Arnold Cohen

Civil Rights in Knoxville

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."

The school system was segregated when I was young. My first major impression, major shock, I guess, was when the Clinton High School was bombed [over the Christmas holidays the year the Clinton 12 integrated it]. My parents had just taken over the ownership of a motel on Clinton Highway. We had our first day of business, I think it was New Year's Day 1957, immediately following the bombing. We're sitting on the highway, back then you had a little booth that was two or three feet from the highway, and the only traffic the whole day was the National Guard slowly marching from Knoxville to Clinton under Eisenhower's direction. That had a tremendous message—I'd never seen a column of military. It was so everyone in Clinton would understand they were coming. I still have that recollection, I guess I was 15 at the time.

That didn't traumatize me or change me immediately, but it was certainly something that influenced me. And I think it influenced Knoxville, because Knoxville adopted a rather slow, but deliberate, and meaningful process of desegregation that worked [after that]. People don't remember. They talk about Little Rock... Little Rock was two years later. In this area, it was a real wake-up call, although we still have a long way to go.

They didn't get the perpetrators, but they did get two of the people who were behind the rabble-rousing and the Klu Klux Klan; a fellow by the name of John Kasper was prosecuted here. I went to his trial, part of one of the days, with three of my Jewish friends. Two of them were wearing Stars of David; they had more guts than I had. Everyone around us was white supremacists, it seemed like it, KKK people. But Judge Taylor conducted that trial. His bailiff was Harry Strauss, or perhaps the clerk, and he was from the Jewish community, and that was meaningful for him, and symbolic for us. The process was working.

I'm a Johnny Come Lately to the civil rights movement. I started in '81 or '82 when my rabbi sent me to cover for him at a meeting of the NCCJ (National Conference of Christians and Jews). Unlike Theotis Robinson, Harry Wiersema, Reverend Middlebrook, and the Gaiters and others, I did not have my life or financial security at risk.

But this is still a highly segregated city. Racism is here. There's still bias here. In more mature years—I'm 67—I've come to the realization that for my children and grandchildren, and for me, we need a more adequate culture of justice in this area. That's what I think those of us who are in this are trying to establish, for different motives. It's a Jewish value to have a culture of justice, because we know we survive in that. And we don't survive in a culture of injustice. And we also recognize that if any groups can be discriminated against, we're all vulnerable.

[At the regional Race Relations Center that was an outgrowth of Knoxville Project Change and Nine Counties, One Vision] we're undergoing a restructuring, and I'm the only holdover from the original. Our mission statement is now, "To promote racial harmony and justice." Previously we were saying, "To undo racism." Right now we're taking the approach—this is my interpretation—that we've got people's attention, the alarm was sounded in the '50s and '60s. And now we need to reach people in a deeper way, and we're trying to promote study circles, small groups where people can get to know each other, with personal interactions.

The Center from the beginning adopted the more inclusive concept of race, but with the understanding that dealing with black-white issues is probably the most difficult and the most needed and demanding area on a day-to-day basis. Since that time, we've had recognition of Hispanic immigration and discrimination against Hispanics, and trying to include justice for them is also of interest to us. We've also addressed issues regarding Asians and Middle Easterners, including Arabs, Muslims, Pakastani, Asian Indians and others.

An area that is very hard to address is the criminal justice system. There is such a largely disproportionate number of prisoners who are African American. And there are people out there working with that, but I don't think the society as a whole has come to grips with that. We need to be asking, "Why have we allowed a culture to be created that fosters criminal activity among that group of people?"

Something we haven't addressed in this city very well—we know it's happened—is the effect of city planning and governmental decisions. The one that long-time Knoxville knows about is the urban renewal, and what that really was was "urban removal," it moved black people away from downtown, right where the interstate, James White Parkway runs through now. That was a very traumatic decision... a situation that government created without adequately working through what it would do to populations. It destroyed the neighborhoods, it destroyed the community. Now, we wonder why we've got problems? There are historical reasons. And it's not enough to say that it's the past, that it's behind us.

It's not behind us. We're living with it.


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