Cynthia Griggs Fleming, Ph.D., is a Professor Emeritus from the University of Tennessee’s Department of History. She was also an undergraduate student at Knoxville College, from 1967-1970. Dr. Fleming was interviewed for the East Tennessee PBS 2017 mini-series, The Vietnam War: East Tennessee. She appears in the episodes A Sense of Revolution and A True American.
In this edited interview Dr. Fleming discusses: Historically black colleges, Civil Rights, the Black Power Movement, the Vietnam War draft, Kent State, college integration, and how an unsolved murder on the Knoxville College campus distracted students from national events. The views and opinions expressed herein are those of Dr. Cynthia Griggs Fleming, and do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of East Tennessee PBS or Nolpix Media.
Tell me about Knoxville College: what is it and why did you enroll there? Knoxville College is what is known as an HBCU, a historically black college. It was founded in 1875 by the United Presbyterian Church. Even though I was born and raised in Detroit, I have a history with Knoxville College. My mother graduated from Knoxville College, my uncle, two cousins, my aunt, my sister, and my Grandfather wrote the words to the college hymn. So from the time that I was a child, my family used to visit Knoxville because we had relatives here, and we would go on Knoxville College’s campus. My mother would tell me Knoxville College stories, and even though I graduated from high school in Detroit, at a time when most of my friends were going to the University of Michigan, Michigan State, Eastern Michigan, I always wanted to have that experience of coming to a historically black college.
Tell me what year you entered Knoxville College, and tell me why you thought the University of Tennessee was “enemy territory.” I entered Knoxville College as a freshman in the fall of 1967. When I used to come south as a child, I didn’t think about the University of Tennessee as enemy territory. I just didn’t think about the University of Tennessee at all. It didn’t matter in my world. By the time I came as a freshman to Knoxville College, I was seventeen. Stokely Carmichael, just the year before I graduated high school, had been on that Meredith March through Mississippi. And he had announced for all the world to know, that black people were tired of being conciliatory, and what we wanted now was power. And that made a deep impression on so many of us who were that age. Particularly in cities like Detroit where there was a radical tradition anyway. So by the time I came south to Knoxville, big, white institutions that had kept black people out for decades, like UT, were things that we were very, very suspicious of.
Tell me what was going on at Knoxville College at the time you were there, regarding Civil Rights and Vietnam. I’m a little bit younger than that group. I’m talking about students who joined the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, who segregated lunch counters, movie theaters, and there had been Knoxville College students who had participated in that.
By the time I got here, that part of the work was over, and by that time we were trying to figure out exactly who we were relative to the United States of America, because, not only were we embracing Black Power, but we recognized that we as a people had been written out of the history books, had not been considered in anything involved in the building of this country. So, a lot of us were angry. I was angry, trying to figure out what does all this mean. Why have I been deprived of knowing about my history for that long? And there was a lot of that going on, on Knoxville College’s campus.
That was my first exposure, and the first exposure of a lot of my fellow Knoxville College students, to Black History courses. We loved it. So that was one of the most important things going on was this sea change in the way we looked at who we were, and how we related to the United States of America. It just shook our world. What we thought we knew was not the same thing we knew anymore, once we considered what had gone on in black history, and nobody had taught us that until we got to college.
There was a lot of that going on, and we grew our hair long, and we raised our fists, we did all those kinds of things, but we studied. We studied the history. We studied what was going on. We studied what we had missed. So, there was a kind of turmoil on Knoxville College’s campus, to the point where, in March of 1968,
We were talking about how eye opening it was for you to take classes in African American history, to have African American teachers…Actually, what’s surprising though about Knoxville College, most of my professors were white. A lot of people don’t realize that throughout much of its history, Knoxville College had a mostly white teacher, group of professionals. And, in fact, when my mother attended there, she graduated in 1942, the school was founded in 1875, it was not until she was a junior that they got their first black president. So, the administrative staff was largely white. I had several white professors, but they were radical white professors. I loved them. So, at any rate, what the experience was for me, what was primary for me, was going to school with all black students. Because when I was in Detroit, I went to integrated schools all the way through, so it was the Black Power era, and we called each other sister and brother, and we had big hair, and here we were on campus with all black students, and it was liberating, in a way.
