History Nerd Thoughts

My favorite era of Nashville history is those very early years, with all those folks with oversized personalities making monumental decisions while sexy Frenchmen sex it up. I’ve learned some about the Civil War, though I credit mostly the excellent resources we have in town for pointing out the interesting things about it. Plus, I’ve had to learn some about the war to understand my second favorite era in Nashville history–the postwar pre-turn-of-the-century–which I consider to be Nashville’s second weirdest time. Let’s all talk to dead people and join the Masons and open parks!

And I thought I knew a lot about Nashville post-World War II to like 1970, because it’s the rise of Nashville as Music City and all kinds of interesting people are popping by and Jefferson Street was at its heyday.

But, Christ, I know so little.

One thing that I have failed to appreciate–and getting my mind around it and my attitude changed has been really crucial to understanding these bombings–is how very closely entwined anti-black racism and antisemitism were.

Due to both the personal hang-ups of John Kasper and J.B. Stoner, who were virulent antisemites, and the cross-pollination of KKK-ish groups and Nazi groups, white supremacists had a wide-spread and thoroughly-believed conspiracy theory that black people, by and large, were too stupid and docile to be up to the stuff they were up to with the protests and the lawsuits and the demanding of integration, and so, since they were up to this stuff, there must be someone brilliant and sneaky and hard to pick out under normal circumstances pulling on the puppet strings of black people.

And I get that it’s a tricky story to tell when you’re talking about real life. There aren’t a lot of Jewish people in the South, by and large, and many Jewish communities had survived by being as unnoticeable as possible. Southern blacks were not likely to have any more experience with actual Jewish people as Southern whites. So, from the ground level, when black people started advocating for change, from their perspective, it had nothing to do with Jewish people, except to the extent that they came to find they had some Jewish allies.

And the mother walking her little child to school as white people are hurling rocks and spitting and yelling racial epithets at her and her child is not thinking about Jewish people or that her plight has anything to do with Jewish people.

So, if you’re going to tell the story of the Civil Rights movement centering the perspectives of the people who were working for civil rights, the bombings of Jewish buildings and homes just served to prove that the KKK hated everyone who wasn’t a white Christian and were a violent menace.

And a lot of Southern Jews thought that either opposing integration or remaining neutral on it would protect them from any hatred spilling onto them (and I just want to reiterate that I’m speaking very, very broadly. If you drill down to particulars, you find many Jewish people, even very early on in the 1950s, taking a stand for integration.).

In the minds of Southern blacks and Southern Jews, their stories are not the same stories and their histories are not the same histories.

But in the minds of the white supremacists, they were. And I think this is a really important thing to realize. I mean, look at how it affects my work. If we look at Nashville history through the lens of non-conspiracy-theory, how many bombings did we have over integration after Brown v. Board of Education? Two–Hattie Cotton and Looby’s house.

But now let’s look at history through the lens of this “The Jews control the blacks. Get rid of the Jews and the blacks will settle down” conspiracy. Now how many bombings did we have over integration after Brown v. Board of Education? Hattie Cotton, the JCC, Looby’s house, and the thwarted Temple bombing in ’81. Fully half of the anti-black bombings were directed at Jewish targets.

I haven’t counted all the bombings across the South, but my observation is that you might find that a third of bombings and attempted bombings were on Jewish targets. So, if you discount them as being something other than anti-black bombings–say, merely antisemitic–, you severely diminish the scope of the violence and, important to me, limit your suspect pool. If you don’t see all the bombings, you don’t have a full picture of the atmosphere of violence.

I went to the Nashville room this weekend, which is going to be a tremendous resource for this story, I think, and I spent some time in the Civil Rights room. The JCC bombing is not on their timeline.


2 thoughts on “History Nerd Thoughts

  1. I wonder if you see the same pattern in Nashville that is very visible in parts of the Midwest, where anti-Catholic activity is also closely tied into anti-black and anti-semitic activity.

  2. I expected this and, in fact, took it for a given, so imagine my confusion when I realized that two of the main suspects in the Hattie Cotton bombing, who were KKK members, were Catholic. I’ve been trying to make sense of it, and I think it has to do with how old the Catholic population is. I mean, the KKK in Louisiana is also full of Catholics.

    So, here in Nashville, we have Catholics going back to the founding of the town. There was some anti-Catholic sentiment early on–when we finally got a priest, he was warned that it would be a tough gig. But there are two important factors, I think, that kept anti-Catholic sentiment from clicking into its usual place: 1. Since there had always been Catholics here, Catholicism wasn’t as heavily tied to immigration as it is in other regions of the country. There wasn’t the twin anxieties of “These strangers with their strange religion.”

    Catholicism wasn’t foreign. People were vaguely familiar with it.

    But also, our two biggest waves of stranger-Catholics were German and Irish BUT from the start, Nashville had a German guy–Frederick Stump–who they knew and liked and interacted with and an Irish guy–Hugh Rogan–who they knew and liked and interacted with. I don’t know if Stump was a Catholic, but my point is that from the start, Nashville had “foreigners” here–people who would have talked with strange accents and grown up across the ocean and Nashville became familiar with them and liked them. So, more Germans or Irish people showing up wasn’t as big a deal as it might have been.

    Also speaking to that, it’s clear that part of what made non-Jewish Nashville so confused about the JCC bombing is that there wasn’t a lot of…I’m not sure how to put this…specific antisemitism in Nashville. Like, yes, people had stereotypes about “The Jews” and there was bullshit. i don’t want to make it sound fine when it wasn’t. But most non-Jewish Nashvillians, even if they had antisemitic beliefs and weren’t nice to their Jewish neighbors, didn’t think that getting rid of specific Jewish people or institutions in Nashville was going to solve any societal problems. ‘”The Jews” might run the world’s banks, which is bad, but Mr. Fineman at my bank is very nice.’

    That’s one of the reasons I think the JCC bombing is solvable. The theory that Jewish people were manipulating black people into wanting social equality in order to bring down the United States through race mixing, which was obvious because, obviously, black people weren’t smart enough to want equality themselves was new to most of white Nashville. Whatever else white Nashville thought about black Nashville, white Nashville knew that black Nashville wanted freedom and equality and knowledge and had since the start. That’s why white Nashville had to keep violently suppressing all efforts black Nashville made toward that.

    So the amount of people who would have bought into that and been willing to act on it can’t possibly be that big.

    And then, back to my second point about a lack of the usual magnitude of anti-Catholic sentiment, I think it has to do with the fact that there isn’t an old community of black Catholics. The black Rogans aren’t Catholic and they’re very happily very religious. Demonbreun’s children didn’t, by and large, stay Catholic. No one he owned or what was owned by his kids was Catholic. So, I think white Nashville’s local experience was that, by and large, Catholics were white.

    Reading through old newspaper articles, it’s very clear that segregationists here in town were counting on being able to yank their children out of integrated schools and put them in Catholic schools. It seems not to even have occurred to them that Catholic schools could be integrated and, in fact, by the time the public school integration crisis hit Nashville, Father Ryan had been integrated for a few years.

    Whereas my understanding is that, in the Midwest, people were aware that Catholic churches and schools were integrated (even if the black Catholic population was very small). And priests were active in organizing for the Civil Rights movement (Nashville didn’t get a truly threatening do-gooder priest until the 60s). So the dynamic was just different.

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