Sunday Interview with Lillian "Bunky" McClung



Video: The Sunday Interview with Bunky McClung Clark

In this excerpt from the Sunday Interview, Bunky McClung Clark discusses becoming involved in the civil rights movement and her role in integrating the bus system in Columbus.
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In this excerpt from the Sunday Interview, Bunky McClung Clark discusses becoming involved in the civil rights movement and her role in integrating the bus system in Columbus.

Lillian "Bunky" McClung grew up the daughter of one of Columbus' most prominent civil rights leaders.

Her father, the late A.J. McClung, became the first local black politician to win a citywide city council election and the city's first mayor pro tem. When Mayor J.R. Allen died in a plane crash in 1973, A.J. McClung stepped into the position and served briefly as the city's first black mayor.

Bunky McClung has lived an eventful life in her own right, having played her part in integrating the Columbus bus system, and serving in President Jimmy Carter's administration.

McClung sat down with reporter Alva James-Johnson and talked about her father, life growing up in the segregated South, and challenges she faces today.

Here are excerpts from the interview, with the content and order of the questions edited slightly for length and clarity.

What brought your family to Columbus?

My dad had been a high school teacher and a coach in Birmingham, and it was right at the time when the (United Service Organization) was forming. But since the military was segregated, USO programs were really for the white troops. Dad was offered a possibility to go up to Columbia (University) in New York and take some training and become a program director for black troops with the USO. We were sent to Panama City and opened up a USO for black troops there. We were there for a very short period of time, and they were going to open up one in Columbus. Lula Huff's grandmother built the building on Fifth Avenue. I thought it was the most beautiful two-story brick building for black troops at Fort Benning. ...My dad was the program director. They provided all the recreation and activities for black troops at Fort Benning at that time.

Where did you live?

The house is still there on Fourth Avenue. I pass it all the time because it was a wonderful place to live. Black families were in homes all on one side, white families were across the street on the other side. Everything that went to Fort Benning passed down what is Veterans Parkway now, but it was Fourth Avenue then. So I could sit on my swing on the porch and see all the jeeps and hours of troops going down Fort Benning. ... (But)

the area we (first) moved to in Columbus, there was not really nice affordable housing for people in the black community in this town. It was very difficult for my dad to find housing for us. We moved quite a bit.

And what was it like being the daughter of A.J. McClung?

Well, he was "Daddy" to me. ... And daddy kept the house full of black soldiers. He would bring them home a lot, my mother cooked. And so we had a house full of young men from all over, until I got in high school it stopped. That's when I wanted to see these guys. So that slowed down some.

... Columbus had a very rich professional black community during that time. ...I didn't go to public school. My parents along with Drs. McCoo (husband and wife) ... they schooled us over in Alabama at Mother Mary Mission. We were carpooled every day over to the mission for school. ... There was not a lot (to do) because everything was segregated. So these families had to be creative to provide us with activities to keep us busy, and they were very good at doing that.

As a child, did you feel the negative aspects of segregation?

I didn't at first, no. The first experience I had was when I was living on Fourth Avenue. Right across the street was a drive-in. I used to sit on my porch and watch all these kids in the cars come by, and the hops out there -- and the music, you could hear it. I wanted to one day grow up so I could go over there and have a good time, too. I never discussed this with my mom. ... I took my money one day, and I went to the corner, and I crossed the street, and I went into the door of this building -- the drive in -- and I was so proud I had some money. I didn't know what I was going to buy, but I put it up on the counter, a quarter, and I was ready, and the man ran me out. He was calling me a racial name.

Now, I had never heard that name, but it was the look on his face. A child can always tell. ... I had no idea what it meant, but it scared me. I ran back across the street. I almost got hit by a car. I ran home. I was panting. And that was a teachable moment.

Your father was a City Councilman and the city's first black mayor, right? How did he become so prominent?

We moved away from Columbus... to Wichita Falls, Texas. They sent him out to Shepherd Air Force Base for that black USO. We went out there for two years. My mother did not like Texas at all, so we were looking for an opportunity to go somewhere else. They told my daddy that there was an opportunity at ... the Ninth Street branch YMCA (in Columbus). ... This was the black YMCA. We came back and he was the executive director. ...

It had a dormitory, so blacks traveling -- men for the most part -- could always stop at the Y. ... Columbus was very well-known, because this was a very, very large building with a lot of rooms. We couldn't go to hotels. So this Y had the swimming pool for blacks. We didn't have other swimming pools. ...

How did that lead to your father getting involved in politics?

They had a SO-C25 Club (Social Civic 25 Club, made up of Columbus's black professionals). Dr. (Thomas) Brewer had been the person behind motivating the people in this community to want more. ... I remember that day he was shot. I remember when my daddy got that phone call and he ran out the door. ... There were several dentists, several doctors in the community ... they all left when Dr Brewer was shot. (Then there was) that whole bit in the SO-C25 Club of trying to decide, "OK, in this community, what's going to be the next step?"

And then what happened?

