Nashville in 1960: My father’s moment at a crossroads in history
I am holding an old clipping from The Tennessean. It’s dated March 31, 1960. The by-line is David Halberstam. I’ve always known how this story affected the course of my family’s life. I’ve always felt pride and joy at having this particular gift—a window on a time in my father’s life when he (and so many Southern churchmen like him) were playing their roles on the stage of history.
Between 1955 and 1960, my father, the Rev. Bayard Clark, served as rector of St. Bartholomew’s Episcopal Church in Nashville. They were great years for my family. My father and mother, Charlotte Clark, loved St. Bartholomew’s and all the friends they made there. My sister, Kathy, graduated from Harpeth Hall. My four brothers lived in a childhood paradise, playing football and basketball in yards and driveways up and down Wayland Drive. And I was born, in 1956. Those were also the early years of the civil rights movement.
Dad was a charter member of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. I remember a colleague of his, the Rev. John Carter, who’s now retired in Sewanee, recalling how they sneaked off in the night to attend the first convention in 1957. My dad’s parishioners didn’t know about this, and probably wouldn’t have approved.
One day in the late 50s, Dad called from work and told Mom to get a babysitter and meet him at Scarritt College and hear someone speak. There, for the first time, she heard the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. “It was the most exciting thing I’d heard in a long time,” she recalls. “He got me all stirred up, and I was so frustrated because I couldn’t tell anyone about it.”
Another time Dad had the honor of introducing King at a speech to the Nashville Ministerial Association.
It’s hard for some of us—especially those of us under 50—to understand how bitterly Nashville was divided over the issue of integration in the late 50s and early 60s.
Dad preached about integration at St. Bartholomew’s, and the church was packed every Sunday as a result. Some parishioners were uncomfortable with his views, but these sermons were never a problem. He was especially pleased when several divinity school professors started coming to services at St. Bartholomew’s, and he expressed his views in scholarly places—like an ethics panel at the divinity school in late March of 1960. The turning point for him—and for us—came when the words in the pulpit and in the religious community became a story and a photo in The Tennessean.
March 1960 in downtown Nashville was a time of sit-ins. The issue was the integration of the lunch counters, notably at Cain-Sloan’s department store. At that time Dad was vice-president of the Nashville Ministerial Association. Since the president of the NMA was out of town, Dad took clergy to visit Mayor Ben West. “We said we would back him if he would open up the lunch counters,” Dad wrote in his personal memoirs. “He said he had to remain mayor. I answered: ‘Does this mean we will have to have a prayer vigil in front of your office?’ He repeated: ‘I have to remain mayor.’ The next day we did just what we said we’d do.”
Accompanying The Tennessean story was a large photo of the crowd, with a box and an arrow pointing to the Mayor’s Office. Standing very visibly at the back of the crowd was a clergyman in a collar, whom many parishioners mistook for Dad. This only added to the embarrassment of his having been identified as rector of St. Bartholomew’s, as if he were expressing the views of the parish by taking part in the demonstration.
“The day the article appeared,” says Mom, “our liberal Jewish neighbor across the street, Adele Schweid, called to congratulate us on what we had done. I knew we were in trouble.” It wasn’t long before one conservative member of St. Bartholomew’s vestry—who believed in segregation, but also supported Dad’s right and duty to follow his conscience—told my parents, “I think there’s a little trouble brewing.” It was one thing to hear your preacher talk about integration from the pulpit. It was another to read it in the newspaper.
Over next few months, it became clear that this was a situation that could split Dad’s congregation down the middle and tear it apart. “Three quarters of the parish backed me,” wrote Dad. “But I surveyed the 12 big contributors and found that they would not. One lawyer on the vestry was told he would have to leave his firm if he remained at our church. I counseled with the National Council of Churches race-relations man in Nashville, as this was a lonely time. He said, ‘Bayard, you don’t have to worry about the church. You are the church.’ I determined that when the Church had to pay off a big loan at the bank, it is a very human institution, and I felt I had no right to bankrupt it. I resigned by mail to the Vestry with no job in sight.”