How did you get involved in demonstrations when you were at Knoxville College? I was peripherally involved. I was always what people would describe as a bookworm when I was growing up, so when I got to Knoxville College as a freshman, my first experience was that I was scared to death that I was going to flunk out of college. Now why I thought that, I was always a good student, I don’t know. So for much of my first year, I was in the library for most of the time. I wandered into, literally, African American History, well, we called it Black History at that time, and I got in that class by mistake. I wasn’t supposed to be there. I looked at the room number of my registration card incorrectly. And I realized in about five minutes that I was in the wrong class, but I was mesmerized. And at that point, Mrs. Cleo Lucas, who was a radical herself, started talking to us about what we need to be doing. And it was at that point, I started thinking about things we could do, and what we needed to be doing.
So what kinds of things did you end up doing? We organized a few things, mostly supportive kinds of things for what was going on. We talked about bringing in speakers. But when President Nixon bombed Cambodia in the spring of 1970, a group of us decided that we should strike to demonstrate that we were really upset about that part of the Vietnam War. So, we actually blocked the entrances to Knoxville College, and would not allow the professors to come on, we stayed out of class, and there were just a few of us because, as I’ve been asking my friends, who remembers, and only a couple of people do, which now reminds me, there weren’t that many of us who got involved in it.
So that was kind of my big moment in terms of demonstrations. But what I was more involved in was trying to discover my history, at that point. But what I was about to tell you, too, was and I think is a very important part of the whole notion of how, at least how Knoxville College students looked at Vietnam, in the spring of 1968, this was my second semester at Knoxville College, there was an incident involving the death of a white cab driver.
What happened on campus regarding this cab driver? The way that unfolded was, that evening there was a Black Power rally on campus, and I remember I had gone out to a party with a group of friends of mine, out in the city. And you heard bits and snatches on campus about this gathering that was going to be on the football field, which was right in the center of the campus. I didn’t think any more about it, so we went out and went to the party, but by the time we got back, there was this huge group of people on the football field, and there was a bonfire, and I remember feeling really unsettled when we came down the hill, because Knoxville College is built into the side of the hill. And a friend of mine dropped me off at the dorm, and I looked and I remember thinking “what’s going on over there?”
Well, I didn’t think anymore about it, because being as focused as I was, I had a civil service exam the next morning, it was a Saturday morning, and I was trying to get a job in the post office for the summer, so I went on up to my room and went to bed. That night, unfortunately what happened was, and I heard varying accounts of this, either a Knoxville College student was returning from a bus station or a train station, or somewhere in town, and had gotten a cab, and the cab had brought her on campus. And when the student had gotten out of the cab, people in the Black Power rally realized there was a white cab driver on campus, they came over to the cab, surrounded it, rocked it, turned it over, and the cab driver got out and took off running in between two dorms, and I’m sure what he was trying to do was to do was to get to the edge of the campus, so he could get out, because there was a fence back there that could be scaled. But unfortunately, somebody shot and killed him. And he ended up dead under my window. My window made the national news.
The Knox County Sheriff’s Office, the Knoxville City Police, and I think, the FBI had gotten there about that time. It frightened us all so badly. Not just the act itself, but the treatment that both the college and the individual students received in the wake of that. And what I mean by that is, the Miranda decision, the Supreme Court decision, that mandates that law enforcement has to read you your rights before they question you had been decided just two years earlier. Miranda is 1966 and this is 1968. Miranda was not being listened to at that point because students, friends of mine, my sister, were hauled down to the police station, were questioned and treated in a very rough manner. And they never figured out who did it. My theory is somebody who wasn’t a student could have had something to do with it, because there were a lot of non-students, there were a lot of Black Power people there who didn’t go to Knoxville College. It’s a small school and everybody knew everybody else. What ended up finally happening, there was a young man who was what we call one of the Black Power boys, because there was a group of Knoxville College students, many of whom were from out of state. They wore Afros and preached Black Power and so forth, and he ended up being arrested and jailed, and for many years I thought they had arrested him and put him in jail for the murder, but they didn’t. He was jailed for inciting a riot. And it remains unsolved to this day.
