Between Black and White
Recalling Maury County's Mink Slide riot.
By Marc Stengel and Elaine Phillips
FEBRUARY 23, 1998: The white lab coat certainly reinforces Robert Ikard's identity as a general surgeon. His steady gaze and deliberate manner of speech undoubtedly relieve the prospective patient of any misgivings. But the elastic grin seems to be the property of Dr. Ikard's "other" persona the self-made historian whose recent book, No More Social Lynchings, is an account of the 1946 "Mink Slide riot" in Columbia, Tenn.
Sparked by a minor misunderstanding between customer and merchant on Feb. 25, 1946, subterranean racial tensions erupted into short, hot war in the town's black business district, known as Mink Slide. The episode splashed Columbia and Middle Tennessee with an unexpected and discomfiting limelight, and it prefigured much of the broader civil rights struggles to follow in the half-century since.
"I was just 8 years old at the time," Ikard recalls of his days growing up in Columbia, "and all I remember of the riot is that there was a slight disruption in the town. But the event has always lurked in the back of my mind; I was puzzled by why it happened. I've tried to be--and I think I am--dispassionate about the riot, but this book inevitably is taken as a civil rights tract. If that's beneficial to people, that's fine; but I didn't intend it as a source of argument, and I certainly had no ax to grind going in.
"I simply wanted to record the events of the story because people in Columbia and in Middle Tennessee have totally forgotten about it. This was the first major race riot after World War II. For merely chronological reasons, if for no other, it deserves a little more notoriety because it was first. It occurred before any of the other major postwar disruptions, and well before the Great Society. One of the things I hoped to make clear with my book was that this fracas in Columbia--this riot--was a progenitor of things to come. It was a spontaneous thing, entirely unplanned, unlike what some of the whites believed."
Ikard's roots reach deep into Middle Tennessee. His mother's family settled Maury County long before the Civil War; his father's forebears farmed Franklin County to the southeast. One of six siblings, Ikard harbors placid recollections of an inconspicuous, humble childhood in the quiet market town where his father represented the Farmer's Home Administration and his mother taught school. "For a time, at least in my childhood," he recalls, "we were very comfortable with blacks. I played with them; I camped with them; I played basketball with them. Nobody asked the question why aren't we going to school together. They just didn't ask the question.
"As a Maury countian, I want to feel proud about my county; and I am proud. But not all Maury County is tea-time at the Athenaeum. On the other hand, not all of Maury County is beating up on a black behind the school. There are flavors of all these images and perspectives in the mix, which makes the story eminently human.
"I could never have designed a set of characters more interesting than the ones who appear in this book," he continues. "Ironically, though, the characters who catch the public's eye--Thurgood Marshall, Eleanor Roosevelt, Attorney General Clark, the governor--these are the ones you can most quickly dismiss. The characters who stuck out for me were Maurice Weaver, Lynn Bomar, Julius Blair, and the city of Columbia as a whole.
"[Mink Slide defendants' attorney] Maurice Weaver, a white guy, was a fascinating character. He was obviously brilliant; he was an alcoholic; he was a sociopath--there's no question about it. But at the time he was full of the fire, the zealotry of civil rights in 1946, and he did some good things. [Barbershop owner] Julius Blair wasn't necessarily colorful, but he was an archetypal black patriarch. He was a good-looking old man; he had a steady work life; he had good relations with whites and blacks. He had an obvious place in the community. His picture shows a great deal of dignity. He, unfortunately, also characterizes the fact that all the players in this drama had feet of clay.
"[Tennessee Highway Patrol Commissioner] Lynn Bomar is a type unto himself. If you want to think of Bull Connor, then you can think of Bull Connor. He has lots and lots of friends in Nashville, and some of his peers are people I highly respect. But in this situation, even though it's fair to say he was just doing his job, it's equally clear that he was a loose cannon. His personality dominated the scene, and it was the personality of a bully.
"One guy who seemed to stand between the warring camps was Sheriff [J.J.] Underwood. He seemed to be trying very hard to settle things down. He quit too soon, I think, and called in the state. But to me he seemed to be a very responsible individual. When I attended my initial book-signing in Columbia, the only comment I got after the event was from Sheriff Underwood's daughter, who said I was a liar. I very patiently told her I wasn't wrong; as a matter of fact, the next day I sent her the references to show her that I wasn't wrong--not that it mattered. Some people have their own historical image of the riot and of what happened. You're not going to dissuade them from it, and you really shouldn't try."
