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Part 2

A GREATER FAIRNESS: MAY JUSTUS AS POPULAR EDUCATOR

By George W. Loveland
Ferrum College

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Part 2

Integrationists in Tennessee, with the legal support of the NAACP, had been making slow but steady progress for four years when, in 1954, the U.S. Supreme Court ordered public schools to proceed “with all deliberate speed” to desegregate. The trench battles were violent, with taunts and threats directed at children and teenagers, armed National Guardsmen in the schools, and a series of bombings. The initial Tennessee desegregation suit in 1950 was filed on behalf of four black parents in Clinton. The case dragged on until after the Supreme Court’s decision and in 1956, Judge Robert Taylor of the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ordered that Tennessee would have to obey the federal ruling and open its whites only schools to blacks. The White Citizens’ Council organized resistance to the ruling, forcing Governor Clement to call out 600 National Guardsmen to enforce the court order and attempt to keep peace at Clinton High School. Septima Clark visited Clinton and invited the black students to Highlander for a weekend retreat. The following year, after Bobby Cain became the first black American to graduate from a public high school, his alma mater, Clinton High School, was nearly leveled by three bomb blasts (Welcome to Tennessee; Glen, 1996, p. 168).

In Nashville, another suit won a group of thirteen black elementary students the right to attend five different elementary schools. White parents resisted by keeping nearly half of the white students home from school. Within a month, the passive resistance turned to open violence when one of the elementary schools, the brand new Hattie Cotton School, was nearly destroyed by a bomb (Welcome to Tennessee).

Segregationists turned their ire on Highlander. They dredged up an old and familiar charge commonly used in the South against those who favored integration: they were either Communists or were under their control. By 1959, the national scourge of McCarthyism was subsiding, its namesake formally censured by the Congress and two years dead. But the state of Tennessee decided to use this tried and true method to close Highlander. It started with a visit to Tennessee’s state legislature by Arkansas attorney general Bruce Bennett. Bennett warned the legislators that they were in danger from the subversives pushing for integration over at Highlander and offered his services to help close the school. The legislators seized the opportunity and appointed a committee comprised of Senator Lawrence T. Hughes and Representatives Harry Lee Senter and T. Allen Hanover to conduct two days of hearings in Tracy City. Using the strategies of the federal House Un-American Activities Committee, the committee called numerous Highlander associates to the stand, exposing them as members of “Communist front” organizations and the school itself as part of a vast international Communist conspiracy. Among those called were James Dombrowski, the former Methodist minister who had become director of the Southern Conference for Human Welfare, Lucian Koch, former president of Commonwealth College and Claude Williams, a Presbyterian minister who had worked closely with the CIO’s efforts to organize Southern workers. Also called to the stand was Highlander’s secretary-treasurer and long-time supporter, May Justus (Adams, 1975, pp. 127-130).

Most people would have understood had Miss Justus chosen to keep a low profile. After all, she would have to live among the people of Grundy County long after the committee had left. She was committed to her local Presbyterian church, most of whose members disapproved of her relationship with Highlander, even as they loved and respected her personally. But this would have been out of character for May Justus. She thought of the children at that church, whom she had tried to teach in Sunday school that one had to decide early in life which side, good or evil, she would be on. She remembered having told them, “The sooner you get in the habit of doing what you know is right in your heart, the better it will be.” Looking back on her decision to testify, she said:

I had never been to a trial in my life. You know, someone has said that the reason there is so much trouble in the world is because nobody [on the side of good speaks out.] Those on the side of evil are wrong and they’re very vociferous about expressing themselves. I’ve always felt that we should speak out [on how we feel about things happening around us] (Wigginton interview, pp. 34-35).

Frank Adams (1975) describes Miss Justus on the stand in his book Unearthing Seeds of Fire:

May Justus … was asked by the committee’s lawyer … if she approved of blacks and whites dancing together. “I see nothing immoral about it,” she said. “It’s a square dance. I can look at television any time and see worse than that.”

“Don’t you know it’s against the law for whites and colored to marry in Tennessee?” he retorted.

“Yes, sir, but I didn’t know that a square dance was part of a marriage ceremony,” she replied.

He changed the subject and asked about her knowledge of Highlander’s charter. “It says here one of your purposes is to train rural and industrial leaders. Have you ever issued any diplomas to rural and industrial leaders that you know of?”

“I didn’t know diplomas were required for rural and industrial leaders.”

Remarks of this nature won for her permission to stand aside (p. 128-129).

Scott Bates, a Professor of French at University of the South, long-time Highlander board member, and close friend of Miss Justus, felt that she was asked to step aside because she was turning the local crowd, whom the committee had hoped to manipulate, against the proceedings.