What that did to us, and when I say us, I mean Knoxville College students, what that did to us was, it jerked us out of what was happening nationally. We were so focused on what was going on our campus, the treatment we received, which we considered unfair, I mean of course we didn’t want anyone to be killed, but you can’t just blame the whole campus for doing it, and that is precisely how we felt. The campus was evacuated immediately, there were threats from chapters of the Ku Klux Klan. There were shots fired in the dorms, on the back side, in fact, in my dorm there were shots fired. For a long time everybody was so edgy on that campus.
So, in the spring of ‘68, people were focusing on what was going on in the Vietnam War at UT, and we were so focused inward, the only thing we thought about when it came to the war, was what was happening to our fellow male students. and that’s another story I’m sure you would like to talk about.
Let’s talk about the draft.
I don’t remember recruiters on campus, but what I do remember are friends of mine who periodically were getting letters from their draft boards, saying they had to come down and take the selective service exam. And remember now, this is a really important point, the vast majority of students at Knoxville College were not from Tennessee. Some were from other parts of Tennessee, but many of us were from all over: big cities in the North, big cities in the West, people were from small towns in Alabama, we were from everywhere.
So what was happening was draft boards in Alabama, or from Michigan, or from wherever that male student happened to be from, were tracking them down and sending them draft notices. And these guys were horrified at that. I remember distinctly one of my group of friends, he did happen to be from Knoxville, he was frightened to death of being drafted. It wasn’t fear of fighting, it was fear of mistreated.
We were the sons and daughters of World War Two veterans. We knew what they had gone through. They might not have talked about war stories. My father never did, but what he did talk about was the racial treatment during the war, and how he had sacrificed for his country, but was still treated like a second class citizen.
So we were that generation who were connected to World War Two through the service of our fathers. And many of us just didn’t want to go through that. So a lot of us did what we could to help each other, to make sure that didn’t happen. I remember this one young man, he was a very bright young man, but he had a tin ear when it came to language, and we all had to take a foreign language, so he ended up taking French. At the time I was a French major, and I remember him saying, “You’ve got to help me, or they are going to end up sending me to Vietnam.” And I did everything and anything I could to help him pass that class because I didn’t want him to go. And I was not the only one who did that.
So when we looked at the war, we looked at it through that personal lens of what’s it going to do to us personally. Not that we didn’t care about the Vietnamese, remember, Black Power had come in, we were so focused on race, we were the sons and daughters of World War Two veterans, who had been in a war and were still treated like second class citizens, and we weren’t going to let that happen to our generation.
Did you know black men who were drafted? Yes, yes I did, and when they came back many of them came back to Knoxville College, and they talked some about their war experiences, but a lot of them didn’t talk a whole lot about it. I think part of it had to do with, remember by the time these guys would have come back, I was a freshman in ‘67, so we’re talking about ‘69-’70, would have come back, the ones I knew, by that time the Vietnam War was unpopular, these guys were being called baby killers. And many of them just wanted to put that behind them, go back into college life, the best way they could. Unfortunately for them, there weren’t the veterans’ services available then, because you know they had PTSD, they had all kinds of issues they had to deal with, and they got very little help with that. There was sympathy, though, from other students. We had all kinds of sympathy for for what these guys had been through. But the larger society, we realized, did not. And again, what that did was, it set us up apart. We were kind of like this little island. When we looked at the Vietnam War, again we looked at it personally, what it had done, what it could do to other black men with whom we were associated.
Tell about student demonstrators that were killed at other black colleges. White people never hear about this. There was the Orangeburg Massacre and Jackson State. And what that did, and I remember hearing about it at the time, we talked about it at the time on campus, in our little student groups. It fueled that anger, that we had, that conviction that America was not treating us right, hadn’t treated us right. Trying to figure out what on earth we were going to do about it, because we respected what the people who, the students who came before us, the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee, and to this day I have the highest respect for what they did. I don’t think I could have done it, those were some very brave people.
But, at the same time, after having said that, at the same time, we didn’t trust this country enough to do the right thing, even though they had put their lives on the line. And so, many of us were trying to figure out, what do we do? And at that point in Black Power, there was a radical turn. The Panthers were founded in ‘66. There was a Black Panther chapter in Knoxville. Friends who joined that, joined other kinds of radical groups. Friends of mine in Detroit, friends of mine in Knoxville. Searching for solutions.
