THE SURPRISING BOOKSELLER: New Jersey native John Kasper had little association with the South before his arrival as a segregationist agitator in 1956.
“THE FASCIST POET”: Ezra Pound (1885-1972), shown here during his early years in Europe, changed modern poetry, but his racial politics clouded his personal reputation.
MAKE IT NEW: One of the bookstore photos that got Kasper in trouble with segregationists. The founder of the local White Citizens Council is smiling in back.
MISUNDERSTOOD?: American Poet and Italian fascist Ezra Pound, not long after his arrest for treason in 1945.
LOOK, MA—HANDCUFFS: After his conviction for conspiracy at the federal courthouse in downtown Knoxville, Kasper showed no remorse.
Fifty years ago this week, Clinton High School desegregated. Thanks to a federal court order handed down in Knoxville, in response to a six-year-old lawsuit, Clinton High became one of the first white public schools in the Jim Crow South to enroll black students.
The move prompted riots and bombings that comprised some of the most dramatically violent events of the Civil Rights era in East Tennessee, and some of the earliest segregationist resistance in the South. The two years of violence that commenced in the late summer of 1956 included riots on the town square, beatings of desegregationist collaborators, and dynamite that injured several in black neighborhoods in Anderson County, interrupted a Louis Armstrong performance in Knoxville, and ultimately destroyed the entire school. Clinton was, briefly, internationally famous.
Similar stories would be replayed all over the South over the following decades, but none surpassed ours for the sheer strangeness of the principal agitators. The two founders of the local White Citizens Council, who stirred up the crowds in Clinton and attempted to do the same in Knoxville, were from out of state. Moreover, they weren’t necessarily rednecks or provincial reactionaries. Both college-educated young men who had lived in other parts of the country, they could have been described as literary intellectuals.
One would later make a fortune as a novelist and author of an endearing memoir of a Native-American youth that became a national bestseller before scholars discovered the author’s real identity.
The other, who had deeper influence here, was a former Greenwich Village bohemian, a protégé and close associate of the poet Ezra Pound. The elderly poet himself, accused of treason and confined in his cell in a mental institution, may have had more to do with the Clinton crisis than most students of the civil-rights era know.
Clinton High was one of the first high schools in the South to desegregate, but the change was six years in the making. In 1950, families of six black students had sued to get their kids into Clinton High. At the time, the “separate but equal” statute was still credible to judges, and there wasn’t case history to support the suit.
But then a similar case out of Topeka, Kan., made it to the U.S. Supreme Court, in 1954, and the Brown vs. Board decision ended legal segregation in America.
The first consequence of the Brown ruling in Tennessee was Judge Robert Taylor’s ruling in January, 1956, that Clinton High would have to desegregate. It wasn’t the only all-white school in the area, of course. All public schools were segregated. Even the University of Tennessee allowed no black undergraduates. Clinton High was different in a couple of regards, beginning with that early lawsuit and conditions that made the status quo especially
Bald by his mid-50s and diminutive in height, Judge Robert Love Taylor was still known as “Little Bob.” A few in 1956 were old enough to remember his uncle and namesake, “Our Bob” Taylor, the charismatic governor and senator of the Victorian era. The judge’s own father, Alf Taylor, had once been governor, as well. Judge Taylor was acquainted with power and influence in his home state. Taylor had enjoyed a brief career as a pro baseball player just after World War I. He’d quit to go to Yale law school. Though his father had been Republican, Taylor had once promised his uncle, who let him sit in his seat in the U.S. Senate, that he would be a Democrat no matter what. Senator Taylor gave Little Bob a $10 bill to seal the bargain. The affiliation may have paid off in a bigger way; in 1949 Truman appointed Taylor a U.S. federal court judge in Tennessee’s Eastern District.
As a judge Taylor was known as especially efficient and conscientious. He had a black bailiff, which was perhaps unusual in the 1950s South—but Taylor was not remembered as unusually progressive for his time, and was certainly not known as a judicial activist. When he ruled that Clinton High would have to desegregate, he was almost apologetic about it. He had no choice; the law’s the law.
At first, it seemed as if the result of his ruling wasn’t going to be a very big deal. It had been a quiet summer, and on Saturday, Aug. 26, Clinton High enrolled 12 black students, who joined the 700 white students already there. No one bothered them that day.
But just before that, on Friday, Aug. 25, a strange young man drove into town. Though he was clean cut and wore a suit and tie, he slept in his car that night. For the following 50 years, the people of Knoxville and Anderson County would claim that everything that happened in the weeks and months to come wouldn’t have happened if John Kasper had not shown up.
Several Knoxvillians remember Kasper. Former U.S. Court clerk Don Ferguson was a part-time reporter for UPI at the time, met him, attended some of his rallies, covered his trial.
