A Little Slice Of Heaven: Race, Class, and the Making of the "Best Place"

Bloomburg Businessweek has rated Signal Mountain as the best place in Tennessee to raise kids. The Chattanooga Times Free Press, reporting on the "Best in Small Towns" designation, noted that the median family income on Signal Mountain is $100,726 - more than double the national average - and that "All three of Signal Mountain's public schools -- Nolan and Thrasher elementary schools and Signal Mountain Middle/High School -- got all A's in the state school report card for math, reading, social studies and science test results". The schools have help, and a lot of it. They are amply funded thanks in large part to the Mountain Education Foundation, which is explicitly devoted to raising private donations that are then used to ensure that teachers and students have all the resources they need in the pursuit of a balanced liberal arts education.

But for all its wealth and beauty, Signal Mountain did fall short in one particular area of concern for the "Best in Small Towns" designation - diversity. The Chattanooga Times Free Press mentions, tacked on to the end of the article as an almost begrudging aside, that "In the 2010 census, 97.5 percent of the residents on Signal Mountain were white -- the second highest of any city of more than 5,000 people in all of Tennessee."

This should lead us to ask, if Signal Mountain is the "best small town in Tennessee", then WHO exactly is it best for?

Well, Bryon de la  Beckwith for one. After two failed attempts by all-white juries in Mississippi to return a conviction, Beckwith was finally found guilty in 1994 of the cold-blooded assassination of Civil Rights activist and Missisippi field secretary for the NAACP, Medgar Evers. From his perch in the bushes, Beckwith shot Evers in the back with a high powered rifle as Evers was walking from the driveway to his front door on June 12, 1963.

Known as "DEE-lay" to his KKK friends, Beckwith was a brazen white supremacist. Journalists from around the country all reported that Beckwith loved nothing more than to spew vicious racial tirades against Black folks and Jews within minutes of meeting anyone who was white and willing to lend him an ear. Beckwith was also notorious for openly bragging about having killed Medgar Evers, a tendency that would come back to haunt him in his 1994 trial.

In interviews with the media, Beckwith famously described Signal Mountain as "paradise" and a "little slice of heaven", because of how thoroughly segregated the community was - thanks in part to the past activities of white supremacist organizations, like the Ku Klux Klan and White Citizens' Council, and the ongoing activities of institutions like banks, which have historically refused to lend money to People of Color.

During his third and final trial, business owners, politicians and citizens of Signal Mountain tried to publicly distance themselves from Beckwith and the very explicit variation of white supremacy that he represented, making him out to be an anachronistic oddity. And to some degree he probably was. The KKK, with their penchant for violence and murder, had long since gone out of vogue on the national stage and in elite circles. That does not mean that the Klan ceased to exist, it has existed all throughout the 20th century and continues to exist even now, occasionally in a very public way. Take for example when, in the 1950s, Chattanooga was publicly shamed in Time Magazine for allowing a local softball team to be sponsored by the white terrorist organization.

Photo from Time Magazine featuring  the KKK sponsored local softball team.
More recently, in 1980, a local chapter of the Klan grabbed international media attention when four Black women walking on Martin Luther King Boulevard were blasted with shotgun shells by three Klansmen after they had just burned a cross in Alton Park. Two of the Klansmen were acquitted and one was given a slap-on-the-wrist assault charge by an all white Chattanooga jury.

Photo of shooting victims taken from the April, 1980 Chattanooga Times. All of the women survived the shooting.
In the 1950s, the Klan was supplanted with the more public-relations friendly White Citizens' Council, which was still an explicit white supremacist organization, but sought its ends through more publicly acceptable means, like supporting segregationist Governor George Wallace for President - as they did locally in a packed-out rally held in the Memorial Auditorium in 1963.

The Chattanooga Citizens Council, formed locally for the purpose of keeping schools segregated and supporting the continued criminalization of "race mixing," had a heavy influence in Chattanooga for a time and, like the Klan before it, counted many of Chattanooga's most powerful and prestigious luminaries among its ranks. In fact, in 1966 the national convening of the White Citizens' Council was held at the Read House in downtown Chattanooga and was attended by delegates from twenty states. Dr. Revilo Oliver was the keynote speaker, delivering a message that desegregation was "unfair to children of both races" because Black children, "due to their innate intellectual inferiority," could never learn in the same manner and to the same degree as white children. Dr. Olvier was introduced to the podium, bearing the "States Rights, Racial Integrity" motto with cross-staffed Confederate and Union flags, by Dr. James Park McCallie, founder of McCallie School - one of the "best" places for children in Chattanooga to get an education.

Eventually, even the White Citizens' Councils became socially unacceptable among elite circles. But that does not mean that racism and classism did.

Take for example:

  • Urban renewal destroyed hundreds of local Black businesses and homes, robbing Chattanooga's Black community of generations of accumulated wealth while providing a windfall to developers, construction firms, and white labor unions. 
  • In 1990 a federal court ruled that the City of Chattanooga's form of government was inherently racist and had to be re-structured.
  • In the last few years, our local governments have promised to pony-up $200 million in subsidies for Volkswagon in return for jobs, while dramatically cutting funding for our social welfare agencies and refusing to finance public transportation for low-income people (and anyone without a car) so they could apply for those very jobs. 
  • With a foundation to rival that of Signal Mountain, Normal Park Magnet Museum School is lauded as one of the "best" schools in the nation, but absolutely refuses to allow the multi-racial working-class neighborhood of Hill City back into the zone for its community school, forcing families that live within a stone's throw of Normal Park, and that often are without or have limited access to their own vehicle, to bus their children to Red Bank, which has no public bus system.
In instance after instance, what is "best" - the places to live, the schools to attend, major public policy decisions - comes at an implicit cost to others who don't seem to count, because they are Black and/or poor. Thankfully, the passage of time makes the events of the past seem shockingly obvious - a Klan sponsored softball team, Dr. James McCallie introducing the keynote speaker at the national convening of the White Citizens' Council in Chattanooga, an all white jury acquitting Klansmen who admit to blasting innocent women in a drive-by shooting after burning a cross in a Black neighbhorhood, a form of local government that largely excludes and disenfranchises minorities, Byron de la Beckwith living on Signal Mountain and openly bragging about murdering a Civil Rights leader.

But, at the time of all these events, they were often not seen by a large number of the white public as really being a problem - or, at least, as being in any way their problem. This is how insidious racism and classism works. It's a reminder that things are not always what they seem, and what we take for granted as daily life can and should be challenged, by all of us.

History is there for us to learn from. To grow into the people we can and should be, we must begin asking ourselves very difficult questions and then look to our history for possible answers in the present. Like the question I asked at the beginning of this post, but slightly re-worded: how is it that Signal Mountain, the "best small town in Tennessee" is such a great place to live for so many people, like Byron de la Beckwith, but not People of Color? Byron de la Beckwith lauded Signal Mountain for being one of the most segregated towns in Tennessee - could it be that he was just more honest than the people living there about the consequences of decades of decisions made in the name of what was seen, at the time, as "best"?