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Read More:
Who are the Clinton Twelve?
The Story of the Green McAdoo School
The Role of the Churches in Clinton's Desegregration
Timeline

The Story of Desegregation in Clinton, Tennessee

Fifty years ago, 12 young people from East Tennessee walked into history and changed the world.

On January 4, 1956, in the wake of the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling in Brown vs. Board of Education, a Federal District Court judge suspended his previous decision in McSwain vs. Anderson County. Judge Robert Taylor ordered Clinton High School to desegregate for the coming school term.

Students and their families, preachers and teachers – the entire town prepared for the change, and on August 27, 1956, most of the students gathered at Green McAdoo School and walked down Foley Hill. In the late spring of 1957, Bobby Cain, the oldest of the Clinton 12, was the first Black student to graduate from an integrated public high school in the South.1

In 1950, African American parents challenged the unfairness of the school system, especially the lack of black high school education in Anderson County. In August 1950, four black youth eligible to attend Clinton High School, except for their race, attempted to enroll at the school but were rejected by school officials. On December 5, 1950, a group of citizens filed a lawsuit which became known as McSwain et al. v. County Board of Education of Anderson County, Tennessee (104 F. Supp. 1861, 1952). The filing of the case surprised many Clinton residents. As historian Janice McClelland observed, “A great many people held, and still hold, that white Clintonians may not have welcomed the idea of desegregation, believing that, so long as colored schools were ‘equal,’ there was no reason to breach time-honored community custom and integrate the school system.”2 The county had recently made improvements to the African American school, not placing it on the same level as white schools, but certainly improving the comfort of students with the cafeteria and inside restrooms. To many white residents, their good will was evident in the renovation as well as the renaming of the school in honor of Green McAdoo.

When the McSwain case finally received a hearing on February 13, 1952, in the U.S. District Court of Knoxville, Judge Robert L. Taylor presiding, the local citizens were represented by a powerful group of activist African American attorneys. Z. Alexander Looby and Avon N. Williams of Nashville would later gain great fame from their role in the Nashville Civil Rights struggle and Student Movement of the late 1950s and early 1960s. Carl A. Cowan of Knoxville was a locally respected African American counsel, but most importantly was the presence of Thurgood Marshall of the Legal Defense Fund of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) in New York City. Marshall’s involvement meant that the NAACP considered the proceedings about Clinton to be of national significance and that the case had the potential of being yet another building block in the NAACP’s patient 3legal strategy of undermining segregation.

In his ruling announced on April 26, 1952, Federal District Judge Taylor denied the lawsuit and upheld the position of the county school board. Judge Taylor rejected the argument presented by Looby, Williams and Marshall that white and black students were “similarly situated” and therefore it violated the separate but equal doctrine for African Americans to attend high school in another county. Taylor argued: “Plaintiffs pinpoint their case upon Clinton, and confine their proof to the effect of this alleged discrimination upon Clinton Negroes. It is a situation that exists in hundreds of towns, in Tennessee and out, where Negro students who live near a white school must pass it by and go to a Negro school located at varying distances beyond, and it exists at all levels, from the elementary school to the college, or university.”

The judge responded: “This ‘similarly situated’ theory is the doctrine of equal protection carried to its ultimate extreme. Counsel for plaintiffs deny they are attacking segregation of races, but in the situation here stated, their action, as will be seen from a review of the facts, can be nothing else.”4

From testimony given in cross-examination, Judge Taylor said that the students “are not aggrieved at present arrangements. Nor are they happy in their role of hostility toward defendants [white education officials] who are their neighbors and personal friends.”5

Judge Taylor was also not convinced that the African American families were terribly inconvenienced by separate schools. He even argued the point that probably half of the white students were in worse shape and had just as much a reason to claim a denial of equal protection, and that the African American Austin High School in Knoxville had superior facilities in several ways than the white schools in Anderson County. In the end, Judge Taylor decided Clinton African Americans had little to complain about and the problems and inconveniences of separate schools were “too small to be regarded as a denial of constitutional rights.”6