“He was a tall, ordinary-looking fellow—but a little warped, offbeat,” Ferguson says. “What I remember about him is that he was so dedicated, so sincere about a project that struck me as being hopeless,” he says. Though many local whites in the area had grown up with segregation and were comfortable with it, Ferguson says by 1956 most had accepted that change was inevitable. Not this newcomer from up north.
With a long nose and deep-set eyes, Kasper was arguably handsome in a rodent-like sort of way. An oddity in many aspects that made him stand out among the farmers of Anderson County, he was a well-spoken Columbia graduate, a former Greenwich Village bookstore owner once known to love jazz. In his suit he always looked reasonably sharp, even in the midst of a mob, even when handcuffed to a drunk.
Raised in New Jersey, Kasper had been the sometimes-rebellious son of a moderately successful engineer. He reportedly suffered some personality disorder for which his parents had him seek counseling. His education was desultory, and included some time at Yankton College in South Dakota. He was never an impressive student, but did well enough to graduate from Columbia with a B.S. in “General Studies.” Among his teachers was well-known poet and essayist Babette Deutsch, who may have introduced him to the work of a writer who would change his life. But she would later say that, at the time, she was troubled by the fact that the undergraduate seemed less interested in a famous American poet’s poetry than in his right-wing political philosophies.
After graduation, still in his early 20s, Kasper opened a bookstore in the Village. It was a peculiar one, named “Make It New” after a 1935 book of essays by Kasper’s greatest living hero, the modernist poet he had studied at Columbia. By the time he arrived in Clinton, Kasper had spent six years visiting, corresponding with, studying the work of, and—the word is not too strong—worshipping Ezra Pound.
The poet may be more famous today than he was in 1956—but even then he was already, to his many friends and admirers, who included writers Ernest Hemingway, T.S. Eliot, and Robert Frost, a living legend. In recent years, he had had suffered some significant emotional and legal problems, but a few colleagues, including the poet William Carlos Williams, expected Pound to be the next recipient of the Nobel Prize for Literature.
Pound had turned his back on his Idaho home early in the century to spend most of his life in self-exile in Europe. The classic bohemian, carelessly clothed, his hair piled high, he was too contrary even for Gertrude Stein, who had never forgiven him for carelessly breaking one of the antique chairs in her famous salon in Paris. His face had a mournful, defiant cast to it, even when he was young and wore a cavalier’s beard and mustache.
By the time of World War I, Pound was already well-known among litterateurs for his experimental poetry, colored with inimitable lines like “Your mind and you are our Sargasso Sea,” and “The apparition of these faces in the crowd / Petals on a wet, black bough.”
After the war he was an integral part of what would be known as the Lost Generation, the postwar café society of bohemians living in Paris in the orbit of avant-garde writer Gertrude Stein. Pound was a close friend and supporter of Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Marcel Duchamp, James Joyce, and others. He practiced a new kind of poetry, free in form, but often complicated and demanding of the reader.
Though he was well known and influential among literary sorts by the 1920s, it wasn’t until the 1960s that Pound was widely anthologized, taught in university and even high-school survey classes. He’s a major figure in the posthumous 1964 Hemingway memoir, A Moveable Feast , and is mentioned in the Bob Dylan song “Desolation Row” as a remote academic with T.S. Eliot “fighting in the captain’s tower/ While calypso singers laugh at them.” He has inspired a groaning shelf-full of full-length biographies with titles like A Serious Character , This Difficult Individual, The Roots of Treason , and The Solitary Volcano .
People who read those books will learn that his life had a dark side.
In 1925, at the age of 40, Pound began his life’s work, the famously obscure Cantos. To read them in their entirety, one has to be able to read Italian, French, Latin, Greek, and Chinese.
Always willful and eccentric, somehow the man who celebrated new realms of freedom in verse became preoccupied with Mussolini and the rising cause of Italian fascism. His right-wing tendencies perplexed his friends, then and for the next several decades. Pound became an Italian fascist and a propagandist for the Axis powers during World War II, jeering at American troops in radio broadcasts. In 1945, American forces arrested him for treason, which carried a potential death sentence.
Rightly or wrongly, by 1946 Pound was determined to be insane and unfit for trial; incarcerated at St. Elizabeth’s, the famous mental institution in Washington, D.C., he finished his endless Cantos . He enjoyed entertaining old friends and young admirers with his stories and philosophies about everything from Confucianism to usury. Some called his cell Ezuversity.
