By SHAE JOHNSON
Thomas Merton defined kairos as “the time of urgent and providential decision,” a time that involves the risk of crisis. This sense of kairos, particularly here in the South, has much if not everything to do with race and religion. These things are bound to our identities as Southerners, whether accurately or stereotypically. They have been wellsprings of goodness and grace, and they have suffered as objects of hatred and ignorance. Always they have required response. Kairos and Crisis hopes to be one such response, seeking nothing less than healing for our places, our neighbors and ourselves.
In the absence of charity, absurdity prevails. This absurdity comes in many forms, from the bullying epidemic to war. We know from our history and recent issues that it even manifests in inequality among races. The lack of esteem toward people of color is appalling, and I cannot imagine the fear and uncertainty that comes with being looked down upon and shamed because of my race. I cannot fathom the ideas society uses to justify violence and injustice targeting African-Americans.
While attending the Appalachian Young Writers Workshop in late June of 2015, I visited Clinton, Tennessee, a town I had never been to or even heard of before the workshop’s field trip. The town was divided by train tracks and seemed out of place, filled with old buildings of high, detailed facades. Clinton’s charm left me wondering what it was once like.
We made the journey to assimilate events and ideas of the past with our thoughts on serious issues occurring in our own time. For that reason, we attended a lecture at the Green McAdoo Cultural Center where the president of the organization, Eugene Gallaher, introduced the story of African-American students from Clinton—now known as the Clinton 12—who helped change the course of history.
While learning this story, I attempted to comprehend the injustice inflicted on black people that continues even today. Packed into a historic classroom with repainted, haint-blue walls and refurbished floors, I pondered this problem and its collective burden.
Mr. Gallaher—who had endured segregation in Clinton and subsequently dedicated his time at Green McAdoo to teach visitors of the events that unfolded there in 1956—spoke to our group with passion, raising my awareness. He told us that Clinton’s high school was the first to be integrated in the segregated South. In fact, he was one of the courageous students facing the injustice of racism, though younger than members of the Clinton 12 at the time. Their reverence is described by the Green McAdoo Cultural Center: “Fifty years ago, 12 young people from East Tennessee walked into history and changed the world.” This was the beginning of a revolution for equality.
Although the twelve teenagers and so many others faced undeserved conflict, the transition progressed as smoothly as could be expected until someone bombed the school and left it destroyed. No one was harmed, fortunately. But no one was arrested for the crime. If these students had not been dauntless in integrating their high school, they would have been forced to travel nearly twenty miles to attend school in Knoxville, Tennessee, simply for not being accepted in their hometown.
The school system of Little Rock, Arkansas, thanks to the courage of the Little Rock 9, is sometimes regarded as the first to be integrated; however, the school integration in Clinton preceded the events in Little Rock by a year. Regardless, all 21 of these students, from Tennessee and Arkansas, exhibited such integrity and determination facing the trials of the time, and I admire them, believing they should receive further recognition for their bravery and endurance.
As Eugene Gallaher proceeded with the accounts of Clinton, he told our group of the moment he claimed his freedom back from the Jim Crow laws. I remember it this way: He was in sixth grade. Clinton was scattered with “Whites Only” signs; the colored population was treated as third class merely due to their skin color. Eugene Gallaher and a friend decided to seize their rights.
The boys went to a diner, ordered bubbling soda with meals, and sat down at a counter where “blacks” were not served. The exceptional man recalled the pride he felt, and I can imagine him marching out the doors with a new confidence adorning his face.
Violence, on one hand, keeps me aware and passionate, but, on the other, sickens me. I find it inconceivable that such barbarous actions could be inflicted on an innocent population. Even today, the difference society makes between people of color and white Americans is evident through matters ranging from insensitive jokes to stereotyping to discriminatory treatment. It is time to lay aside that difference. The gentleman from that old, small schoolhouse that he once called his own put it this way, “We are all one nation, under one flag.”