They were a bunch of rubes and she knew it. Their mistake was to begin badgering her. The sympathies of the audience began to swing against these “outsiders” who were coming into the community, attacking this fine lady who had taught many of them and their children to read. They began to see the committee as outsiders coming in and badgering one of their ladies (personal interview, February 19, 2000).

The committee had come to town ready to expose left-wing sectarian subversives, to portray them as outside agitators. They had no idea how to deal with a popular educator whose most radical ideas sprang from the very values of the people they were trying to manipulate.

May Justus remembered her own experience in Nashville, the personal insult that she had felt when her friend Septima Clark was treated as an inferior human for attempting to ride down on a “white” elevator. She remembered that she had felt “…on the side of the angels” when she had stood up to her state government’s attempt to publicly humiliate her because of her long friendship with Highlander. The bombing of the Hattie Cotton School, “…distressed me very much—to think that that thing could be,” Miss Justus recalled. This was, after all, a woman who had devoted her entire life to educating children. “I wanted to do something. I thought, ‘Well, I can’t demonstrate or do anything to show that I disapprove of the school being bombed, or about violence happening that way. So I thought and thought about it, and I decided I’d write a book. New Boy in School (1963) is derived from that incident” (Wigginton interview, p. 37). May Justus had become what one historian later called an “inside agitator,” one of those Southerners whose roots drew their nourishment from the region’s best values: a strong and broad sense of community, boundless generosity, a willingness to help all who suffer, and a deep faith in a God who would never forsake those who would stand for right (Chappell, 1994). In the words of Paulo Freire (1970), she became the true radical who “…enters into reality, so that, knowing it better, [s]he can better transform it (p. 24).

New Boy in School is dedicated to Robin, Jonathan, David and Samuel Bates, the children of her friend Scott Bates (Justus, 1963, dedication page). These children, who had grown up around Miss Justus, were the co-plaintiffs along with several black children in a suit to desegregate the public schools of Franklin County, Tennessee. The suit may have been the first time that white parents claimed infringement of their fourteenth amendment rights because their children had been denied the right to go to school with black children. It claimed that both white children and black children “…are injured by being subjected to the inherent evil and inequality of said racial segregation in the public schools, which results in daily indoctrination of the white infant plaintiffs with concepts of themselves as a superior race, while the Negro infant plaintiffs are subjected to said indoctrination classifying them as an inferior race” (Hixon, 1962). Ophelia Miller, principal of Franklin County’s black elementary school, supported the suit, and Miss Justus had visited the black school to read stories to the children and had befriended Miller (S. Bates, personal interview, February 19, 2000). So beyond the Bates children, her audience for New Boy in School was all the children and adults at the white school and the black school where she had read her books. It was the children and parents at the Hattie Cotton School, which had been dynamited by one of her fellow Tennesseeans, who had chosen to become a terrorist rather than a good neighbor. It did not lecture or moralize about the need for revolutionary social change. It simply showed how some white folks in Nashville, the kind of folks she had lived around all her life, might choose to act when their schools were integrated and how much better life might be if they would simply respond to the positive and constructive values of their culture.

New Boy in School is the story of a black elementary school child who moves from Louisiana to Nashville, Tennessee and enters a newly integrated school. Like the white Appalachian children in Miss Justus’s earlier books, Lennie Lane is isolated from the dominant culture through no fault of his own. Instead of a money-poor Appalachian white who is rich in folk knowledge and art, this time the child is a single seven-year-old African American boy facing, not only the adjustment of starting a new school in a new town, but also being the only black child in his class.

Miss Justus makes it easy to connect with Lennie. His father is a construction worker whose crew is forced to move to a new town every time the previous job is finished. The family is strong and supportive of his efforts to provide better homes and opportunities for them. Lennie likes school, but is afraid of his new situation, as when his father explains to him what an integrated school is:

“What does integrated mean?” Lennie asked.

“That means it is a school where Negro children and white children study and play together,” the father explained.

“Yes,” said the teacher. “There are other Negro children in the school, but you are the only one in this room.”

Lennie felt too shy to say what he was thinking. He was wishing that at least half the children in that room had brown faces instead of white.

“You’ll feel more at home with us later,” Miss Baker said, smiling down at him as if she understood (Justus, 1963, pp. 12-13).

Here are Southern white folks acting with compassion instead of confrontation. It shows a faith in the capacity of people to seek out common humanity when confronted with people who at first seem different, rather than focusing on the differences. May Justus invites the children reading the book (and the adults who might be reading it to the children) to practice the Golden Rule. How do you think it would feel, she asks, to be Lennie?

But it’s the children who are the real heroes of this book. Lennie’s classmate Terry invites Lennie to look at the clay horse he has made and Lennie finally responds to this spontaneous act of friendship by molding a clay rider for the horse. This friendship opens the door to other friendships in the school and as more and more of Lennie’s talents and interests surface it becomes clear that he has more in common with the white students than he has differences. Finally, he thinks:

It did not seem to matter any more that he was the only Negro boy in Miss Baker’s room. Indeed, the color of his skin seemed of no more importance now than the color of his clothes. Lennie was happy. His parents were happy (Justus, 1963, p. 33).

