Bombings, What are They Good For?

I’ve been thinking a lot about Sam’s comment about the “proper” ways violence flows in our society and what purpose our current myth serves.

The current myth, as I think most Nashvillians who even know it know it, is that everything was fine and calm here in Nashville–people knew their places and worked the system as best they could–and then Brown v. Board was announced and Nashville had to desegregate and, oh my goodness! A school was bombed! A black lawyer’s house was bombed! But it was so outrageous, such a shocking anomaly, that, in the wake of it, we desegregated in order to return to our peaceful existence. And it was so awesome that Dr. King came and told us that he got inspiration from the city of Nashville.

The bare bones of this story is that some outside event happened to rile up black people and as long as black people were riled up, there were these bombings, but once black people got their way, the violence stopped. Therefore, white people are awesome, because we moved gracefully out of the way of what black people wanted. So awesome that even Dr. King recognized it.

It’s hard to see with the flesh on that the story as it is told now is racist–at least for me–but stripped down, the racist narrative is easy to see–this violence happened because black people were not behaving. It ended because white people were super awesome and accommodating.

This is, I think, why the JCC bombing gets downplayed or left out all together–it was clearly an anti-integration bombing, both because the caller who took responsibility for it said so and because that strain of extremists believed that Jews were controlling black people, so get rid of the Jews, black people will settle down–but there wasn’t anything black people in Nashville had do that “caused” it. They weren’t trying to go to school or have a big civil rights rally. There was nothing to point to and say, “If you hadn’t done x, this bombing wouldn’t have happened.”

I’m also kind of suspicious this is why the bombers weren’t ever caught. Maybe not the primary reason, but a subconscious reason. You have faces and names and it makes it a lot harder to pretend like white people were on the side of good here and that black people were bringing this upon themselves.

And also, reducing Looby’s status to “lawyer for the sit-ins”–which, yes, is hugely important–elides his decades’ long work for black people as a lawyer AND his role as a city councilman.

I keep thinking about how important it is for me to keep checking my intellectual filters. Like, okay, if our era is just the third wave of the Klan–so roughly ’49 through like ’83–we have four bombings aimed directly at black people–the two early housing bombs, Hattie Cotton, and Looby. We have, though, six bombings directly linked to integration–the two early housing bombs, Hattie Cotton, the JCC, Looby, and the failed attempt on the Temple.

But what if we change our frame to “white men pissed about something the government is doing?” Then we have for sure the early housing bomb that was about a black public housing unit, two truck scales, an ex-mayor’s house, potentially other things I just don’t know about because I haven’t looked into the Wilson situation as much as I should have, Hattie Cotton, and Councilman Looby’s house.

The number of “Fuck you, government” bombings is the same as the “fuck you, integrationists” bombings.

And I feel like I’m almost on the verge of realizing what that means. I suspect it’s something like my realization about the third wave of the Klan–that there was this anti-black violence in Middle Tennessee already happening and the Klan came out of that, gave the white people who wanted to do violence a shape and a structure and a network of likeminded people.

And I also think that something similar is going on here–that racist bombings provide a socially-approved outlet for anti-government sentiment. You bomb a truck scale because you don’t like following the law, they’re going to catch you. You bomb a school because you don’t like following the law, well, now your just a person with a tradition and a way of life.

I hope it’s clear that I’m not trying to downplay how central and important the hatred and oppression of black people is. I’m just trying to peek underneath that layer to see the secondary things going on.

Racism and anti-government sentiment fed each other.

But, in the years since, Nashville as an American city has become an important way for us of viewing ourselves. We have big 4th of July celebrations. We want all the tourist dollars we can. We like it when the whole country likes our music. We love it when important people move here or come to visit.

So, the anti-government sentiment of the times had to be downplayed and forgotten. Which means that, though people living through the ’50s experienced bombings in Nashville as very common-place, we remember the three bombings I’m looking at as if they were jarring anomalies. Something that almost turned us into another Bombingham, but, whew, we escaped that fate because we’re so super awesome and not that racist.

But they weren’t anomalies. We were that racist. And we had another ugly strain of something here that fed into it.

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