Friday, January 25, 2008

Waldo Cohn and the Oak Ridge Recall Election of 1954

Introduction: This story came about because of an interest in memory. I was at the time interested in the so called "false memories syndrome" controversy. I had been driving my parents to the D/FW in December of 1996. They were chatting about a city counsel recall election in Oak Ridge. I remarked that there had been another recall election in my childhood. My mother confirmed the memory. The events in question had occurred over 40 years before. I had not thought about them for a long time, perhaps not since my childhood, I could not be sure. This appeared to be a "recovered memory" and I wanted a chance to test its accuracy. On my next visit to Oak Ridge in 1997, I went to the public library and viewed micro film copies of the Oak Ridger from the recall election period. Then I called Waldo Cohn, and asked if I could interview him about the 1954 election. He graciously invited me to his home, and told me the story of the election from his perspective. I had the satisfaction of hearing him recount some of the same stories that his son Donnie had told me while were were kids in Oak Ridge. I had no doubt that my "recovered memories" were accurate.

Waldo Cohn and the Oak Ridge Recall Election of 1954

By Charles Barton, Jr.

Oak Ridge, Tennessee, was a unique city in the 1950's. Founded during World War II, as part of the American effort to build the first atomic bomb, Oak Ridge was during the 1950's a small but dynamic community. Oak Ridge was planted in "hill billy" country, but the values and beliefs of many of its residents were at odds with those of much of the South. Waldo Cohn, a biologist and musician, was the first conductor of the Oak Ridge Symphony. He was also Oak Ridge's first mayor. I grew up with Waldo's son Donnie, and visited the Cohn home in my youth. I last saw Waldo Cohn in 1997. I wanted to ask him about his memories of the 1954 City Council recall election in Oak Ridge while he was still alive. History begins when living memory fades.

Cohn was a personal friend of Alvin Weinberg. I believe that they had been biology graduate students together at the University of Chicago. Cohn was a member of the biology division at ORNL and had made important findings on the structural chemistry of adenylic acids.

The Oak Ridge desegregation controversy began in December 1953. Oak Ridge was still an unincorporated ward of the Federal Government, and the Town Council functioned in an advisory capacity. Waldo Cohn was the Chairman of the Council. A few days before Christmas, Waldo proposed a resolution to the Council calling on President Eisenhower to desegregate Oak Ridge Schools. After a discussion the Council passed the resolution by a four to two vote.

Cohn was an extremely impressive person. Cohn was a talented celloist, in addition to being the founder, organizer and first conductor of the Oak Ridge Symphony Orchestra. He was handsome in a distinguished way. He fit my childhood image of culture and sophistication. Undoubtedly Cohn's fellow Council members were aware of his many personal assets, when they chose him Council Chairman, Oak Ridge's unofficial mayor.

As a politician Cohn suffered one weakness. He and other Council members did not expect the desegregation resolution to be controversial. They misjudged the temperament of the many Oak Ridgers who were born in the South. An idealist, Cohn did not anticipate the amount of anger that his resolution would trigger in less sophisticated members of the Oak Ridge community.

People began talking about the anti-segregation resolution at the plants. On December 24, a vociferous letters, signed by H.M. Glen, appeared in The Oak Ridger. Glen chastised "the carpet bag city council." He announced that did not care to live with "transplanted Yankees who are not satisfied to live and let live, but must always be stirring up muck and mud wherever they are."

Although Oak Ridgers came from all over the country, a majority were from the South. This was especially true of the hourly employees at the plants. The anti-segregation resolution set off a chain reaction of outrage among atomic plant workers. More letters appeared in The Oak Ridge denouncing the anti-segregation resolution and Cohn. Racial segregation of schools was not going to die in Oak Ridge without a fight.

Although four council members had voted for the resolution, anger focused exclusively on Waldo Cohn. As segregationists fumed, several members of the Town Council began to back off from their progressive stance. Cohn stood his ground.

