhower signed the Civil Rights Act of 1957, an important milestone on the road to equal rights for all Americans, regardless of race, creed, color, or religion.

In Nashville, Tennessee, following the first day of school in which 13 six-year-old African-American children entered first grade, a bomb exploded and completely destroyed a wing of Hattie Cotton Elementary School.

The Nashville school system was slowly, grudgingly complying with Brown vs. Board of Education, a ruling by the Supreme Court in 1954 which declared racial segregation in public schools a violation of the United States Constitution’s guarantee of equal protection under the law.  Nashville’s plan called for a “stairstep” road to integration, allowing admission of 13 African-American first-graders into previously all-white schools.  Gradually, each year, another grade would be integrated so that at the end of 12 years, African-American students would receive high school diplomas along with privileged whites.  In 1954, there were four separate school systems in Nashville, two overlapping districts in the central city, and two in the suburbs.  One of each pair was tacitly designated for whites, the other for African-Americans.  These districts were by no stretch of the imagination equal; facilities were grossly unequal by almost every measure.

Three tortuous years later, parents of white students were boycotting the first day of school in protest of even the barest beginnings of desegregation.  Angry, vicious words were spoken by visitor John Kasper of New Jersey, who was jailed and charged with incitement to riot.  Mayor Ben West and school officials stood by their decision to admit the new students.  Following the explosion and destruction at Hattie Cotton, one school official told Time Magazine, “This is no longer a matter of segregation or desegregation.  This is a matter of sheer lawlessness.  We’re up against thugs.”

Repairs were made to Hattie Cotton Elementary School and it reopened in January, 1958.  It remains open to this day.

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