In the summer of 1950, the 20-year-old John Kasper began visiting Pound at St. Elizabeth’s. They must have made an odd pair, the dapper young man and the disheveled poet, some 44 years Kasper’s senior, who rarely buttoned his shirt. According to Kasper, Pound was so taken with the young man’s ideological kinship that at the end of their first meeting, he shouted, “Bravo for Kasp!” Pound referred to Kasper as Kasp or sometimes, “der Kasperl.”
Kasper called Pound “der Boss.” He sometimes signed his letters with a swastika, and repeatedly asked Pound what he should do with his life.
It was the beginning of a regular correspondence; through most of the ’50s, Pound and Kasper exchanged letters at least once a week. Pound biographer E. Fuller Torrey read the unpublished letters and found them “extraordinary, indicating a complete master-student relationship and an apparent willingness to do whatever Pound asked. Kasper worshiped Pound and believed that he possessed a wisdom which was divine in origin.” Kasper, who began the correspondence formally, began imitating Pound’s intuitive, freeform style.
Pound’s side of the correspondence is mostly unknown. Some scholars, like English author Clive Webb, are attempting to find the letters to determine the extent of Pound’s influence over Kasper and his actions in Clinton and elsewhere. (Professor Webb, of the University of Sussex, has been at work for years on a book about Kasper and the Clinton crisis.)
In collaboration with another young Pound admirer, T.D. Horton, Kasper published the Square Dollar book series, Pound’s handpicked literary canon, which the poet described as “a set of texts intended to foster the spirit of reverence for the intelligence working in nature.” Among the eccentric publications were Pound’s translation of Confucius, and some of the work of some other thinkers he considered overlooked, including economic historian Alexander del Mar and naturalist Louis Agassiz.
And so Kasper opened a bookstore on Bleecker Street in New York’s Greenwich Village, named “Make It New,” after a 1935 collection of Pound’s essays. It was a very strange place.
In the mid-’50s, some who visited his store regarded the proprietor a “liberal,” and in some ways he could pass for one. Kasper befriended some artistic blacks in New York, including choreographer Ned Williams. He helped the artist Ted Joans and his white wife find an apartment, not always an easy thing for a mixed-race couple in the ’50s, even in New York. For a time, Kasper dated a black woman. A contemporary reporter wrote that Make It New was “a recognized center for the distribution of pro-Negro books and magazines and was patronized chiefly by Negroes and Negrophile whites….”
Kasper had some odd prejudices nonetheless. He espoused the NAACP, but didn’t join, himself, because, he explained, it was run by Jews. Some describe his contempt for Jews as a sudden oddity in his personality that had not been apparent when he first opened the bookstore.
Kasper could have borrowed the tenets of his anti-Semitism from Pound; he believed Jews controlled much of the world, and intended to control all of it, partly through interest, or, as Pound railed against it even in his poetry, usury. Though Kasper had professed an admiration for Adolph Hitler, he was not at the time a garden-variety white supremacist. He had also admired Stalin. A superficial student of Nietszche, Kasper seems to have been preoccupied with the idea of power, and that the weak should yield to the strong.
Even after he began expressing anti-Semitic ideas, Kasper insisted at his Sunday-night gatherings that blacks should assert themselves in American culture, without imitating it. His black friends would remember how he expressed disgust for how blacks were being treated in the South in those early days of the civil-rights movement.
That’s all from a contemporary interview by scholar James Rorty with several of Kasper’s black friends. Other scholars have described Make It New more simply, as a “right-wing bookstore” that offered “venomous Nazi literature.” It apparently had that, too. By one account, Pound had to talk Kasper out of one retail stunt he’d proposed: piling books on psychology on the floor and labeling it “Jewish Muck.”
A rare photo of the shop in that era shows a poster headed, “Pot smokers who want to quit. Correct use of the breathing exercises described in these books will give you ALL the remarkable sensations you can get from marijuana.” It added, “It’s not smart to use HEROIN. The reds have been using drugs as a POLITICAL weapon since 1927. Don’t be a Rooseveltian dupe!” To beat-era Greenwich Village, Kasper probably seemed more like a freak than a dangerous racist.
His cozy biracial Sunday-evening bull sessions broke up; some imply it was over Kasper’s growing hostility toward Jews and Communists. He closed the store around the time he mounted a quixotic presidential campaign for Ezra Pound in 1956. “Pound for Prez” stickers went up all over New York subways.
In late 1955, Kasper moved to Washington, D.C., perhaps to be closer to Pound, and opened another bookstore on Wisconsin Avenue called Cadmus. He reportedly roomed with fellow Pound devotee and anti-Semitic conspiracy theorist Eustace Mullins, who wrote one of the first biographies of Pound—and one of the very few Pound biographers who claim that Pound had nothing to do with what followed down South.
