Tying the past to the present.
“What brave and unthinking men you are!”
As I’ve watched debates on transit, housing and education take place in Nashville, I keep coming back to the provocative words of Dr. Edwin H. Mitchell, a Meharry radiologist and one of the founders of the Metro Human Relations Commission in 1965. Along with Rev. Kelly Miller Smith, Z. Alexander Looby and Rabbi David Falk, Mitchell was among the founders of the commission created to improve race relations in the city in the wake of desegregation.
In conducting research for my biography of Perry Wallace, STRONG INSIDE, I came across a speech Dr. Mitchell gave at a breakfast meeting of the Nashville Area Chamber of Commerce on Wednesday, Nov. 11, 1967.
The gathering took place in a ballroom at the Hermitage Hotel. A photo of the event shows the African American Dr. Mitchell behind a podium, facing a sea of white men in coat and tie. Their postures could be displayed in a dictionary entry on skepticism: some with arms folded tightly, others with chins resting on clasped hands, still others leaning back from their breakfast plates, heads cocked to the side.
I think of what Dr. Mitchell must have felt that morning, as he got dressed and drove downtown to give a courageous speech to Nashville’s biggest civic boosters. He would be talking to them about issues of importance to the African American community: a lack of affordable housing of decent quality, limited job opportunities, low wages, the devastating impact of the construction of I-40 through North Nashville, police brutality, educational opportunities and white flight to the suburbs.
I wonder if on that morning, Dr. Mitchell felt the same way Perry Wallace did on a Sunday morning in March 1970, when he sat down with Frank Sutherland of The Tennessean to say things he knew white Nashville didn’t want to hear. It was the day after his final game as a Vanderbilt Commodore, the end of the road for the first African American basketball player in the Southeastern Conference. Wallace believed he had a moral obligation to tell the truth about what his experience had been like, both for the benefit of the men and women who would follow him at Vanderbilt, and for the institution itself, so that it could learn and improve. Wallace spoke of the loneliness and isolation he felt on campus, about being kicked out of a church just for being black, about the racist catcalls he heard on the road. He knew some people would be angry that he told the truth, and he was right. Rather than listening carefully to the words of a brilliant man, they essentially shot the messenger. Sutherland and his editor, John Seigenthaler, told me the phones at the paper rang off the hook, with white Nashvillians calling to complain about Wallace’s “ingratitude” and cancel their subscriptions to the paper. Very few white citizens stopped to consider what Wallace was trying to accomplish in his interview. It was his head coach, Roy Skinner, however, who said: “He was just trying to help us understand.”
When I speak to middle school students now about the Young Readers edition of my book, I tell them the most courageous thing Perry Wallace ever did was tell the truth in that interview. It wasn’t stepping on the basketball court in Starkville, Miss., where he thought he might be shot and killed, it was sitting in Sutherland’s apartment on Love Circle speaking truth to power, trying to help Nashville understand even when we didn’t want to listen.
Fifty-one years ago, Dr. Mitchell talked about the basics: Education. Transportation. Housing. Jobs. The very same issues that confront us today. I wonder if part of the reason we continue to face such fundamental challenges is that we have been so focused on symbols of progress for a privileged few that we ignore the basic needs of so many marginalized citizens. Voices in our community have been trying to “help us understand” this for generations.
When will we finally listen?
In concluding his speech, Dr. Mitchell packed a powerful punch, a drop-the-mic moment if there ever was one. As we consider the reality of “two Nashvilles” today, with growing poverty and inequality in the It City, as we drive past the latest tall-and-skinny in East Nashville, the newest downtown condo, or the largest No Tax for Tracks yard sign in Green Hills, we would be wise to pay heed to Edwin Mitchell’s courageous words delivered more than a half-century ago.
“Gentlemen, Nashville is indeed fashioning a new face,” he said. “And it has begun by upgrading of the downtown business area. But tall buildings which allow you to gaze outward upon the green grass of suburbia, cannot long shelter you from the despair, frustration, and bitterness that continue to build around you. In a city that unites its governments but leaves its people divided, in a city that provides in the midst of want elegant show houses of luxuries, a cruel mockery is made. But sitting as they are in the midst of all this poverty, your businesses are just a mockery to so many.
What brave and unthinking men you are!”
Andrew Maraniss is the New York Times-bestselling author of STRONG INSIDE, a biography of Perry Wallace. The original version was the recipient of both the Lillian Smith Book Award for civil rights and the RFK Book Awards’ Special Recognition Prize for social justice. The Young Readers edition was named one of the Top 10 Biographies for Youth in 2017 by the American Library Association. Andrew is a Visiting Author at Vanderbilt University. Follow him on Twitter @trublu24 and online at www.andrewmaraniss.com.