George Ford was the first person to really seek some political action for things here in Columbus. That didn't work out, so Daddy was the next person. He was really No. 2. ... He had to go through the whole process, and at the time that he chose to do this, it was city-wide. I think that's what made Daddy's situation a little bit different. ... Daddy had to run throughout the city of Columbus. That was unique at the time for a black person to do that. ... He had opposition. There were all kinds of things going on, but he was able to garner the votes, and won. I've got in his scrapbook every single one of the elections that he went through.

Your father was mayor pro tem of Columbus when Mayor J.R. Allen died in a plane crash in 1973. And he became the city's first black mayor for a brief period, right?

(Yes). That's how my daddy and (the late Councilman) Red McDaniel got to be so close during that time.

When and why did you leave Columbus?

... I graduated from (Spencer High School), which was then the only black (four-year) high school in Columbus. ... Carver High had just started and had one class, a freshman class. ... (My parents) applied for me to go to the (University of Georgia), but since schools were segregated ... (the university) had a social (work) program, but it wasn't open to blacks. ...So they were willing to pay for you to go out of state. ... It's such a weird thing. I ended up going to school in Chicago, and it was a big eye-opener for me.

What was it like going to college up north, having left the segregated South?

I was so excited to go to Chicago. ... George Williams College is a small school, and it was right in Hyde Park, 53rd and Drexel. ... We had been told we could not compete with white kids, actually told this. I said, "Ha, ha. Who's going to tell me that? It can't be any different! How could they be different?" I had two roommates. One was from Menomonie Falls, Wisc., Jenne Hille, and we're still close today, and Gretchen, who was from Pennsylvania. I got along with both of them. They hated each other. And so this was a unique situation. ... There was one other black girl in the dorm. The majority of the other black kids at the school were city kids.

So was it during your college years that you got involved in the civil rights movement?

My freshman year, I came home (for the summer), and it was really Rudy Allen (now Rev. Allen) who was very much involved. He was going up to Tennessee with John Lewis, and they were going through training, and we had not heard about any of that. He pulled a bunch us together. ... I had friends who were at Fisk who had burns on their backs from people putting cigarettes out on their backs at lunch counters and things. ... A student non-violent coordinator came down and did some training at Daddy's Y in the basement. ... That night we put the call out. They filled the basement of the Y. I mean, it was just tight. But when they started the non-violent (training) ... it separates the men from the boys, because if you cannot accept the fact that somebody will spit in your face and you still don't spit back, you have to look at that person and reach very low to pull love. Half these kids said, "No way." ... By the time the evening was over, we only had a handful of people that continued to move on with the training.

So you integrated the bus system here?

There were six of us, three boys and three girls, and (we) were all over the city of Columbus at bus corners. The bus came, stopped, and we got on, put our money in, and we sat down up front. We all had our books. I sat right behind the driver. No way we were going to be reading. My book was upside down. He looked back through the mirror, and he said, "Oh, no," and he got up, and he demanded that we move on to the back. We didn't stand up. He demanded again, so he pulled the door closed, and then went down a half a block and stopped and went into a little store and called the police. The police came and arrested us. That started a whole process in Columbus.

... You could hear the N-word all over the town of Columbus, trying to get on the buses. We were fingerprinted, we were separated, and we were put into the old jail downtown. ... It was hot, and it was not air-conditioned, and it was stinking. They closed all the windows so we couldn't get any fresh (air). ...

... We were roughed up a little in the cell. We had one young lady... who kind of lost it. You never know how you're going to react, and she began to cry. And we weren't supposed to do that. ... Daddy was on his way to the bank and saw me being arrested and called (attorney) Al Thompson, and said, "Black kids are being arrested. They're down at the jail and let's see what's going on." ... When Albert Thompson -- (later) Judge Thompson -- came down, they tried to arrest him. ... We were released late that night, and Columbus had its first mass meeting. The community came out because the word went all over. ... What we were missing were ministers and teachers. ... At the time, I couldn't understand that. ... Later on I did. ...Black professionals would lose their jobs if they were part of it.

After that, Martin Luther King (Jr.) came to town, and it grew and it grew.

What happened from there?

Well, we had to go back to school, and we had police records, and we were waiting on them to call our case, and they were waiting for us to go back to school so we wouldn't be there when they called it. But Al worked with all of that. Before we came home Christmas, they settled the case, and we didn't have to go to court.

Were the buses integrated as a result of your actions?

It took a little while after that. ... All of us, we went back to school. By the way, the article in the Ledger that talked about this arrest and what was happening called us "outsiders" coming to create a problem. They had me from Chicago, my girlfriend who was at Fisk from Tennessee, my girlfriend who was at Howard from Washington, D.C. They did not say that we were Columbus' children.

Tell me how you got involved in the Carter administration.

I was in Atlanta, and I was working for PBTB. This was the engineering firm ... that did the design and the building of MARTA. I happened to have run into a classmate from George Williams College and they had just come to town, and they were just building their staff up. And he ran into me and knew I had a background in group work, and they interviewed me and hired me. That set up a job. ...I had been home with my babies. The next thing that happened was I started getting involved with some girlfriends who were working with a Georgia legislator for handgun control. ...This was before '76. ...But of that group, came a man who came around and was shaking hands and introducing himself as Jimmy Carter. He had already run for governor. I didn't know anything about that, but here was this Southern man, and it was just unique for somebody to say, "I'm running. I have an interest in a campaign for the presidency." And and we all said, "OK. Yeah, what the heck." ... And we started volunteering.