While living in Washington, probably thanks to his close association with America’s most famous mental patient, Kasper somehow found his way in to testify before a Senate subcommittee considering a mental-health bill. There he made a plea for the poet’s release. “We do not have the benefit of Ezra Pound,” he said. “We cannot openly talk about him or claim him as an American poet because he is supposed to be insane.” From there, he launched into his theory that psychology was a Jewish plot. When Sen. Alan Bible asked him, “Are you opposed to the Jewish people?” Kasper responded, “I am opposed to any nation who attempts to usurp American nationality, and the Jews are nationalists of another country.”
The bookstore apparently didn’t work out, and by early 1956, Kasper, living near his idol and more focused than ever, finally had a cause.
Kasper founded something called the Seaboard White Citizens Council, which may at one time have had a membership in the hundreds; among its goals was the abolition of rock ’n’ roll. In fliers, Kasper designated himself as the SWWC’s Segregation Chief. He hand-lettered pamphlets for distribution:
JAIL NAACP, alien, unclean, unchristian
Most probably dismissed it as harmless schizophrenia. Later scholars would see the direct influence of Ezra Pound: Some of the segregationist copy closely evoked a manifesto called “BLAST” Pound had written with Wyndham Lewis in London, in the cubist days of 1914.
“The phrases in his publicity had a distinctly Poundian ring,” wrote literary scholar John Tytel in 1987, “and it was clear that Kasper had been counseled by his mentor.”
Prior to 1956, Kasper’s main association with the South was that he’d spent one year in the early ’40s at a Georgia military academy, apparently a parent-suggested response to some personality problem, a solution that didn’t work out. Around 1955, he’d tried to get work at Black Mountain College, near Asheville, but was unsuccessful. At some point he befriended John G. Crommelin, the Alabama rear admiral suspended from duty for leaking classified information; in the postwar years, he became known as a segregationist and McCarthyist. Kasper told people that he had been campaign director for one of Crommelin’s unsuccessful runs for U.S. Senate.
Whether it was Pound, Crommelin, or some other agent, something persuaded Kasper, in the spring of 1956, to cross into the still-segregated South. He spent some time in Alabama, where he became acquainted with a radio personality named Asa, or “Ace,” Carter, leader of a wing of the Alabama White Citizens Council so radical Carter split away from the mainstream segregationists.
Kasper later went to Charlottesville, Va., where he released a pamphlet called “Virginians Awake!” apparently to tepid response.
He drove straight from there to Clinton, where one of the South’s first attempts to desegregate a public high school was about to take place. For segregationists who were anxious about desegregation as a national movement, Clinton was an early battleground.
He worked fast. The day Kasper arrived, he went right to work, canvassing the countryside of Anderson County, knocking on doors. One of his pamphlets showed black GI’s kissing French prostitutes at the end of World War II. He had allegedly obtained the photograph from Pound. This, Kasper explained, is what will happen if Clinton High desegregates. “We are an action program,” Kasper’s pamphlet said. “We proclaim action as our creed. We are fighting. You must fight with us.”
He baffled some of his subjects, by one account “talking a marvelously impressive hodgepodge of Blackstone, Douglas, Frobenius, Ezra Pound, and Joe Kamp….” Most reportedly thought him a Yankee kook, and some called the authorities. Within a few days, Kasper was jailed briefly for vagrancy.
But he stirred up enough to organize a picket line at the school. And, within days, to bring people out to the town square in the hundreds. Kasper’s strength, according to scholar and journalist Rorty, was among “the poor people of Anderson County, who have been left with so little else with which to nourish their pride that their membership in the master race has become their most precious possession.”
Kasper spoke to crowds without notes, spewing invective at Jews and blacks, claiming desegregation to be a Communist plot. Some noticed that he apparently wasn’t used to using the word nigger , and frequently corrected himself to include it.
Though some contemporary journalists like Rorty had the impression that Kasper stirred up the trouble “almost single-handedly,” he couldn’t have done so without willing allies in Anderson County. He got about 50 students to lay out of school and join the picket line. A group called the Tennessee White Youth made up uniform shirts emblazoned with Confederate flags. One Clinton mother explained why she was keeping her kids out of school, “Before I’d raise [my children] up with a nigger, I’d raise ’em up dumb as I am.”
Black students and their families were chased away by the mob. The tiny police department was helpless. A group of concerned citizens pleaded with Judge Taylor to issue an order barring Kasper and five local collaborators from further action, and Mayor W.E. Lewallen asked state authorities to enforce the laws with the National Guard.
By Friday night, Kasper’s friend Ace Carter arrived to address a throng of 1,500 in front of the courthouse, which had been bashing at cars containing black passengers. In contrast to Kasper’s scholarly look, Carter was a broad, moonfaced fellow with heavy, dark eyebrows and a heavy five-o’clock shadow it took more than a shave to hide. He was the kind of man a crowd like this could respect; he looked mean as a wrestler.