Dad sent letters all over the country, and late that summer he was offered a position as a Canon at the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C.
Coincidentally, David Halberstam’s career also moved him to Washington that fall. At an inaugural ball for President Kennedy, Dad ran into Halberstam and took the opportunity to ask why he’d included the drunk shoving and cursing the demonstrators—which apparently added to a feeling among Dad’s parishioners that the event was somehow disreputable or unsavory, in addition to being politically incendiary. Dad wrote that Halberstam told him an editor put that line in.
In 1963 Dad took part in the March on Washington and was present for the “I Have a Dream Speech” at the Lincoln Memorial. If you look closely at the photo of a crowd scene from that day in Taylor Branch’s Parting the Waters: America in the King Years 1954-6, you can see Dad’s face—with glasses and a clergyman’s collar—under a “Freedom” banner in a crowd scene from that day.
In 1965—convinced that the spiritual challenge of the coming years was to be found in the streets of ailing cities—Dad was taking a six-month course at the Urban Training Center in Chicago when Martin Luther King Jr. issued his call to the clergy to join him for his march in Selma. Dad got in a car with several clergymen and drove to Alabama.
The day of the second march across the bridge he was about seven rows behind King. “We went four-by-four with a monitor for each row to assist us with being non-violent,” wrote Dad. “We walked past the citizens. They shouted hateful epithets at us. We crossed the bridge slowly and faced the police. They decided to let us march. People along the roadside joined us.”
In 1994, when Dad died, I wanted to remember Dad to his many friends in Nashville with an op-ed piece in The Tennessean recalling March of 1960. I wrote Halberstam to see what he could tell me about his story, and, surprisingly, he called back immediately. As it happened, he was then working on his memoir of his years as a young reporter in Jackson, Mississippi, then in Nashville covering the civil rights movement. Halberstam didn’t remember either my father or this particular demonstration, which isn’t surprising. As Dad often said when we’d ask him about his civil rights activities, “There were so many churchman, white and black, who did so many things, large and small.” But Halberstam told me about that moment in time—and how he was certain that almost everyone involved in any small way knew that he or she was standing at a crossroads of history.
Halberstam told me his book (The Children, which came out in 1998) would talk a great deal about the clergymen at the Vanderbilt Divinity School: “They were a distinguished group,” he says. “The cream of a generation. You really knew this was something powerful. You could feel something begin to grow.”
After Dad’s Moment in History appeared in The Tennessean, I got a phone call from Ben West, Jr. In a couple of weeks. He was going to take part in a ceremony dedicating a plaque on a Nashville street corner.
Back in 1960, West told me, several weeks after Dad’s prayer vigil, a student from Fisk University named Diane Nash and many other students met with Mayor West on that street corner to talk about integrating the lunch counters. As he said to my father, West said something to the effect that politically it would be hard for him to integrate the lunch counters. And in a moment of clarity and courage, Nash said, “Sometimes you have to do something because it is right.”
In that historic moment, West paused, said she was right, and decided to integrate the lunch counters.
On the phone Ben West, Jr., wondered aloud to me if perhaps that group from the Nashville Ministerial Association, and what my father said that day in March, might have prepared his father to take the courageous step he took in April. I had never thought of that.
I wasn’t quite 4 when we moved to Washington, D.C. I’m too young to remember any of my father’s sermons at the National Cathedral, which he left in 1965. His obituaries in The Washington Post and The New York Times allocated more type to his 15 years in the federal government (in the adult-education division of the Department of Education) than his 16 years as rector of churches in Cape Girardeau, Missouri, Houston and Nashville—although I know that’s where his heart was, in helping people with the day-to-day crises of their lives.
If things were different, I might know very little at all about the man my father was when he was just a few years younger than I am now. Instead, I can look through that clipping from The Tennessean and see a priceless moment in time, where I can see what he faced, what he did and what he felt. And I can be proud in a very special way.