It's not for lack of trying, however, that Ikard feels his book only begins to parse the significance of half-forgotten antagonisms that led to the Mink Slide riot and to altered perceptions in its aftermath.
"Communicating between the races," observes Ikard, "remains a big problem and will be probably a century from now. It won't be cleared up in our lifetime. I'm confident of that, and that's something I never would have predicted as a young man when I felt myself to have liberal racial attitudes--whatever those are. But when I hear blacks today respond to my book by saying, 'The more things change, the more they stay the same'--implying that things are as bad now as they ever have been--then I realize that we're not communicating very well at all, or they're not paying attention.
"Because things are not the way they were. They should be giving some of the credit to guys like Julius and Saul Blair and [funeral home director] James Morton and all the other black leaders who rallied and stood their ground during and after Mink Slide. These guys today need to pay attention to those people in the streets of Columbia and in the Tennessee courts afterward who, in my opinion, had the courage to insist on no more social lynchings in Columbia."
Another worldPillar of Fire America in the King Years 1963-65, by Taylor Branch (Simon & Schuster, $30) Pillar of Fire is the second installment of Taylor Branch's projected trilogy about the civil rights era. The first book, Parting the Waters America in the King Years 1954-63, which covered the beginnings of the modern civil rights movement, won the Pulitzer Prize for history in 1989. But Pillar of Fire is equally deserving of a Pulitzer; as in his previous volume, Branch chronicles a complex and violent period of American modern history with a dispassionate yet compelling style.
For all its focus on these well-known figures and events, Pillar of Fire most impresses with its tales of the civil rights movement's heroic rank-and-file. When adults grew discouraged during the Birmingham marches in 1963, black schoolchildren risked jail by starting their own demonstrations. During the Mississippi voters' registration drive, semiliterate sharecroppers like Fannie Lou Hamer risked their personal safety to assert their right to vote. Students Michael Schwerner and Andrew Goodman came from the North to help during the Freedom Summer and ended up becoming martyrs.
Branch conveys the immense courage and endurance of these ordinary people, but King remains the figure around which Pillar of Fire revolves. And rightly so: If any one person was the galvanizing force in the civil rights movement, it was King, who persisted in the face of infighting, hostility, and blackmail. Perhaps even more important, Branch reminds us that much of America considered him an extremist and a troublemaker--something we tend to forget in an age when his message has been simplified and his image has been cheapened by McDonald's commercials. Ostracized by groups as disparate as the NAACP and the Nation of Islam, bugged by the FBI, labeled a publicity-seeker and rabble-rouser, King emerges in Branch's book as a lone visionary who urged his fellow blacks to see redemption in their suffering and to resist the appeal of violent retribution against their oppressors.
Pillar of Fire is not a quick read. It requires careful attention because Branch deals with so many people and major events in the short span of two years. But like a good fiction writer, he lets his characters' words and actions save or damn themselves. His meticulously researched, objectively written book lets facts, not polemics, convince the reader of certain figures' greatness or meanness.
After finishing Pillar of Fire, readers may find it hard to believe that the America portrayed in this book--a country that proclaimed itself the leader of the free world while withholding voting rights from its citizens, a country that saw its greatest internal enemies as Communist sympathizers--existed only 30 years ago. People who believe that little progress has been made in race relations need only to read Pillar of Fire. After engaging with this engrossing history, it's impossible not to see the momentous change that has occurred in the American conscience.
The dog-eared page
"Was the light inside my head or outside? Had I had a seizure of some kind, an epileptic fit? Was it due to nerves and over-excitement, combined with a reaction to the altitude? I have heard that an epileptic just before a seizure feels his mouth filled with an exquisite honey, and he himself, or she, is caught in rapturous light. Was that what had happened?"--Sophy Burnham, from The Ecstatic Journey--The Transforming Power of Mystical Experience (Ballantine Books, 1997)
"More than a century after Ptolemy, Alexandria became a battleground of revolt, and the museum buildings, now over 500 years old, were destroyed. The temple housing the library survived, and a few scholars sought to carry on the museum's traditions of research. Finally, in 391, Christian mobs sacked the library, burned the priceless contents, and converted the shell into a church. It was a symbolic victory of faith over reason."--John Noble Wilford, from The Mapmakers--The Story of the Great Pioneers in Cartography From Antiquity to the Space Age (Vintage Books, 1982)
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