Kasper later called Carter “the only sincere and courageous leader in the entire movement.” The sincerity issue would come up later in Carter’s career.
At one point, the starstruck crowd chanted “We Want Kasper!” Clinton’s seven policemen prevented them from attacking the home of the mayor. Mainly they watched.
The mayor deputized an emergency posse of citizens, armed with everything from old Nazi weapons to shotguns and a few machine guns and tear-gas grenades on loan from Mayor Jack Dance in Knoxville.
When the posse arrived, a crowd of 3,000 welcomed them with shouts of “Let’s kill the nigger-lovers! Kill them!” The posse advanced, and lobbed a teargas grenade, fortunately, just as the first cars of the Highway Patrol arrived to help enforce order. By the time it was over, there were tanks on the town square, 100 Highway Patrolmen and 600 National Guardsmen.
Joe Wilson, Clinton’s acting police chief, said, “I firmly believe that none of this would have happened if outsiders had stayed away. We here in Clinton can settle our problems without help from any outside agitators….”
As early as Aug. 31, a Knoxville Journal story reported, “Officers and school officials alike blame most of the trouble on a 26-year-old Washington man named John Kasper.”
At one point, Kasper, freed from jail, had the opportunity to shout to Principal D.J. Brittain, before several onlookers: “I will get the niggers out of the schools, or you out.”
In Knoxville, Judge Taylor slapped Kasper with a one-year contempt of court sentence—an unusually tough sentence for a judge to impose at his discretion, without a jury trial. A news photo showed him grinning in handcuffs. Kasper was arrested, but quickly raised the $10,000 bail. He was unapologetic. He resented the use of troops to quell his mob. “Woe to those whose only right is their power,” he said. “The wild grass will grow over their dead bodies.”
Touring the South, the former bookseller told a large crowd in Birmingham that September, “I’m a rabble-rouser, a troublemaker. I’m not through up there. We want trouble. We want it now…. Some of us may die and I may die, too. It may mean going back to jail, but I’m going back to fight. We went as far as we could have gone legally. Now is the time to fight, even if it involves bloodshed.”
He enjoyed the moment. “I have been interested all my life in the purity of races,” he told a local reporter. “I do not hate Negroes, but I believe that for the progress of the white and Negro races this is best accomplished by segregated institutions.”
On Sept. 24, Kasper and Carter tried to bring the fight into Knox County. The prospect alarmed many Knoxvillians. Mayor Dance said he wouldn’t permit them to convene within the city. They made plans to meet at Fountain City Park, which was then outside city limits. By some accounts it was a Fountain City attorney, John Webb Green, who stopped them. Son of a Confederate officer killed in the war, Green was then in his 90s, and was known to be especially annoyed by those who unrealistically glorified the Old South. He found a way to legally block Kasper and Carter’s appearance at his beloved Fountain City Park as a disturbance of the peace.
Sheriff Paul Lilly warned Carter he would be arrested if he set foot in Fountain City Park. They met on the shoulder of North Broadway, across a ditch from the park. A crowd of only 200-300 people showed up on the rainy afternoon, a major disappointment after the throngs in Clinton. Carter blamed the bad weather and “an excellent hatchet job by the press. They fixed us good.”
Carter tried to give it a spin to make it a little victory in the propaganda war, even if he had to mix some metaphors to get there. The WCC had “forced those in power to show their teeth, and it doesn’t look very nice when the velvet glove is off and the iron fist exposed.”
On Nov. 5, while waiting trial for sedition and inciting to riot, Kasper gave a speech on temperance. Observers noted he wasn’t as impassioned on that subject, and spoke from notes. He made room to criticize “jive music” on the radio and Tennessee Governor Frank Clement.
On Nov. 20, a Clinton jury found Kasper not guilty for sedition and incitement to riot. But it wasn’t over for Kasper. He and 15 others faced trial on federal charges of conspiracy. They would be called “the Clinton 16.” One of them, a Clinton restaurant owner, died at Eastern State Psychiatric Hospital of undisclosed causes after surviving a couple of suicide attempts.
The Clinton riots got worldwide coverage. In the Soviet Union, Pravda showed photographs of this “new, wild orgy of racists” in America, as did Communist papers in East Berlin, under the heading “The Mob Reigns in Tennessee.” It was their favorite kind of story.
In early December, a white mob attacked the Rev. Paul Turner, a white preacher who had been escorting black children to school, beating him severely.