And I remember that as being a very unsettled time. The Vietnam War, for me personally, receded into the background, unless it was trying to protect black men who were going to have to go. But other than that, I was trying to figure out what are we going to do to make America, and to hold America accountable, and to make America treat everyone the way it should treat them. We all made choices. Many of us did join radical organizations. I never did. I was totally sympathetic, but I always thought the way I could make a contribution was to write. I always wanted to write, so that’s what sent me on the trajectory that I ended up on.
Because we were all searching for solutions at that point, and that’s why Vietnam was important to a point, but probably, and this is just from my studies as a historian, I don’t know any of these people personally, white students on college campuses looked at it very differently from from the way we did because the issue of race was not what they were looking at. It had nothing to do with what they were looking at. We also recognized that black men were being drafted disproportionate to our numbers in the population. And in addition to that, black men, once they got to Vietnam, were being put on the front lines. Disproportionate in the number in the units they served. It was going to be unfair. It was based on race. So, in other words, race was such an overpowering reality in our lives, that everything else receded into the background at that point.
How did economics play a part during the Vietnam War? Obviously, poor people were more vulnerable. Now one of the things, and let me backup, because I’ve been talking about black men who didn’t want to go, because I’m talking about my colleagues at Knoxville College, who had a bright future. They were in college. But, there are many, many, many African American men who had very few choices. And there is a tradition of military service in black families. And there are many black men who volunteered. I think that gets lost in the shuffle, too. There were a lot of black men who volunteered.
Now, granted poverty did play a role because poverty narrows your options. And when you look around, and you have so few options, service can seem pretty good. But I don’t want people to think that it was just because people were poor, and they didn’t have any other alternative. This is one of the things that has always amazed me about African Americans, and that is that regardless how this country has treated us, we have volunteered for every war this country has ever fought. Every single war. And many times enthusiastically, and that was also true during Vietnam. That was also very true during the Vietnam War. So, yes it is true that poverty did play a role because that narrowed the options of black men. But at the same time, don’t get lost in thinking about poverty being this motivating factor. And not consider the fact that there is a tradition of proud military service among black men in this country.
Did the murders at Kent State penetrate your world? Yes. It registered that the National Guard shot people and killed them, and that the victims were our age. And that was one of the things, now that I think back on it, that was one of things living through that period that was so difficult to me personally, and for a lot of us, because I talked to my friends about it. We saw people our age get killed on a regular basis in a variety of settings. For me, the first experience was the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, September 15, 1963. Long before I became a scholar, that date was seared into my memory. The reason why is one of the little girls was killed that day, her first name was Cynthia. That was September 15. She was 14. My 14th birthday was September 12, 1963. So, I had just celebrated my birthday. Three days later, a little black girl, who was my same age, was blown to bits. And I remember just being shocked by that. And after that, the killings of young people: the 3 civil rights workers, Goodman, Chaney, and Schwerner, were older than I was, but that was 1964. I was in high school, and so that was part of that period of history for those of us coming of age.
We saw young people get killed, and it rocked my world every time it happened. So, Kent State, the reason I explain all that, is for you to understand, that the killing of those 4 students at Kent State, I took it personally because it was just more evidence of students who were, in my estimation, doing the right thing: demonstrating against something they thought was wrong. I think being shot down by authorities in this country, was difficult for me at the time. Very difficult for me. And a lot of us looked at it that way, again, because we’d been primed by so much loss of young life. I mean, there were assassinations of older people, like President Kennedy in ‘63, Malcom X in ‘65, Bobby Kennedy in ‘68, and Dr. King in ‘68, but those were adults. And I think it’s really important to make that distinction. When people your age get killed, it means something different to you. And so, we were primed to mourn those 4 students at Kent State because they were people our age who had been getting killed in the ‘60s, and it was scary.It was very scary.
What galvanized the students about the bombing in Cambodia? I think it was the escalation of the war, because we were hoping that things would wind down, and when Nixon crossed the border into Cambodia, that was kind of like one step too far. And then when the 4 students got killed at Kent State because they were demonstrating in response to that, it was just too much. It was just too much.