The happiness is short-lived, though. The class is due to have a Parents Day Program, at which the students will perform. Lennie is terrified at the prospect of his parents coming to the school, still feeling different and also ashamed that he won’t have anything to perform like the other children. His father cheers him up by taking down his banjo and singing the folk song, “I Wish I was an Apple…” The next day Lennie teaches the song to Terry, and the other students ask the teacher if they can sing it for the Parents Day Program. They do, and their performance steals the show:

Almost before the song was done the people started cheering. Lennie was so excited he nearly forgot to bow, but then he remembered his manners. A good thing he did, because Terry had nearly forgotten, too! When Lennie bowed, Terry bowed. Then they both bowed together (Justus, 1963, p. 52).

Later, moved by stories of black families barred from white neighborhoods, and “…property values going down when a Negro family moved into a [white] community…,”Miss Justus decided to address the question of integrated housing. In 1966, she came out with A New Home for Billy, “…about a Negro family who doesn’t have a decent house to live in (Wigginton interview, p. 37). Like Lennie’s family, Billy’s is in search of a wholesome family atmosphere, in this case a safer neighborhood. And like Lennie, Billy has a color-blind friendship with a white boy, Fred. A difference in this book, though, is that the child openly confronts racism. Billy and his father go out searching for a house to rent. When they come upon a man nailing up a sign reading “For Rent or Sale,” Billy shouts:

“Look, Daddy, look!” What a nice little house! I wish that we could live there.”

His father stopped the truck. “Well, we can ask about it.”

“We are looking for a house to rent,” he called above the hammering sound.

“This is a bargain,” the man said, not looking over his shoulder till he had given a final tap to the nail he was driving. When he did look around he nearly fell of the ladder.

“I—I—I don’t rent or sell property to colored people,” he said. “This is an all-white neighborhood.” He stared at the ground as if he were ashamed to look straight at Billy’s father.

Billy wondered what his father would say. But he did not say anything. He just gave the man a long, long look.

“Come on, son,” he said softly. “I guess we stopped at the wrong sign.”

Billy was puzzled. As they drove away he turned to his father.

“What did that man mean, Daddy? Why didn’t he like us?”

“It’s hard to explain, son,” his father replied. “There no good reason to it—but some folks don’t like other folks because of the color of their skins.”

Billy thought this over, but he could not understand it,.

“Fred is white—and I am brown,” he said, “but I like him, and he likes me.”

His father nodded and smiled. “Yes,” he said, “you and Fred are very sensible boys. And you are not alone. Lots of other folks agree with you" (Justus, 1966, p. 19).

The father’s wise perspective beckons the reader. “You are not alone” if you follow your best natural human instincts and love your neighbors without regard to the color of their skin. “Lots of other folks agree with you.”

Billy and his father finally find a house that is the perfect size, and in a pleasant neighborhood, but which needs a good deal of work. The father works out a deal with the owner; he will make repairs to the house in exchange for a reduction in rent. When he is injured at work and unable to complete the repairs, the white community finally behaves the way decent white folks should and rallies to the aid of Billy’s family.

News must have got around the neighborhood of what was going on at the Allen’s. People kept coming in all morning—men, women, children, even a few friendly dogs.

The men came dressed for work. Most of them brought paint brushes with them. The women brought baskets full of food.

The men went to work all around the house. The women went into the kitchen. The children and dogs rolled and romped in the back yard.

At noon lunch was spread on the grassy ground in the shade of the apple tree. Men, women, children, and dogs all gathered around. Everyone seemed to be hungry and happy (Justus, 1966, p. 54).

Bigotry and racism can be overcome through working together. To show us the way, Miss Justus does not call for radical social transformation or staunch unquestioning conservatism, those two imposters that Paulo Freire called “sectarian,” and that isolate the educator from the masses of people. She is calling on her fellow whites to recognize the fact that black people and white people share a common set of values, that they already agree on the things that are important, a strong family, loving parents, and a strong community that pulls together in difficult times.

When May Justus was teaching children to respect their Appalachian traditions and live up to their responsibilities to their communities, she did it by simply demonstrating how folks ought to behave. Here is a child; here is the child in a conflict between her own wants and the good of the community; here is the child making the right decision, putting the community above her own wants. When she looked around and saw her fellow white Southerners acting out of racial hatred she decided to began teaching white children and black children how to live in peace together. She used her familiar formula. Here is a black child and a white child. Here is the black child in a newly integrated school or neighborhood. Here is the white child making the right decision, befriending the black child. As the New Bedford, Massachusetts Standard-Times said shortly after their publication, the books, “…confirm a belief small fry usually take for granted until adults get at them: Prejudice is for the birds" (New Boy in School).

