by Kathleen Krull
Living in Fear
Polio is an infectious viral disease that affects the central nervous system and can cause temporary or permanent paralysis of muscles. Throughout the 40s it sickened millions of children and afflicted Americans with fear. Most people either had polio or had friends or loved ones with the disease. Cases varied from flu-like symptoms to extreme paralysis. Some children lived in iron lungs (large machines that compressed the lungs to enable breathing), while others walked with braces on their legs. Both parents and children had to have great courage to face the fear and pain of this crippling illness.
One way the disease was spread was by contact with affected people. Parents protected their children by keeping them in the safety of their homes and away from parks, pools, movie theaters and recreation centers. Children stopped playing together and were often kept away from crowds during polio season. Eventually, through the efforts of scientists and fundraisers such as the March of Dimes, vaccines were developed and the disease was almost eradicated.
Tennessee is a state that bridges the North and South. The wide state spreads from the Blue Ridge Mountains to the Mississippi River, from North Carolina in the east to Arkansas in the west. Clarksville is the state's fifth largest city, located near the border of Kentucky. Major social transformations have occurred since the mid-50s, when Clarksville was still a segregated town. Black people were not permitted to eat in the same restaurants or go to the same schools with white people. In 1954, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that segregation in public schools was illegal. Two years later, in 1956, desegregation of public schools was enforced nationwide (Brown vs Board of Education of Topeka).
Advocating for Equality
In 1960, Tennessee Governor Buford Ellington, a well-known segregationist, planned a large homecoming celebration for Wilma in honor of the three gold medals she won at the Rome Olympics. She told the governor she would not attend unless the celebration was open to all races. As a result, her homecoming parade was the first integrated event in Clarksville. After the parade, there was a large banquet where black and white people sat and ate together. Throughout the Civil Rights era, Wilma Rudolph continued to fight racism and segregation until the laws that discriminated against black people were overturned.