Today I talk about–and I hate how timely this conversation is–Nashville’s history of white supremacist violence with author and historian Betsy Phillips. Specifically we talk about bombings that took place over a half century ago, but as this week reminds, the mass violence of white supremacists is something that is not part of our history–it is part of our ongoing reality. One quick point of interest–Betsy reminds that bombings used to be the preferred method of violence in these types of strikes, largely because dynamite was so easy to come by. You could just go to a store and, very affordably, buy dynamite! And then when dynamite became more difficult to come by, the rate of bombings went down. Imagine that.
Betsy’s forthcoming book is Dynamite Nashville: The KKK, The FBI, and the Bombers Beyond Their Control coming out from Third Man Books in late 2020/early 2021. In it, she is attempting to solve Nashville’s three unsolved integration-era bombings or at least explain why they haven’t been solved. What I found is that our bombings were part of a vast network of bombings throughout the South, the precursors to some of the more famous violence of the 1960s. Meaning, in short, if our bombings had been solved and that network disrupted, many of the tragedies of the 1960s could have been avoided.
The three bombings are Hattie Cotton Elementary School on September 10, 1957 (it was the culmination of the first day of integrated first grade in Nashville–which was September 9–but the bomb didn’t go off until after midnight); the Jewish Community Center on March 16, 1958 (the Confederate Underground took credit for that bombing); and Councilman Z. Alexander Looby’s home on April 19, 1960. Thankfully no one died in the explosions. Looby, aside from being a city councilperson, was also the preeminent civil rights attorney in the state. He was the lawyer for the plaintiffs that forced Nashville’s schools to desegregate and he was one of the lawyers for the sit-in protesters.
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