The New York Herald Tribune published the story under the surprising headline, “Segregationist Kasper is Ezra Pound Disciple.” A few weeks later, Look magazine published a large feature about the Clinton riots with photographs of both Kasper and Pound and a brief interview with Kasper’s mother in New Jersey. “When you have a child,” she said, “you don’t know how it’s going to turn out.”
Meanwhile, Pound’s old friends, struggling to get him released from the incarceration that had started as a capital treason charge, were dumbfounded. William Carlos Williams claimed he had never heard of Kasper before the news reports of the Clinton association were undermining what remained of Pound’s tenuous reputation.
Kasper, awaiting trial for conspiracy, continued to work vigorously, and it’s only natural that he would get back into publishing. Here, in February, 1957, Kasper began publishing The Clinton-Knox County Stars and Bars : “A Nationalist Attack Newspaper Serving East Tennessee.” Pound scholars see echoes of the poet’s work in the local paper, which called for “local control of local purchasing-power” and condemned “interest slavery.” Sometimes Kasper cribbed Pound straight, as in the line, “The right aim of law is to prevent coercion, either by force or fraud.” His ostensibly local paper also pleaded for “the immediate release from an 11-year political imprisonment of Ezra Pound: America’s greatest poet, man of letters, and leader in the life-death struggle against deadly usury.” He condemned Clare Booth Luce, U.S. ambassador to Italy, for not doing enough to assure Pound’s release.
Weirder things kept happening. Kasper began using a new metaphor in his spiels. “I say that integration can be reversed,” he said in early 1957. “It has got to be a pressure down here which is more or less like a lit stick of dynamite and you throw it in their laps and let them catch it, and then they can do what they want with it, but let them worry about it.”
That month, jazz legend Louis Armstrong performed before an audience of both blacks and whites in segregated seating at Chilhowee Park; someone driving slow past the park lobbed a dynamite bomb from a car. It interrupted the show briefly, but no one was hurt. It was ascribed to the White Citizens Council. Kasper was suspected of involvement, but never charged.
It was one of the first of several dynamite bombings, most of them in and around Clinton, some of them suitcase bombs left in the middle of the night. One in a black neighborhood injured three, none seriously.
Meanwhile, there was an unexpected personal development in the Kasper case. It had been reported that Kasper had run a “right-wing bookstore” in New York, and his segregationist pals down South were apparently OK with that. But Kasper’s nationwide notoriety had turned up some surprising old, but not very old, interior photographs of Make It New. One photo, published in the Knoxville Journal and other papers, shows a group of blacks and whites that appears to include a couple of biracial couples, their arms around each other. Kasper is right in the midst of them, beaming happily. By then, word that he had befriended and even dated blacks was getting around. There was another report that Kasper had participated in African tribal dancing. Suddenly he was no longer a hero in Alabama.
“I realize I present a real problem to the segregationist cause,” Kasper admitted to the press. “People don’t understand. It’s just one place where people have to make a mental leap to see the picture. If they can’t make the leap, they’ll just work their way and I can work mine.” By some accounts, his credibility as the new hero of the right-wing South ended the day those photographs were published.
The federal conspiracy trial, held in the Federal Courthouse and Post Office on Main Street in Knoxville, drew attention from all over. The defense had a team of hotshot lawyers from across the South, some of them known segregationists. On the team was Ross Barnett, the future hardcore segregationist governor of Mississippi, known for his belief that the black race was cursed by God.
The jury was all white—when the one prospective black juror admitted he “couldn’t feel kindly” about Kasper, he was dismissed. The trial lasted several days, and featured more than 120 witnesses, including Admiral Crommelin who came to say nice things about Kasper. The defense skillfully prevented introduction of some evidence, and were confident of acquittal.
The decision came back quickly. Two hours of discussion, and one ballot. It was, everyone agreed, a surprise.
Several were acquitted. But Kasper and six co-defendants, most of them working-class Anderson County people who were much older than Kasper, were found guilty.
Don Ferguson says he’ll always remember how Kasper replied to Judge Taylor’s routine question, the last chance for the convicted defendant to say something in his defense before receiving his sentence. Usually, defendants try to sound contrite.
“Yes,” Kasper responded. “I plead with you to order the Negroes out of Clinton High School.”
Taylor gave him another year. He remained free for a time, pending appeals, and moved to Nashville, where he got in more trouble, eventually accused of conspiring to bomb an elementary school.
Meanwhile, Pound had become known as the “national skeleton.” By the mid-1950s, even Tokyo Rose, the Axis propagandist whose radio broadcasts reached much farther than Pound’s ever did, had been freed. Meanwhile, Pound was an old poet in his 70s, held as if he was a danger to society. Some argued that Kasper was doing all he could to prove he still was a danger to society.