Brown v. Board of Education
The federal courts ruling, while strongly in favor of school segregation, also told local officials that unless the African American schools remained close in quality to the white schools of the county, the county could expect a different type of court ruling from Judge Taylor. The legal setting changed, however, on May 17, 1954 when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Brown v. Board of Education that segregation was unequal and struck down the separate but equal foundation of Jim Crow segregation. Two-and-one-half weeks later, the U.S. Court of Appeals, Sixth Circuit, in a hearing where the Clinton black families were again represented by Looby, Williams, Cowan, and Marshall, reversed Taylor’s 1952 ruling and returned McSwain et al. v. County Board of Education of Anderson County to federal district court for a new decision “in accordance with the decision of the Supreme Court in Brown et al. v. Board of Education.”7

Anderson County and City of Clinton officials moved quickly to upgrade African American school facilities in a last ditch effort to calm local African American residents and to delay school desegregation. For example, the city and county agreed to fund and construct a regulation-size basketball court and gymnasium at Green McAdoo School in 1954. Janice McClelland points out: “The better educational interests of the county’s black children, and certainly an interest in equal educational opportunities, hardly seems to have been a consideration of the school board until pressed to take an interest. Much, too, can be read into the major expenditures that were made for the construction of entirely new facilities for the black students of Anderson County between the years 1954 and 1958.” McClelland believes that “the board’s attitude towards its black students is made clear not only by the eleventh-hour expenditures it made on black educational facilities, but by its legal actions and public sentiments. The Anderson County Board of Education, in fact, made every effort to prevent desegregation by legal means” until the summer of 1955 when it decided that a policy of delay was best—eventual desegregation could not be avoided. Neighboring Oak Ridge had quietly ordered the desegregation of its city schools that same year since Oak Ridge was still under federal jurisdiction at this time, operating separately from the state system of education and the decision there was to comply with Brown v. Board of Education quickly. In reaction, the county education board created an “integration committee” to develop an integration plan and authorized the county attorney to ask the federal district court to grant “’a reasonable period of time to allow for completion of this study.’” Members of the committee included the principal of Green McAdoo School, white and black principals across the county, presidents of black and white PTAs, and various county and city officials.8

Clinton High School is Ordered to Desegregate
The policy of delay worked for a few months, hindering integration for the 1955-56 school year. On January 4, 1956, Federal District Judge Robert L. Taylor in his final decree followed the Supreme Court’s Brown decision and ordered the Anderson County School Board to end segregation by no later than the fall term of 1956. Once the ruling requiring integration, confined at this time solely to the high school, became the law of the land, most Clinton residents accepted it. No public displays of outrage or attempts to stop the process took place in the summer of 1956. Registration of 12 African American students took place without incident on August 20, 1956. On August 27, 1956, 10 of the Clinton 12 gathered at the Green McAdoo School and then walked together to the white high school (a procedure that they typically followed every day), without incident. By the next day, Tuesday, there were threats, violence, and large, agitated crowds, fired up by the harangues of John Kasper. The tension level escalated overnight and on Wednesday, August 29, 1956, Federal Judge Robert L. Taylor issued a temporary restraining order, forbidding Kasper, five Clinton residents, and "all other persons who are acting or may act in concert with them. . . from further hindering, obstructing, or in any way interfering with the carrying out" of integration in Clinton.9 When Kaspar and his followers continued their protests and agitation that very day, addressing a crowd of 1,000 to 1,500 and bragging that the restraining order was meaningless and the Brown decision was not the law of the land. Judge Taylor ordered federal marshals to arrest Kasper for criminal contempt of court. On August 30, Kaspar and counsel appeared before Judge Taylor. The federal court found that the contempt citation was legal, that First Amendment rights had not been abridged, and that Kasper had willfully violated the restraining order. Judge Taylor handed down a one-year sentence to Kasper. This aggressive federal action was a first in the implementation of the Brown v. Board of Education decision. A federal judge had ordered agents of the federal executive to intercede in a local police matter to arrest and detain suspects accused of violating federal order.10

Kasper appealed his conviction and served little jail time, but on June 1, 1957, the U.S. Court of Appeals, Sixth Circuit ruled in Kasper v. Brittain, et al. (245 F. 2d 92) that Kasper's detention and conviction were legal.