... I went to New Hampshire twice. We knocked on every door of every Democrat and every Independent in the state of New Hampshire.

I traveled for that entire year with the Carter campaign. ... I did most of the primaries. I did New York. The campaign headquarters was downtown on Fifth Avenue. All the stars from television would come in and volunteer.

How did you become campaign personnel director?

... We were still volunteering for a long time. We were at campaign headquarters morning to night. We worked hard. Then (they) came back and said, "OK, Bunky. Get together. The New York Times is here, and they want to interview the female staff of the Carter campaign." We all looked around. We weren't even calling ourselves staff people, we were just workers. "OK, you're going to be the so-and-so, you're going to be the so-and-so," and we went downstairs.

What was it like when he was elected?

... Nobody expected it. We couldn't even get a place to have the election night activities because all the other candidates had gotten all the plush hotels and things. They don't have that many, and we had to end up at the Carpenter Hotel, which is an old place with wooden floors, but we won.

Then you went on to work for his administration?

I came back home and I thought I was through with the campaign. (Hamilton Jordan, Carter's chief of staff) called (my husband) Charles and said, "No, she's got to come back because we've got transition to do now." I was in charge of personnel. ... I was slated to go into the White House with Anne Wexler (a top aide), which is a pretty big job. ... All this stuff just starts becoming too much and I was still trying to deal with my husband who wants me to come home. Hamilton called Charles and said, "She's staying, so you need to get in your little Volkswagen and drive on up here and we'll put you to work." Charles worked in the White House for about three months until (Max Cleland, administrator of the United States Veterans Administration) called him over to work for the VA. ... Charles later became head of VA (human resources) for the whole country.

How do you feel about President Carter's situation right now with his health and his diagnosis?

Having gone through something like that with my cancer, I understand where he is right now. Mine was a very rare cancer, too. ... He is going to be OK. I know he's OK with himself, and he's a very spiritual man.

Tell me about your bout with cancer.

... My cancer grew for 10 years and I'm going to the doctor every year for my gynecological exam. ... I knew something was wrong. ... My diagnosis came in Loma Linda, Calif. ... Charles ended up deciding that he wanted to work in the hospitals because while he was in the central office he visited every VA hospital, went out all over the country. ... He went back and had his training and then he was given a hospital and it was in California. That's how we got to the West Coast for the first one.

What type of cancer was it?


What part of the body?

... All over, in the soft tissue. I had an 11-hour operation at Loma Linda University Hospital (in California). ... After my operation I had to go in every month ... for my chemo and radiation. ... It was a very difficult kind of thing, but the dietitian would come in every morning and design my meals and at the end of each one of my meals somebody would come in and write down exactly what I ate and what I didn't eat. All that was a part of my chart and all that was a part of my health recovery.

What was the prognosis at the time?

Three to six months.

You've lived how long since then?

Twenty-four years. ... I'm a happy camper.

Now Charles has Alzheimer's. Let's talk about that.

This is a man who reads all the time and studies all the time. ... I'm the one that forgets things. ... All of a sudden it wasn't the forgetful stuff, it was the detachment of not putting something together from yesterday -- not last year or 20 years ago, but yesterday. That was a signal that something just wasn't (right). ... Dr. Jonathan Liss was my daddy's neurologist at the end of his life. ... Tests took two or three days. Then (Charles) came back to Dr. Liss' office and they were putting it all together. They gave him the last test and they said, "You know what? He's just wiping it off the board. It's not Alzheimer's. We've got to figure out what this is." Then he had that last test ... (The doctor) said, "I think we've got to go further." ... We went up to Emory for some other CAT scans. ... The marker was there. It's early onset. ...He's in a clinical trial. ... He goes every other week for this. ... He thinks it's very important to talk about. It's not anything to be ashamed of.

And how are you coping?

... I joined an Alzheimer's care group. These are people who have a loved one with the disease. ... I know where I am, but I sit and listen to where I'm going. I hear their frustrations and we cry. ...I'm really scared to death. I'm in a good spot right now. There are little things that are happening, but I know how we're ending.

But you've lived a very good life. Wouldn't you say that?

I have. ... I'd like to go back and redo some things. ... But I cannot complain.


Age: 74

Hometown: Born in Birmingham, Ala., moved to Columbus at age 4.

Current residence: Columbus

Jobs: Former political appointee under President Jimmy Carter’s administration; retired from the U.S. Department of Health, Education and Welfare; also worked as a legislative assistant in the Office of Civil Rights for many years.

Education: Graduated from Spencer High School in 1959; bachelor’s degree in social work and community organization from George Williams College in Chicago.

Family: Husband, Charles Sr.; son, Chuck; daughter, Candace; and two grandchildren.

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