Pound’s exasperated friends, attempting to get the elderly poet free of St. Elizabeth’s, were frustrated with his association with Kasper and Tennessee. In July, 1957, writers Archibald MacLeish and Robert Frost made a plea to the Justice Department and Eisenhower administration Attorney General William Rogers.
Considering the Pound dilemma, Rogers said his greatest anxiety about freeing the elderly poet was that “Pound might join Kasper in the South and people would be killed.”
When MacLeish asked Pound whether he was actually helping Kasper, the old man didn’t reply directly. “I doubt if Kasper hates anyone,” Pound said elliptically, “his actions in keeping open shack for stray cats and humans seem to indicate a kind heart, with no exclusion of nubians.”
Frustrated with the prospects for an imminent release, MacLeish wrote to Pound, frankly: “For the immediate future and so long as the Kasper mess is boiling and stewing the Department will not move. I have never understood—and, incidentally, neither has your daughter, Mary—how you got mixed up with that character…. We were left with the impression that once the Kasper stink has blown over they would be willing to consider proposals.”
If Pound himself ever regretted his association with Kasper, it’s not clear in the biographies. “Well, at least he’s a man of action, and don’t sit around looking at his navel.”
Ernest Hemingway was especially concerned. He donated $1,500, which he said was the last of his Nobel Prize money, to the effort to free his old friend from St. Elizabeth’s. Hemingway wrote MacLeish that Pound’s “megalomania…makes him receive dangerous fawning jerks such as Kasper.” He privately admitted he was afraid that Pound, if released, would go to the press and praise Kasper’s segregationist efforts in Tennessee—that Pound would “go on the Mike Wallace show” and get himself in trouble all over again.
Even in the literary journal Paris Review of spring, 1958, Hemingway wrote, “I believe Ezra should be released and allowed to write poetry in Italy on an understanding by him to abstain from any politics. I would be happy to see Kasper jailed as soon as possible.” Some thought John Kasper in jail would mean freedom for Ezra Pound.
Hemingway got his wish: Kasper, out of appeals, was finally imprisoned in May, 1958 at the federal penitentiary in Atlanta. He was seen carrying a copy of Mein Kampf into the penitentiary.
Days earlier, Pound had been released from St. Elizabeth’s; he immediately returned to Italy. Biographers believe his association with Kasper and the Clinton mess delayed the poet’s release from the mental institution by about a year.
Pound offered no evidence of contrition. As his ship arrived in Naples, he posed for reporters, grinning and offering the stiff-armed fascist salute.
Kasper at least occasionally stayed in touch with Pound. In October, 1958, he wrote to Pound in Italy, boasting that seven synagogues in the South had been bombed. In April, 1959, Pound reportedly wrote back, “Stick to the main points when possible. Antisemitism is a card in the enemy program. Don’t play it. They RELY on your playing it.”
The same month Kasper crowed to Pound about bombed synagogues, dynamite bombs ripped Clinton High School apart. The perpetrators weren’t obvious, and since Kasper hadn’t been in town recently, he wasn’t implicated. His lawyers may have been relieved that their client was in the penitentiary at the time.
The gymnasium remained, barely; Billy Graham spoke there to a shaken community that December.
After a spell in federal penitentiaries in Atlanta and Florida, Kasper did six months in a Nashville workhouse for a conviction on conspiracy to blow up an elementary school there.
Kasper returned to Knoxville for a weird final campaign in April, 1959, against city-county consolidation, of all things—“Metro is communist inspired,” he said. “Metro is evil. Hate Metro. Vote no to Metro.” For once, Knox County went Kasper’s way.
Kasper dropped out of the local news, not quite forgotten, like an especially peculiar nightmare. By 1960, Knoxville restaurants began to desegregate, without major incident. Some liked it, some didn’t, but there were no riots, no bombings.
In March, 1961, Knoxville Journal writer Ray Flowers walked into a bar and happened to spot an “intent” John Kasper, free and drinking a beer. He was wearing a dark suit and said he was just visiting friends.
He said he’d been treated well in prison and that he’d given up violence. “The answer to the integration problem lies in a return of Constitutionalism,” he told Flowers. “Continuance of my previous methods which landed me in jail would be useless Don Quixoteism.”
He said he was working on three books, one an autobiographical one about his segregationist activities and trials. One on the Jacksonian period, which Flowers said Kasper “considers the golden age of the United States.” And one book about “Ezra Pound, the fascist poet.”
“He indicated that writing books might be a better way to fight for his opinions than rabble-rousing.
“He seemed genuinely pleased to be recognized, but demonstrated extreme nervousness,” Flowers wrote. “His eyes constantly darted about the tavern, and he was easily startled. He talked of nothing but his favorite subject for an hour or so.