On January 11, 1954 a petition calling for Cohn's recall was presented to Town Council by E.I. Wyatt. The same night the town council passed a resolution, sponsored by Councilman Jerry George, that rescinded the pro-integration resolution. George described the desegregation controversy as "a tragic diversion from current problems such as the demands by the AEC for a rent increase." George added that by rescinding the resolution city residents could voice their opinions "in a united and organized way."

Emotions in Oak Ridge during January and February of 1954 reached thermonuclear levels. The anti-Cohn Citizens Action Committee (CAC) claimed that dumping Cohn would restore unity and harmony to the Town Council. Cohn was accused of jeopardizing state funding of Oak Ridge Schools. (In 1954 Tennessee law prohibited using state funds for integrated schools.)

Still more letters appeared in The Oak Ridger. Oscar Smith wrote on January 12 claimed that the "colored people" of Oak Ridge "care nothing about the social affairs [of various black leaders]." They have "some of the newest and finest [schools] in the state," Smith added. “Dissatisfaction with segregation was caused by white men including communists. "I will suggest," Smith added, "that the learned people of science, music medicine, labor and what have you, resign yourselves to the laws of this state and the customs of our living."

Letter writer Hubert Owens suggested that anti-segregation letter writer Marjorie Brown should "take the next train or plane north." He added, "I highly suggest that anyone else do the same if they are not happy here."

Rose Jackson explained why Cohn had aroused so much ire. "Any person who introduces a resolution of such a controversial nature as the segregation issue, in a southern state, talks like 'the very devil' to get it passed, and succeeds is dangerous. His glib tongue, his ability to influence other people against their better judgment, proves him to be a serious liability to the community."

One letter writer, Walter Rothermel, took a plague on both your houses approach, denouncing the CAC "for its aims, motivated by ignorance." Rothermel criticized the town council for passing their resolution without planning and more public discussion. Despite this Rothermel asserted that no member of the CAC had contributed as much to the community as Waldo Cohn had.

Cohn's defenders repeatedly wondered why he alone had been targeted for recall. No one openly voiced what many suspected, that Cohn had been picked out because he was Jewish. Others suggested that harmony was not a virtue in democratic institutions and suggested that pro-recall advocates might look to the Communist Soviet Union for a model of what unity and harmony brings in political life.

Anti-recall writers pointed out a serious defect in the recall petition. The petition had inaccurately claimed that Cohn's resolution violated Town Council rules. Petitioners had relied on an obsolete copy of Council rules. No one believed, however, that the recall vote was about rules. It was a referendum about desegregation plain and simple.

Cohn told me that he received many late night calls. Some callers suggested that he seek residence in a more northern locality, while others inquired about his racial preference for his daughters’ future husbands. (Cohn had two sons, but no daughters.) Friends warned him to avoid dark places. However, he was not intimidated, actually enjoyed the controversy and even attended CAC rallies, much to the discomfort of his critics.

The controversy took on some elements of a class war. Many of the leaders of the CAC faction were hourly workers, while Oak Ridge's scientific elite rallied around Cohn. Since the major participants in the controversy were almost all white, the recall election of 1954 was virtually the only scrimmage in the Civil Rights conflict of the 1950's and 60's to be played out within a Southern white community.

My father was a native of East Tennessee, and my mother came from West Virginia. Like many educated Southerners, they opposed segregation. My mother felt uncomfortable with the controversy, and told Cohn that she agreed with him, but she was afraid that he had pushed for change too fast. Over forty years latter my mother conceded that Cohn was right, and that someone had to take the lead in pushing for desegregation. My parents both voted to retain Cohn.

The recall vote had an important long-term impact on my thinking. I read the stories and letters in The Oak Ridger, and formed the opinion that segregationists were obnoxious, irrational bullies. I have never changed my mind.

On February 8, Oak Ridgers flocked to vote in the Pine Valley School gym. By legal fiction the recall election took during an eight hour Town Council meeting. Election officials had provided only two voting machines, and extra voting machines had to be brought in. By the end of the day 5417 people voted, far more than had voted in the Town Council election.

