As published by the Daily News Journal, Sunday, June 26, 2011
By Greg Tucker, President Rutherford County Historical Society
Professionals entrusted with meeting the needs of children do not resort to labor union tactics, strikes and picket lines – except as a last resort. Then they win!
In summer of 1956, Sen. Estes Kefauver (D-TN) was campaigning for the Presidential nomination. Young Frank Clement, Tennessee’s first governor elected to a four-year term, the youngest governor in the country and a rising star on the national scene, was set to make the keynote address at the Democratic National Convention.
Communities across the south and around the country were struggling with demands and requirements for school desegregation. Cold war fears were mounting (federal employees in Washington were practicing evacuation to secret bomb shelters) and President Dwight Eisenhower was hospitalized recovering from a stroke. In Rutherford County the concerns and requests of the Rutherford Education Association, representing the teachers in the segregated whites-only county schools, were unheeded.
Money was the issue. Teachers statewide were anticipating a modest pay increase from state funds, but local jurisdictions were being asked for “supplemental pay.” The Murfreesboro City Schools system agreed to provide a supplement for its teachers (including an out-of-system supplement for the principal and coach at Central High, according to the REA history published in 2001). The Cannon County teachers were also given a supplemental raise. The REA-proposed parity with the Murfreesboro teachers would cost the county at least an additional $60,000 annually (budget impact projections ranged from $60,000 to $90,000).
The REA request, supported by the school board, came before the Quarterly Court on July 10, 1956, in what the newspaper described as one of the “hottest” and most “impassioned” sessions on record. The courthouse and grounds were packed with supporters. Messages were passed out the windows to media representatives from around the state. County Judge Shelton Edwards, an opponent of the measure, presided and the teachers got nothing.
“Too much obvious pressure!”
Rallying the teachers and their supporters, REA President Myers Parsons (a Central High agriculture instructor) demanded a “Special Call” session of the county court to reconsider the supplemental pay request. A resolution for a special session on the “school problems” was delivered to Edwards on Aug. 8, 1956. Showing little sympathy for the teachers, Edwards refused to authorize a call session and insisted that the teachers should wait for further help from the next session of the state legislature.
On Aug. 28, 1956, Parsons assembled the REA membership for a strategy session. By now the controversy had attracted national media attention and representatives of organized labor were making unsolicited recommendations. “Strike” was the focus of discussion and individual school caucuses were held on the question. County Schools Superintendent Ira Daniels counseled against a walkout or work stoppage of any kind. The members finally delegated the decision to a committee of seven appointed and chaired by Parsons with the understanding that the REA members would all participate if the decision was to strike.
When the county schools opened on September 4, 1956, the REA leadership announced that the teachers would strike on October 10, 1956 if the County Court did not approve the supplemental pay request when it next convened on Oct. 8, 1956. As the deadline approached, Edwards issued a lengthy public statement insisting that the teachers should wait for the state legislature to provide additional funds and should not ask the Quarterly Court to impose additional burden on county taxpayers.
Edwards further argued that “it is not constructive to the welfare of our children for the school teachers to threaten to strike, to walk out, to sit down or use another method to deny the children of our county the privilege of receiving training.” Apparently convinced that the REA would back down on their threats, Edwards attempted to explain why the pay demands would not be met, but in so doing he defined the key to REA success: “Our County Court will not vote these taxes on our people unless they have extreme pressure brought to bear on them.”
Parsons immediately dismissed Edwards’ position saying that “the people of Rutherford County understand that there is no connection between the teachers’ request for immediate supplemental pay” and some possible future action by the state legislature.
Also in response to Edwards’ statement, The Daily News Journal editorialized that it would be “a tragedy if this projected strike were allowed to take place.” On the underlying issue, however, the newspaper was ambivalent: “This is not the time for a playing of politics … or the calling of names, it is rather a time for compassion and compromise on the part of the teachers and the court. It is a time for leadership on both sides.”
In apparent desperation just before the issue was to be reconsidered, Superintendent Daniels released “An Open Letter” quoting scripture, citing the “Great Apostle,” and predicting that the county magistrates “will cast aside all political aspects” and approve the supplemental pay. His prophecy proved wrong.
On October 8, 1956, the County Court failed to even consider the teachers’ specific proposal, and resoundingly rejected a magistrate-proposed compromise. On Wednesday, October 10, 1956, schools were shut down. With virtually 100 percent of the teachers on strike, 5,500 county school students were suddenly “on vacation.” (The 15 segregated “Negro schools” and the MTSC training school were unaffected.)
Students picketed in front of Central High and at Edwards home in support of the strike.
Calls and parents were streaming into Edwards’ courthouse office demanding that something be done, according to newspaper reports. The “extreme pressure was brought to bear” and Edwards was one of several targets. Citizen groups around the county, encouraged by the REA, were pressing the teachers’ cause on magistrates who had voted against the supplemental pay measure. Private contributions were building a “strike fund” and local attorneys offered free legal services in support of the teachers.
(Meanwhile, the National Guard was deployed in East Tennessee to quell mob violence against desegregation of the high school in Clinton, and presidential candidate Adlai Stevenson pledged to halt H-bomb tests if elected.)
Under pressure from the REA and the school board, and seemingly overwhelmed by the voter outcry in support of the teachers, County Court opposition collapsed. A resolution approving an additional $84,000 was hurriedly drawn and approved. The teachers got all they asked for. On October 17, 1956, students were back in class having enjoyed an extra week of vacation and a good lesson in representative democracy.
A month later, Judge Edwards convened a Special Session of the County Court to determine how the additional expense was to be funded. An attempt to adjourn the session without a decision resulted in a tie vote. In what proved to be his last official act, Edwards cast his tie-breaker vote against adjournment.
On December 20, 1956, Judge Shelton Edwards, a great nephew of Confederate Boy Hero Sam Davis, died of a heart attack.
When the Special Session was resumed with newly-elected Judge James Threet presiding, the Court authorized revenue bonds to finance the commitment made to the striking teachers.
Greg Tucker can be reached at email@example.com.