One man's personal look at the civil rights struggle

One man's personal look at the civil rights struggle

April 14th, 2013 by Mary Helen Miller in Local Regional News

Longtime pastor of Cosmopolitan Community Church, he led desegregation of public housing in Chattanooga and fought to desegregate Erlanger hospital, Hamilton County Nursing Home and other medical centers, and founded the Mary Walker Historical and Educational Foundation, which supports reading and literacy programs.

Photo by Doug Strickland/Times Free Press.

Jubilee Coverage

Rev. John Edwards is a longtime civil rights leader who was among eight people honored Saturday for their contributions. Here are some of his recollections from the civil rights era. Hear him in his own words.

Don't look them in the eye. Don't say anything. Just look where you're going, and keep walking.

That's what the Rev. John Edwards remembers thinking as he escorted a black 6-year-old girl home from school through a mob of white people. It was Sept. 9, 1957, in Nashville, the first day of desegregation at the public schools.

A small number of black first-grade students was entering white schools for the first time. Edwards, who later moved to Chattanooga and became a pastor at Cosmopolitan Community Church, had volunteered to help walk one of the kids home.

"The white people had covered blocks and blocks, where you couldn't even see the street," Edwards said. "As we walked, a path just opened up. We didn't say a word."

There were demonstrations all over the city that day. Many white parents kept their kids home from school in protest. One Nashville school was even bombed. But Edwards said the student he was walking with made it home safe and sound.

Edwards was a civil rights pioneer on many fronts. While he was living in Nashville, he worked as pastor as well as a mail carrier. At the time, black mail carriers did not deliver mail in white neighborhoods. But when one of the white carriers went on vacation, Edwards volunteered to take over his route. The man he would fill in for gave Edwards a warning before he left town.

"Those people down on North First Street, they said if you come down there, they were going to sick their dog on you," Edwards remembers the white mail carrier telling him.

Sure enough, Edwards said, when he got to that street, there was a dog half his size waiting for him. It followed him around, but never snapped.

"I won't tell people I wasn't afraid. But I had to keep going whether I was afraid or not, because I was trying to do a cause," Edwards said.

In 1963, Edwards moved to Chattanooga and began his ministry at Cosmopolitan Community Church.

"Chattanooga was in bad shape," Edwards said, of his first years in the city.

Even after the Civil Rights Act was passed in 1964, which prohibited many kinds of discrimination, Edwards remembers inequalities. For instance, he remembers that public housing was segregated in Chattanooga, and the conditions for black people were much worse than for white people.

"Black people were living in the basement, with great big old steam pipes rolling down."

And at Erlanger hospital, as at many places in that day, he says there was a separate section for black people.

"We understood that they were not in compliance with the Civil Rights Act," Edwards said. "We wrote the Justice Department. We wrote the housing department."

Eventually, public housing and Erlanger hospital desegregated.

Edwards has been a leader in Chattanooga in many other capacities, including serving as the first president of the Chattanooga Christian Leadership Conference and founding the Mary Walker Historical and Educational Foundation.

Now, Edwards is 89 years old, and in his 50th year at Cosmopolitan Community Church. He said he has always tried to live by the principle of nonviolent activism that drove the civil rights movement.

A few days ago, while his wife was straightening up the house, he came across a Reader's Digest. There was a quote in it from Martin Luther King Jr. about how a man is measured, not in times of comfort, but in times of challenge.

Edwards related it to his own life.

"When I went to the post office department as a mail carrier, I couldn't go there and say, well I'll be a mail carrier, but I'm not going to get out in the rain," Edwards said. "The mail's got to go through. And I'm willing to see that the mail goes through. I'm willing to put my life out there."

Contact staff writer Mary Helen Miller at mhmiller@timesfreepress.com.

Editor's note: Rev. John Edwards is a longtime civil rights leader who was among eight people honored Saturday for their contributions. Here are some of his recollections from the civil rights era. Hear him in his own words at www.timesfreepress.com/Jubilee