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MY WORD: A life lesson about integration from 1956

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By Don Armstrong

Many years ago, when I was 25 years old and working as a writer for the Henderson Gleaner and Journal, there was an outbreak of strife just before Labor Day in September of 1956.
At first, the troubles began at Sturgis, a small town in Union County, which we considered as part of our circulation area, the tri-counties of Henderson, Union and Webster in western Kentucky. From our small staff, the first reporter who went over to Sturgis was a young man, Karl Christ, who then was serving mainly as our sports editor. We all did double-duty frequently in those days.

On Tuesday, Sept. 4, a crowd of farmers and coal miners confronted nine children who were attempting to enroll in the Sturgis Consolidated School. Gov. A. B. “Happy” Chandler responded by ordering the adjutant general, J. J. B. Williams of Somerset, to send members of the Army National Guard to enable the children to enter school.
Actually, the first response came from the Kentucky State Police, who responded to Sturgis in an attempt to gain control of the situation. However, the angry crowds of “white people” were not hindered by the state police.

It was not until a contingent of armed guardsmen reported for duty that the crowds were kept across the street , allowing the children to attend school
From time to time, I drove over to Sturgis to participate in the news coverage. Mostly, it depended on which of us were available on a particular day.

In short order, the strife at Sturgis became “national news,” and not only newspaper reporters, but national reporters from agencies such as Timeand Lifemagazines were taking part.
Late one afternoon the news reporters were meeting at a local motel to share information and decide what to do next. It was there I learned that there was some kind of event related to school integration that would take place nearby at the small town of Clay in Webster County.
That night, at dinner, I told my mother, Francele “Skeet” Armstrong, that I was planning to go to Clay and cover the story over there (not knowing what was to happen). It so happened that Skeet Armstrong was the editor and publisher of the Gleaner and Journal, and my “boss.” She said it was fine for me to go to Clay and cover the story.

By now it was Sept. 7, and I drove to Clay from Sturgis, with a reporter from The Associated Press, Ronnie Butler, whom I had known since our days as students at the University of Kentucky School of Journalism.

Driving separately were several other cars, including one by George Hackett, state editor for the AP.

For both Butler and me, it was our initial visit to Clay. While there was a parking lot next to the school, we simply pulled off in the grass by a sidewalk leading up to the high school.
Well, I remember there were two reporters from Timeand Lifemagazines walking behind us as we moved up the sidewalk. Children were playing in the schoolyard next to the walk and, because it was still quite warm on a bright, fall day, we were in short-sleeve shirts. Ronnie Butler was a small person anyway, and as the situation turned tense, he disappeared from my view.
Before I had gone halfway up the sidewalk to school there was an angry group of men who surrounded us, blocking our path. I cannot quote what exactly these men said, but I can tell you their words were peppered with profanity and full of threats concerning what they were going to do to me if I didn’t turn around and leave!
Every word they said would make a paragraph in my news story. So, without any plan, I just sat down on the edge of the sidewalk and let them threaten.

I do remember telling them that I was not a “foreigner,” and that I posed no threat to them or to the school. I also told them that if they continued blocking us, the National Guard would come to Clay and do exactly what had happened at Sturgis.
Pretty soon, it was obvious they were not going to allow me to go up to the school, but when I looked around for my partner, Ronnie Butler, he was nowhere in sight.

Without Butler, I couldn’t leave Clay. My next thought was to find a place to call my newspaper and ask for help.

All the while the men were shouting their threats from passing cars.
The state police finally sent in several cars and troopers, and I went with them back to the school.

As we started for the school from the parking lot, I was preparing to use my 35 mm camera. “Just a minute,” said a police major, “I can protect you, but not if you try to use that camera!”

Needless to say, I stuck the camera back in my pocket.

Much to my surprise, just as we reached the school, out of the doors came my biggest surprise of the day. “Hi, mom,” I said. “What are you doing here?”
It turns out that Skeet Armstrong had “thumbed her nose” at the crowd, ignored the threats, and marched straight into the school. Not only had she interviewed the principal but also taken the only photos any newsperson was able to take that day!

“It turned out that Ronnie Butler had made a hasty retreat to the first car he could find, and left with another reporter from Evansville, Ind.
 I searched my mind to try to explain the violent attitudes and behavior of that day in Clay.
It motivated me to return to graduate school, where I took a number of classes in sociology, government and even one in religion.

What happened that day in September was burned into my memory, where it remains even today, almost as fresh as the day it happened. School integration is a matter of history today – something taken for granted.
 I wish we could say that prejudice has been laid to rest. Alas, afraid it has not, but things have progressed to the point where the nation has elected Barack Obama as our president and marked the life of Martin Luther King as a national holiday.

 

Don Armstrong lives in Shelbyville.