Knoxville's Civil Rights Fighters

Local activists recall the horros and the heroes in East Tennessee's struggle against racism

When Barack Obama is sworn in Jan. 20, Shirley Carr Clowney of Maryville will be in the audience. "A black man being elected as president of these United States of America… I am so excited, and looking forward to actually being there," says Carr Clowney. "I don't want to see it on television. I want to be a part of history."

She should add "again" to the end of that sentence. Just 18, she was one of six who reintegrated Maryville College in 1954 after a 50-year "whites only" policy. And the Knoxville Presidential Inauguration Celebration Committee will recognize this achievement, and those of dozens of other area civil rights pioneers who paved the way for the election of a black president, at a non-partisan breakfast and ceremony on the 20th.

These men and women risked comfort, financial security, and sometimes safety to chip away at barriers: segregated high schools, restaurants, movie theaters, and hospitals, to name a few. Some weren't aware of the significance of their actions and sacrifices in the moment; others were accidental or reluctant participants, drawn into history at someone else's decree, or because of a chance encounter. From 96-year-old Sarah Moore Greene, the first black member of the Knoxville school board, to 67-year-old Arnold Cohen, a Knoxville attorney being honored for his work on a Race Relations committee begun just six years ago, those being recognized have together covered the spectrum of civil rights activities: sit-ins, voter registrations, and letter-writing to arrest, jail time, and standing up with Martin Luther King Jr.

This inauguration is not the end of the road, they'll tell you. They'll celebrate, and congratulate, and then they'll go get busy again. Before they do, five of those being honored—four East Tennessee natives and one not-so-recent transplant—paused to recall how they lived their lives in the days of segregation, and how they came to do something about it.

Avon Rollins

Retired Tennessee Valley Authority executive, current director of Beck Cultural Exchange Center, founding member of national Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC)

I was literally born right across the street from the Civic Coliseum at 505 Church Street. The doctor would come to the residence to deliver in those days. One of the interesting things is—I guess the year was maybe '63 or '64, whenever they saluted Knoxville as an All-American city—they arrested me right across from the Coliseum. Along with Marion Barry and 10 others.

I can remember my little brother, who was 11 years younger than me, so at that time he must have been 11 years old or so, and he went inside and put on his suit, and came and tried to get me out of jail. That really bothered him to see me being put in cuffs and thrown in a patrol car and driven away. Read More.

Shirley Carr Clowney

Retired educator, Executive Director African Americans of Appalachia and Blount County, member of the Maryville Six, who re-integrated Maryville College after 50 years in 1954

I lived in Alcoa. I was born in Maryville. I'm a native of this area. I had just turned 18. Mr. J. Harris Fowler, the former principal of Hale High School, a black school in Maryville, was a cousin of mine and encouraged me and my neighbor Queen Crossing, who lived next door to him, to enroll at Maryville College. Now as for me, our family always was ready. My father went to the fourth grade, that's the highest grade that he attended. He always wanted us to go to school, to further our education. Read More.

Felix and Margaret Gaiter

He's a retired contractor, first black to complete a building at Oak Ridge National Laboratory; she's a retired Knoxville schools Parent Involvement Coordinator, first president of the Beck Cultural Exchange Center Board

Felix: I was the first black to go to Oak Ridge in a restricted area. I worked at Oak Ridge when they built it, as a brick layer. I'm from Alabama, I came up here and worked and was called from here to the Army. Then I went in the Army and I served a couple years. Went to three theaters: Europe, the Philippines, and Japan. I came back here and married and worked at Oak Ridge. I knew of the injustice of the black workers out there, riding the bus and whatnot, and then I worked at KCDC, remodeling houses. I went back to school at Austin-East to get my high school diploma. I knew I had to have it. I was a grown man.

Margaret: He had a 10th grade education and went back to Austin East for night school. He graduated around the same time as our twins. Read More.

Arnold Cohen

Attorney, Vice President and Member of the Board of The Race Relations Center of East Tennessee and the Beck Cultural Exchange Center

I was born in Knoxville, grew up in North Knoxville, in North Hills, graduated from Fulton High School in 1959. I moved away for a while and came back. I really wasn't in the thick of things as far as civil rights goes back in that time. I really didn't get involved until I was a more mature adult. I am Jewish, but growing up I did not feel that I was suffering from discrimination in North Knoxville. I did have friends in West Knoxville who felt like socially they were "others." Read More.