Taking Kasper out of the picture, however, did not calm the situation. That Labor Day weekend, white pro-segregationists, led by Asa Carter, arrived in Clinton and began to rally many white citizens to join them in protests against the black students and the prospect of integration. Full scale rioting broke out. Cars were overturned, windows smashed, and African American travelers, some of them serviceman who happened to be coming through, were frightened. Youngsters and juvenile-minded adults had taken over the town, threatening to dynamite the mayor's house, the newspaper plant, and even the courthouse. The black residential community was also threatened by segretationists driving through. The small Clinton police force was overwhelmed, and city officials asked Tennessee Governor Frank G. Clement for help. Other city residents formed a "Home Guard" to protect property and lives from the white mob until state assistance could arrive. The Home Guard courageously confronted the mob on the courthouse square, but no violence resulted. With the arrival of approximately 600 guardsmen, and their occupation of the town, the worse of the violence abated.11 The use of the National Guard was another first in the Civil Rights Movement. The National Guard stayed in Clinton for the rest of September to keep order.

Tensions Continued During the Fall
During the fall, public support for high school principal David J. Brittain and the peaceful integration of the school remained very high, with most citizens adhering to the view that the "law of the land" must be obeyed. Nevertheless, even after crowds dispersed, segregationists continued to engage in intimidation tactics. Crosses were burned on the lawns of some high school faculty members, as well as at the homes of civic leaders who supported integration. Other incidents included rock throwing and threatening phone calls. As the intimidation escalated, shots were fired at the home of two black students attending Clinton High School, and dynamite blasts punctuated the peace of the county. Kasper returned to Clinton in November and organized a Junior White Citizens Council composed mostly of high school students.12

Tensions continued in spite of the state intervention, especially once a slate of pro-segregrationists challenged city incumbents in municipal elections. The segregation of the schools was the key issue. Harrasment and threats escalated against the African American children, their property, and their institutions to the point that the black parents met at the Green McAdoo School and decided they could no longer send their children to the white school. Then in an amazing turn of events, a white Baptist minister, Reverend Paul Turner, Pastor of the First Baptist Church, along with Sidney Davis and Leo Burnett, escorted the black students from Foley Hill to Clinton High School on December 4, 1956, the day of municipal elections. Once the three white leaders left the students at school, they went their separate ways and a white mob severely beat Rev. Turner. In reaction to the attack and other threatened violence, Principal David J. Brittain closed the high school, and did not reopen until December 10, 1956, during which time Federal Judge Robert Taylor had again reaffirmed his court injunction forbidding anyone with interfering with the integration process.13

At a general assembly of the student body on Decemter 10, the county attorney read U.S. District Court Judge Robert L. Taylor's injunction. Agents of the Federal Bureau of Investigation soon arrested sixteen Clinton agitators for violating the injunction and arraigned them before the U.S. District Court.

The Clinton 12 Meet Rosa Parks
The Twelve Clinton students were invited to a workshop at Highland Center and met with Rosa Parks in December 1956.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Bobby Cain
Attention is often focused on Bobby Cain, a senior, who would be the first African American graduate of a white public high school in the South since Jim Crow. David J. Brittain, Clinton High School principal, knew the danger of allowing young Cain to go through the graduation ceremonies. He really feared for Bobby's life. To protect Bobby during graduation, Principal Brittain organized a protective student patrol comprised mostly of the football team, who were among some of the best students in the class. After the ceremony, when it came time for the graduates to go into the basement to change out of their caps and gowns, Bobby had to go it alone. While he was in the basement, the lights went off and someone hit Bobby in the face. Bobby's mother, the late Beatrice Cain, was afraid someone had put dynamite in their car when she saw someone walking away from it. Bobby considered his graduation "a great honor - a great achievement." But as a 16-year-old in 1956, he felt more scared than heroic. Bobby withstood immense pressure and had no other black student to look up to as a role model. As the only Black senior eligible to graduate, he knew the segregationists meant to stop him from getting the high school diploma he had earned.14