May Justus died in 1989. Three years later, Eliot Wigginton published Refuse to Stand Silently By, a collection of interviews with grassroots activists who had passed through Highlander. The list includes people enshrined in official histories, such as Rosa Parks, Julian Bond, Andrew Young, and Pete Seeger. It includes others who devoted their lives to creating a just and equitable society working quietly, behind the scenes. Much of the May Justus interview used in this paper is included in this collection. Wigginton (1991) sums up what May Justus meant to the hundreds of people she knew and the untold number that she influenced by the example of her life.

From her Grundy County home, she watched most of the people in this book come and go. As a good teacher and writer, she gleaned from them—drawing upon the strength of their ideas while gradually discarding concepts that time and experience proved to be weak. A white Southern woman lacking early relationships with blacks, she solidly embraced integration in her final novels. And a Grundy County resident, she embodied Highlander’s spirit long after the institution moved elsewhere.

In a sense, then, May Justus was the type of person that Myles Horton and Ralph Tefferteller, E. D. Nixon and Septima Clark, Andrew Young and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., all sought after: one whose mind could conquer prejudice, whose heart could embrace humanness, and whose actions could demonstrate a greater fairness (p. 334).

If May Justus were teaching in the public school system today, what would she tell those children with the cartoon characters sewn onto their backpacks and tee-shirts? That these items were made by children like them who are forced to work in slave-like conditions so that greedy corporate CEOs can make huge profits? Would she tell them that when you talk or read in school is not nearly so important as what you say or read? Or that walking in a straight line is not nearly so important as walking in your neighbor’s shoes? No, she would probably write a book…a book about a little girl at a public school just like this one…

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References

Adams, F. (1990). Highlander Research and Education Center. In M. J. Buhle, P. Buhle & D. Georgakas (Eds.), Encyclopedia of the American Left (pp. 26-27). Urbana: University of Illinois Press.

Adams, F., with M. Horton. (1975). Unearthing seeds of fire: The idea of Highlander. Winston Salem, NC: John F. Blair.

Chappell, D. L. (1994). Inside agitators: White southerners in the Civil Rights Movement. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.

Freire, P. (1970). Pedagogy of the Oppressed. (M. Bergman, Trans.). New York: Continuum.

Glen, J. M. (1996). Highlander: No ordinary school. (2nd ed.). Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press.

Hixon, F. (June, 1962). Franklin is sued over school bias. Chattanooga Times. Exact date and page unknown. Clipping archived at Harry Lasker Library, Highlander Research and Education Center, New Market, TN.

Horton, M., with J. Kohl & H. Kohl. (1998). The long haul: An autobiography. New York: Teachers College Press.

Hurst, J. (1995, Spring). Popular Education: A powerful tool. Educator. Retrieved December 30, 1999 from the World Wide Web: http://www-gse.berkeley.edu/Admin/ExtRel/educator/spring95texts/popular.educ.html.

Justus, M. (1943). Jerry Jake carries on. Chicago: Albert Whitman & Co.

Justus, M. (1947). Lizzie. Chicago: Albert Whitman & Co.

Justus, M. (1963). New boy in school. New York: Hastings House.

Justus, M. (1966). A new home for Billy. New York: Hastings House.

Justus, M. (1956). Use your head, Hildy. New York: Henry Holt & Co.

New boy in school. Standard-Times, New Bedford, MA. Exact date and page unknown. Copies of this review archived at the New York State Library, Department of Education and Harry Lasker Library, Highlander Research and Education Center, New Market, TN.

Shaull, R. (1970). Forward. In Freire, P. Pedagogy of the Oppressed. (M. Bergman, Trans.). New York: Continuum.

Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948). Available online at The United Nations. http://www.un.org.

Welcome to Tennessee. Retrieved March 2, 2000 from the World Wide Web: http://www.state.tn.us.

Wigginton, E. [Interview with May Justus]. Transcript archived at Harry Lasker Library, Highlander Research and Education Center, New Market, TN.

Wigginton, E. (Ed.). (1991). Refuse to stand silently by: An oral history of grass roots social activism in America. New York: Doubleday.

See also Links and References on May Justus.


Lyrics to traditional variants of the folk song "I Wish I was an Apple" (also called "Cindy" and "Shady Grove") are on the web pages listed below (and others). As in other stories, Justus gives the lyrics to the song within her book New Boy in School:

I wish I was an apple,

An apple on a tree,

I'd hang so high nobody,

Could climb up after me.

I wish I was a redbird,

A redbird in a tree.

I'd fly so high nobody

Could throw a rock at me.

I wish I was a squirrel,

A squirrel in a tree.

I'd hide so quick no hunter

Could take a shot at me.

Back to place in article where song is mentioned


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