A clear majority, 3356 voted to recall Cohn, but not the two-thirds majority required for recall. Voting eligibility standards were weak, however, and nothing prevented non-Oak Ridger residents from voting. Rumor had it that CAC car pools collected ringers from all over the region to vote.

Although progressive Oak Ridgers may have felt discouraged by the recall vote, they had in fact won the war over integration. Segregationist passions in Oak Ridge were permanently spent. The open airing of a desegregation debate had the effect of opening up many Oak Ridgers' minds. Already the Town Council had set up a citizens committee to study segregation. The real purpose of the committee was to promote the desegregation of the Oak Ridge schools.

The 1954 Brown vs. the Board of Education decision of the Supreme Court sealed the fate of segregation in Oak Ridge schools. When we were kids, Waldo Cohn's son Donny told me that when he got his hair cut at the Pine Valley Barber Shop, the barber would blamed the 1954 Supreme Court desegregation decision on Waldo.

At the very least, the controversy over Waldo's resolution made the eventual integration of the Oak Ridge Schools easier. The Oak Ridge School System belonged to the Federal government and integration was now the law of the land. In September 1955 Robertsville Junior High School and Oak Ridge High School were integrated with barely a whimper of protest. Cohn's resolution had at last passed.

The Oak Ridge recall election of 1954 has not received the attention it deserved. Although Oak Ridgers engaged in loud, acrimonious and sometimes mean spirited debate, they did not riot, beat each other up, or otherwise engage in the sort of uncivil behavior that the press loves. The two sides of the controversy were essentially white, thus the story lacked the racial drama that later school integration and civil rights controversies had. It was not covered in the national press at the time, and historians have largely ignored it since.

Waldo Cohn was born in 1910 and died in 1999.

Alvin Weinberg who was a personal friend of Waldo Cohn offered these words on him:

"The main task (in 1943) [in the Manhattan Project activities at Clinton Labs] was to produce gram quantities of the nuclear explosive, plutonium. The techniques developed there were transferred to the huge plutonium-producing nuclear reactors at Hanford, Wash.

"To manufacture plutonium, one had to 'cook' uranium in an atmosphere of neutrons in the nuclear reactor at Clinton Lab. In this process uranium atoms were split to create radioactive 'fission products.' Cohn set about to identify the chemical species of fission products. He applied to this process a technique known as 'ion exchange chromatography.'

"After the war Cohn realized that this technique could be applied to the characterization of the components of the nucleic acids, DNA and RNA. Cohn's technique ultimately led to Crick and Watson's structure of the genetic materials, DNA and RNA. For this achievement Cohn received the Chromatography Award of the American Chemical Society and he was named a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

"Cohn was also the first to organize and promote the use of radioactive radioisotopes produced in nuclear reactors. The widespread use of radioisotopes is perhaps the most important scientific byproduct of the Manhattan Project."


Anonymous said...

Fascinating Charles!!! I love these interesting aspects of political history of the US. Thank you for this.

David Walters

Sovietologist said...

Great post on a little-known topic. I was born and raised in Oak Ridge and I'm in grad school to become a professional historian, and I have to admit I had only a dim understanding of the events surrounding this. My next-door neighbor growing up had taught at ORHS between 1943 and 1979. But when I asked her about how segregation had worked in Oak Ridge, she was noticeably silent. I'm still not sure what that meant.

Charles Barton said...

I do know a few things about segregation in Oak Ridge in the 1940's and 1950's. Not a pretty picture, but the community was not responsible. Decisions made by the Federal government and its contractors segregated Oak Ridge at its beginning. Racial attitudes in East Tennessee were far more complex than anyone would believe. I have several postings on the issue of mixed race people in East Tennessee in my other blog, bartoncii. Look under the Tag, Melungeons. The housing segregation of Oak Ridge was not typical of East Tennessee. A friend of mine investigated housing segregation in Knoxville in 1970. He could not find evidence of housing segregation. Indeed whites and Afro-Americans lived next door to each other in many parts of the city.


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