The legacy of Charles H. Parrish Jr.
We are all familiar with the iconic figureheads and events of the Civil Rights Movement: Rosa Parks with quiet eyes gazing out a bus window; the track of a million men, women and children marching on our nation’s Capitol; Martin Luther King Jr.’s unmatched oratory. These became the inspirational symbols that united many of us to put an end to state-sponsored racial inequality.
But there were also others charged with drawing up the blueprints. There were agents and facilitators whose task was not just to say, “Yes, desegregation is necessary,” but to strategically plot the course of integration in the least traumatic way possible.
Charles H. Parrish Jr. contributed in precisely this fashion.
To understand Parrish’s contribution we must, as difficult as it may be, attempt to re-envision the sensationalized upheaval surrounding the Supreme Court’s decision in 1954 to integrate public schools. Wild and unfounded speculations riled the presses and buzzed the airwaves. Obtuse whites claimed that integrating schools would lower the quality of education in accommodating the intellectually inferior African-American student. Others more subtly argued that white students and teachers would gradually freeze African-Americans out: Some pundits projected that as many as 75 percent would not last long enough to graduate in such a hostile environment.
From the other end, desegregation had to negotiate the closing of thousands of “Colored” schools and the sudden unemployment of countless African-American educators. Many naturally resisted integration for fear of losing their jobs. Parrish deciphered and extensively commented on all these issues as they arose. He comprehended the essential flaw of all these points of view, proliferated from the fact that each perspective was biased to the culture of segregation in which it formed, a culture which would begin to vanish at the onset of integration.
In the early days of his involvement with the Southern Regional Council, formed in 1919 to assess and grapple with racial injustice in the South, Parrish wrote to a colleague: “I share with you a distrust of programs based upon gradualist, ‘cart before the horse’ philosophy that people must somehow be persuaded to change their attitudes as a preliminary step toward desegregation. It is unrealistic to hope that people will relinquish their prejudices as a result of propaganda alone as long as they are continuing to function in a situation which supports these prejudices.”
Ever the cunning social observer, Parrish didn’t allow his own personal experiences with integration to cloud his judgment. Though appointed as the first African-American faculty member at any Southern public university (University of Louisville), the rest of his colleagues from Louisville Municipal College were turned away. Fearing litigation, U of L bought all these educators out of their contracts. Still, Parrish noted that, in the following year, two African-American doctors were added to the medical program.
Again, it’s important to understand that many couldn’t fathom what segregation in the South would look like. When SRC executive director George S. Mitchell sent Parrish to Alabama to probe and assess the situation, Parrish did so with scarcely any instructions. He constructed a strategy from the ground up, interviewing Southerners from all walks of life, including those members who had nothing to do with the schools themselves. The idea was to generate objective and localized discourse that would get each community to define the adjustments necessary to buffer the way for integration. It worked.
Charles H. Parrish Jr. grew up in a family determined to change the status of African-Americans. His father was born a slave on the Hicks plantation outside Lexington. Charles Sr. later received his A.B. degree from State University in Louisville, where he was later elected professor of Greek. As well as founding the National Baptist Convention — the oldest and currently largest black Christian organization in the world, with 7.5 million members — Charles Sr. became president of two all-black universities and later helped assimilate the undergraduate program at Simmons College (formerly State University) into the University of Louisville; it became Louisville Municipal College, one of only three black liberal arts colleges in the country at the time, in 1931.
Mary Virginia Cook, Charles Jr.’s mother, also graduated from State University and later taught there. An early proponent of Black Baptist Feminism, Cook was a founder of the National Baptist Women’s Convention in 1900. The convention attempted to dispel many crude stereotypes attributed to African-American women.
Charles Jr.’s academic résumé is impressive to say the least. After graduating from Louisville’s Central High School in 1916, the young Parrish received an A.B. from Howard University in Washington, D.C (1920). Then began his lifelong involvement in the then-fledgling field of sociology; he obtained his M.A. in Sociology from Columbia University in 1921, and his Ph.D from the University of Chicago two decades later.
