By Clint Confehr
COLUMBIA, TN — A symposium on 1968, a year that transformed America, included progressive discussion on the Vietnam War, convulsive politics and civil rights. Lingering racism was acknowledged.
“I’m interested in our race of people knowing how to get things done,” civil rights activist Annie Hardison said before addressing 68 people Sept. 13 in Maury County’s main library. “I believe in not being angry. That’s hard in Columbia.”
Faith in Jesus helps, said Hardison, starting her presentation saying, “Let us pray.” She was a lunch-counter sit-in protester at F.W. Woolworth’s on 5th Avenue North in Nashville.
Hardison, journalist David Hall and retired college history professor Bill Andrews discussed “1968, the year that transformed the nation.”
Moderator Bobby Sands shared his son’s observation; current events don’t compare to 1968’s turbulence. Vietnam’s Tet Offensive shocked America’s military. President Johnson didn’t run for re-election. Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated. The University of Tennessee football team played on AstroTurf for the first time. Girls were admitted to what’s now Columbia Academy. George Wallace placed second for president here after Richard Nixon. Hubert Humphrey placed third.
President Trump got 66.79 percent of 35,746 Maury County votes.
Stationed in Washington during 1968, Andrews got to know Democratic Senators Al Gore Sr., William Fulbright and Claiborne Pell. Off-duty from his Army job, Andrews advocated Bobby Kennedy and Eugene McCarthy for President.
From an airliner diverted from D.C. National Airport, Andrews saw “hundreds of fires burning” in Washington after King’s murder. The Chicago police riot during the Democrats’ convention symbolized “fissures” in American culture, Andrews said.
Sands reported Hardison retired from the Tennessee Department of Children’s Services and graduated from Middle Tennessee State University at age 55.
Hardison witnessed Columbia’s race riot in 1946. She’s been vice president of Maury’s NAACP branch, “and we had a ball. We did everything we wanted to.”
In 1968, Hardison, then 29: cooked at Lucille’s now-closed restaurant on Main Street; entered by the back door; “heard how they talked” about blacks; and was angry.
Blacks were offered optional attendance at white schools when the blacks’ College Hill School was rebuilt. “We had ‘freedom of choice’” to attend integrated schools, she said. “Well-to-do caucasian children … zoned to the College Hill School went to private schools.”
Columbia Vice Mayor Christa Martin remembers blacks had to stand during bus-rides to school “because white students put books on seats” to keep blacks away. “When we got out of the bus, people … spit on you.”
Hall, a retired daily newspaper editor who worked in St. Paul, Denver and Cleveland, discussed news coverage, popular culture, protests, and the war. “We struggled to understand popular culture,” he said, recalling Bob Dylan’s song, “The Times They Are A-Changin’.”
County Commissioner Gary Stovall reacted to some discussion saying when Colin Kaepernick and football players take a knee, he thinks about soldiers presenting American flags during military funerals.
Later, Martin said, “This is what we need. People need to talk civilly.”