In the middle of the summer of 1961, Kwame “Leo” Lillard and his friend Matthew Walker each took a towel and 25-cents to the public pool at Nashville’s Centennial Park. Their intention was to go swimming , as dozens of their fellow Nashvillians were already doing just beyond the entrance gates. The young men, both college students and veterans of the sit-in movement of the previous year, were asked to leave. That afternoon, July 18, all the public pools in Nashville were drained and closed due to “financial concerns.” All pools remained closed for two years, and many of them were never reopened.
I have heard Mr. Lillard share this story more than once, most recently this past Friday with a group of third, fourth, and fifth-graders from my home church. Mr. Lillard tells it well – he makes his eyes wide and slowly pulls his thumb and pinky to his face as an imaginary phone, mimicking the expression and actions of the panicked cashier facing these black men who wanted to swim in the nicest pool in town. He speeds up the tempo as the cashier calls the supervisor, the supervisor asks Lillard and Walker what they think they’re doing, the supervisor calls the Mayor, and the Mayor gives an order to close all the pools in the city. In fact, when Mr. Lillard tells this story, it always gets a laugh. A laugh!
I laugh, too; I have two theories regarding that reaction. The first paints activists with a broad brush, but I believe it to be true – you can’t fight for a better world unless you love it, and you can’t love the world if you don’t have a sense of humor and irony about this place and us humans. The Gospel does not exactly depict it, but I am confident that my favorite activist – Jesus Christ – was also quick to laughter.
The second reason Lillard’s story about the pool at Centennial Park gets a laugh is because it strikes modern audiences as utterly absurd. Black people want to swim somewhere besides Hadley Park, and the only course of action the city can come up with is to shut it all down? What sort of logic is that? What can we do but look back through the lens of the ensuing decades and laugh at that cashier, that supervisor, that mayor, Ben West, who could never quite get a political handle on segregation? How ridiculous they must have looked! How easy it was for a couple college kids to throw them for a loop!
Mr. Lillard told his story to the children from my church last Friday, June 5. I had been asked to give them a Civil Rights Tour of Nashville, and I knew that the pool story would resonate with these kids, most of whom would themselves be taking a dip in some clear, blue chlorinated water that weekend. We love our swimming pools in Nashville, especially on my side of town, where the only lake is in a protected natural area – no swimming allowed.
After the tour was over, the Children’s Minister and I stood in the hallway at church rehashing the day. We returned to the story of the closed pools. “How does that happen?” we asked each other. How does a hot, humid city like Nashville lose its pools for two full summers and no one (except Lillard) tell the story? And how on earth could anyone have thought closing the pools was okay? Why did it take so long to open them back up? What were the white people of fifty years ago so afraid of?
I suppose it was right about the time of our conversation – 3 p.m. – that school was letting out for the summer in Dallas. Tatiana Rhodes and her mother were getting ready for a cookout and swim party in their subdivision. Exactly what happened between that afternoon and 7:15, when Cpl. Eric Casebolt came on the scene and a 15-year-old named Brandon Brooks whipped out his cell phone is unknown; I refuse to speculate. I only know what I saw, and I saw that white people are still afraid. Every black teenager in that video is a threat, even though the neighborhood is only about 70% white. The pool had been overrun, not by partying teenagers jumping fences (which teenagers are known to do) but by dangerous outsiders.
This country is not the place it was 54 years ago, when the mayor of a major Southern city decided that closing every last pool was preferable to acknowledging the humanity of an entire group of Americans. The story is met with laughter, and anyone who tried something similar today would encounter universal horror and outrage (Fox News anchors notwithstanding). But the truth is this – As I type this at 2 p.m. on a summer afternoon, thousands of kids are swimming. If I took a run past the public pool about a mile from my house, I’d see mostly black children. If I ran up the ridge to the nearest private pool, I’d see mostly white children. By “mostly,” I don’t mean 60%, I mean “almost entirely with perhaps an exception here or there.”
Private pools and backyard pools flourished in the 1960s, when people like Lillard and Walker were working to desegregate the public pools. That initial white flight established the social order we follow today.
When I started this blog last summer, my intention was to make it “non-controversial” – easy fare that would allow you, my readers, to consider the ways we interact with each other. I’m realizing that discussing race and class more directly is non-controversial. It would be impossible to argue that Chattanooga, a city I truly love, is not divided.
Here are some questions I have – How and why do we “race space?” How do we establish that certain areas are off-limits? That certain people are not the ones we will talk to? I am certainly not above it myself. I go to Miller Plaza, not Miller Park. I eat at Champy’s, not Wafflez Factory. I get my hair cut on the Northshore, even though there are 5 or 6 salons closer to my home.
Another question relates to our recent Best Ever…Award. Why is the outdoor culture of Chattanooga so predominantly white or, in the case of the pools, segregated?
I still intend to talk to people, write essays about them, and share how they see their neighborhoods and their lives. I still hope to look at the things we celebrate here – neighbors, friendships, the mountains, etc. I’ll do some of my interviewing through my runs, like I did last year, but the focus will be on how we both connect and separate ourselves in this small city where the mountains literally push all the classes and races on top of each other.
So, Crossing Paths is back for the summer. I hope you like it. Spread the word and check back soon. If you’re reading this at a pool, enjoy yourself, but take a moment to look around and wonder.