The preponderance of Charles Jr.’s academic work examined the lives of African-Americans in the Louisville community. In one of his few publications, “Color Names and Color Notions,” Parrish explored how various shades of skin color affect social perceptions of African-Americans. What he found was that lighter shades, though preferable, induced feelings of apathy and mistrust in other African-Americans. Sadly, the “blackest” skin pigmentation led to self-effacing feelings of inadequacy and self-loathing: “Light skin-color has positive value for the individual, whereas dark skin color has positive value for the ‘race.’ The unconscious attempt to resolve this conflict of color values has resulted in the compromise acceptance of brown as a happy medium.”
Due to his ample public engagements, Parrish had little time to publish. Here is a portion of his many involvements: co-chairman of Emergency Recreation, panel member of the War Manpower Commission (WWII), Mayor’s Committee on Race Relations. In 1966 and 1967, he skillfully managed the Community Action Commission for the Lyndon Johnson administration’s War on Poverty. Noting that policemen formed the closest day-to-day link to white and black society, he and the esteemed American sociologist and scholar George Herbert Mead decided to establish the Southern Police Institute at U of L. Parrish also served on the board of the Louisville Children’s Hospital and was a delegate to the Kentucky Constitutional Revision Assembly.
Parrish didn’t see integration as the end-all for education in Kentucky. In fact, he considered integration part of the process to bettering education for everyone, white and black. Once the racial prejudices had been dispelled from the field of education in general, society could finally see firsthand the real socio-economic issues plaguing Kentucky schools. Despite his admonishments more than half a century ago, the exact same disparity still exists today:
“Kentucky’s big problem is to narrow the gap between its urban and rural schools. Measured in dollars and cents, the child who lives in the country can get little better than half as good schooling as the child who lives in the city. The more quickly Kentucky takes advantage of the Supreme Court ruling, the sooner will it be possible to devote full attention to this serious inequality.” (1954)
Confronted in 1954 with the prospect of approximately 100 of Kentucky’s African-American teachers left unemployed in the wake of desegregation, Parrish surveyed the landscape and noted that — due to a steady decline in pay — many qualified teachers had already vacated their positions in pursuit of better employment. He reasoned that experienced African-American educators could relieve under-qualified, emergency replacements. He correctly cited that the best thing to adjust white students to their new integrated environment would be to have “a competent Negro teacher.”
Essential to all of Parrish’s accomplishments were certain core values instilled in him by his parents. In his essay for Edward R. Murrow’s heralded program This I Believe (see sidebars), Parrish articulated his fundamental credo: It is through engaging and recognizing the humanity of others that we discover what is truly sacred.
As Parrish said over the airwaves in 1954: “Nearly always, as I can remember, there were non-paying guests at our house. Uncomplainingly, my mother would do the necessary things to make them comfortable. Sometimes the persons who came were complete strangers. A gospel singer who had missed her train called up from the station and asked to be put up for the night. She stayed for three weeks. A stranded evangelist was with us for all of one winter. I do not recall that anyone was ever turned away. People in trouble inevitably came to my father for help. Although victimized many times, he was always ready to do whatever he could for the next person who asked his aid. He seemed not to think of himself. Yet he enjoyed a moderate prosperity and his family never wanted for anything. It has thus become a part of me to believe that in the long run, I could never lose anything by helping other people.”
Although Kentucky still seems to fall short in terms of true racial integration in education, the legacy of the two Charles H. Parrishes — particularly Charles Jr., who died in 1989 — has endured, in Louisville and at its premier university.
“I knew (Charles Jr.) for a long time,” says J. Blaine Hudson, dean of U of L’s School of Arts and Sciences. Hudson specializes in issues of education and African-Americans. “He was a thoughtful and incredibly engaging man. He played a vital role in the Civil Rights Movement.”