Dr. Fleming, what was it like for black students attending a newly integrated university? It was tough. To sum it up, it was extremely difficult. You had to worry about a whole variety of things. You had the obvious things to worry about, and that is the hostility that you would receive on campus from students. And, I get frustrated when people call it integration. It really wasn’t. It was just sticking a few black people here and there. I mean, integration would have meant having a group of black people, but you’re talking one with James Meredith in 1962 at Ole Miss. You’re talking about two at the University of Alabama. So, it’s 1 or 2, 3 or 4 here and there.
And these people, it was like they were soldiers on the front lines. Because, they had to deal with the hostility of students, they had to deal with the hostility of townsfolk, they had to deal with the hostility of professors, they had to worry about their personal safety, they had to worry about racial slurs written here and there. They’d see kinds of things like that.
But, one of the things people almost never think about, that was chilling for these people, they were in college because they want to get an education, and when you go in a professor’s class, who has never taught a black student, and you get a paper back, and you don’t agree with that grade, it puts you off balance. Because the thing you always want to know is, is this what I really earned, or is my color, the reason I got that grade.
And if you are talking about young undergraduates, that’s a really difficult thing for a young person, 18-19 years old, to process. It sets you off balance, and it’s extremely difficult to deal with. And so many people couldn’t deal with staying in those kinds of settings. They were, in my estimation, incredibly brave to attempt it in the first place, And I don’t see them leaving as a failure. I see it as an attempt to survive. Because you had all of these things working on you, off balance, you didn’t know who you could trust, you didn’t know where to go to get a friend, It was incredibly difficult.
Although I was not an early person to integrate a university, I was one of the first black graduate students at Duke University, so I experienced all this. In fact, I’m the first black woman to ever get a Ph.D. from Duke University. Everything I just told you about, I experienced when I got my first paper back. I want to know, “why did I get this grade? How do they really see me?” And it was a really jarring experience.
I had a pretty good sense of myself. I’ve always been a good student. And I told you that I was scared to death I was going to flunk out of college in my first year because I was obsessed, crazed, a perfectionist. But I was really afraid I was going to flunk out of Duke. Because, in the back of my mind, I remember thinking, “They are not going to let black people get a Ph.D. from Duke University. That’s just not going to happen.” And it scared me to death. I considered dropping out several times. But what kept me in school, in addition to the one black professor in the history department, who gave me regular pep talks, was the weight of my ancestors. Knowing that everything that had gone on in black educational history up to this point, had put me in a position to be the first. Somebody had to do it. And I didn’t want to disappoint them. So that’s what kept me going. Once you start getting grades back, not knowing the basis on which you’re being judged, that for me was the most difficult thing to deal with in that kind of setting.
During your entire school history, the women’s lib movement is also going on. You were very busy. Did women’s liberation register with you at all? That was for white women. That’s the way we looked at it because, again going back to that era, race defined who we were, almost totally. And although I knew there were issues with women, let me relate a story from Knoxville College.
Back during the Black Power days, Black Power was incredibly chauvinistic in so many ways. And I could still remember these heated political discussions that we would get in. Because everything was so political back then. I mean, we took our classes, but we also talked about the things, the state of black America, the things we needed to do to advance things, and so forth.
And I can still remember some of those black power guys, pointing their fingers at us: “Sister, you need to go home and have babies for the revolution.” And I would say, “Brother, you have the babies, I’m going to graduate school.” And so, even though we recognized that there were issues of gender in there, race still totally defined, delimited everything in our lives. So when I looked at white women doing what they were doing, you know, there was bra burning, and all that, [shakes head] that’s just kind of weird. And the whole notion of me as a black woman having to look at that part my existence, not just as a black person, but as a black woman, that did not occur until I was out of graduate school and teaching. Finally it began to break through my consciousness, but through that era of Black Power, that was such an overwhelming reality. Now other black women may have looked at it differently, but I don’t think so. And the reason why I say that is as a scholar, looking at black women in the movement, because I interviewed a lot of black women who were in sync, and all of them felt basically the same way I did. That race was such an overwhelming reality, that they just couldn’t deal with gender right then, they had to deal with race first.
Is there anything else you’d like to tell us? We were bitterly resentful that Knoxville acted like there was only one institution of higher learning and that was the University of Tennessee. They ignored everything we did, unless they could say it was something negative. When something good happened you almost never saw a write-up about it.