“At midnight he was heard to inquire where he might go to get another beer.” With that gesture John Kasper walked out of his strange chapter in Knoxville history.
He spent much of the rest of his life in Nashville, apparently keeping his word about working through the system. He ran unsuccessfully for state representative in 1962.
Then, as if to make Pound’s 1956 “campaign” seem credible by comparison, Kasper ran for President, on the so-called National States Rights Party ticket, with segregationist terrorist J.B. Stoner, a Chattanooga native who was later convicted for a Birmingham church bombing, as his running mate. (Some sources note that extreme right-wing party, whose neo-Nazi message was too radical for most Southern segregationists, was founded in Knoxville in 1958, doubtless with Kasper’s help.) It was 1964, the year of the Johnson-Goldwater race. Though the NSRP’s motto was “America’s Largest Third Party,” a somehow unboldened Kasper, who reportedly didn’t even campaign, earned only 3,000 votes nationwide. Today, Kasper-Stoner buttons sell on eBay for about five bucks.
Kasper reportedly stayed in touch with the self-exiled Pound by mail at least until 1962. The poet never won the Nobel Prize. Though free in his beloved Italy, Pound’s final years were not happy ones, as he struggled with disease, depression, and the dilemma of whether to live with his long-suffering wife or his long-suffering mistress. But judging by the abundance of photographs of him as an old man, he enjoyed posing for a picture. He died in 1971, at the age of 86.
Pound’s connections to Kasper were only occasionally mentioned in the Knoxville press, and never with much emphasis or elaboration. Perhaps local reporters found the association too esoteric; Pound’s name was not as widely recognized as it would be in the 1960s, when his work was widely anthologized in freshman survey classes, and Pound himself was highlighted in famous memoirs and Dylan songs and numerous full-length biographies.
Still, to this day, many otherwise comprehensive civil-rights histories that describe Kasper don’t mention Pound—though almost all biographies of Pound offer extensive discussions of Kasper. Scholars are uncertain of the extent of Pound’s influence over Kasper and the events of 1956-58. “While there is no evidence that Pound told Kasper to go and do the things he did,” wrote Australian critic Noel Stock near the end of Pound’s life, “there is plenty of evidence that he used him for his own purposes during the early 1950s and was a contributing factor to his later excesses.”
Some make Pound sound like the Svengali of the Clinton riots. Others make him seem like an innocent, albeit perverse, bystander. Pound’s degree of influence may become clear if Pound’s letters to Kasper are ever found and released.
Kasper’s later years aren’t as well documented as Pound’s. This December, Oak Ridge filmmaker Steven Martin will release the documentary Walking the Trunkline: Clinton, Tennessee, 1956, which will explore Kasper’s character and won’t ignore Pound’s influence, with Martin believes was profound. To Martin, it seems significant that Kasper’s activism evaporated quickly after his correspondence with Pound ended.
In any case, after that eight-year burst of extreme fame, Kasper disappeared from sight. It’s not clear that he ever published any of the books he described to the Journal reporter. Like his colleague Ace Carter, with whom he’d talked so tough in Clinton, Kasper changed his first name in the mid-’60s around the time the Civil Rights Act and Voting Rights Act signified an end to the segregationist era. Kasper was known for the rest of his life by his first name, Fred.
British scholar Clive Webb, who is working on a book on the subject, says Kasper spent much of his life living quietly in Nashville, and went through a couple of divorces. Several we spoke to in Knoxville had significantly different opinions of Kasper’s fate, that he died young, or in Florida or Mississippi, or that Kasper was maybe still alive. Social Security records indicate Frederick John Kasper died in April, 1998, at the age of 68. Some children and ex-wives survive him.
Kasper’s story has no parallel in American history. But the strangest coda in the story belongs to Ace Carter, the tough-talking Alabama segregationist who led the segregationist demonstration in Fountain City alongside Kasper.
In 1976, an author named Forrest Carter, already famous for a book on which a popular Clint Eastwood western, The Outlaw Josie Wales , was based, wrote a memoir about a Native-American childhood called The Education of Little Tree . Reprinted in 1986, it became a heartwarming bestseller, praised as a bridge between the white and native- American races. It seemed tragic that Carter had not lived to enjoy the fullness of his success; he had died back in 1979, at the age of 53, allegedly after a fistfight with his son.
In 1991, scholars discovered that the author, Forrest Carter, was born by the name Asa Carter, and that he had once been a white supremacist of an especially angry sort. He had been a member of the Ku Klux Klan and had written pro-segregation speeches for George Wallace, allegedly including the famous “Segregation Forever” speech. Before that, he’d been a radio hatemonger who had stirred up the crowds in Clinton, Tenn.