Regina Turner
How did others of the Clinton 12 view the events of the fall of 1956? Regina Turner stayed at Clinton High School through her sophmore and junior years. "I refused to leave. People told us "if you quit, that will end the ideas of desegregation. I got angry and I guess I'm stubborn." Nevertheless, after two years she did give up and went to her mother's hometown of Tallahassee, Florida, to live with an aunt and to graduate from a still segregated Black high school. "In Clinton, it was just go to school and come home. We couldn't go to football or basketball games or any social event at school. I wanted more than that." Also, she remained angry, at times even angrier than she was during that walk through hateful crowds that December day. Turner had always resented that there was never enough of anything in the Black schools; students always got leftover equipment and books from some white school. "Green McAdoo Elementary School was never even painted inside," she recalled. She also remember one confrontation between black students and a white student who was "a terrible agitator and a leader of the student White Citizens group." Regina recalled that one of the Black students, whom she did not perceive as a troublemaker, was expelled and not the troublemaker. "I was too angry to be afraid. I hope I never get so angry again. I was angry enough to do something horrible and not care."15

Jo Ann Allen
Jo Ann Allen, another of the original 12 Black students, wrote that she was "very afraid," yet she had ambivalent feelings about her family moving away from the trouble. However, she also recalled that in Clinton, her education was being compromised "because of too many days out of school because of the constant threats of violence or death. This bitter struggle was hindering my forward motion. And, although I didn't want to give up 'the fight', my family packed up and moved." She agreed with Regina Turner that Blacks were not treated fairly in Clinton. "There was a time in Clinton when I thought I was pretty smart, but I found myself working twice as hard when we moved to California. By classroom standards here, I was very behind. It was probably the second-hand Dick and Jane books and the scarred second-hand desks, and the outdated educational programs we had to endure when the white children were through with them." Jo Ann did, however, praise one teacher. "I am very grateful to an excellent first grade teacher named Theresa E. Blair, who gave most of us Clinton Black kids a wonderful start. Without her, things would have been worse, but she got us through even using those second-hand books."16

Jo Ann also stated, "Our white neighbors who had shared our food and toys and friendship began to harass us in the night, especially if our parents were away. Since most of the articles I clipped were written by the Southern press, there was little or no condemnation of what was happening to us."17

Gail Ann Epps
For Gail Ann Epps, the most horrible feeling came September 1956 when the National Guard arrived. It was a Sunday morning and we were in church. Even though we saw them as protectors, it was just like war. Although Epps was grateful that she did not come into contact with its members, one indirect experience made a strong impression upon her. She vividly remembered what happened to James Chandler, a Clinton sailor she was dating. On one occasion when Chandler came to visit her, he was taken into protective custody after being harassed and threatened. He was caught up by a mob shouting, Let's beat this nigger, when he was on his way back to Knoxville, and the National Guard had to rescue him, She recalled his fear, both of the mob and of the rather rough guardsmen.18

On May 17, 1957, exactly three years after the Brown v. Board of Education decision, Bobby Cain graduated from Clinton High School and became the first African American graduate of a state supported public integrated high school in the south. The following spring of 1958, Gail Ann Epps became the first African American female to graduate from a public integrated high school in Tennessee. The fall before her graduation, on October 5, 1958, Clinton High School was bombed and much of the school was destroyed. With the assistance of Evangelist Billy Graham, Columnist Drew Pearson, and a host of local citizens, the school was rebuilt.

Desegregation of All Grades Did Not Occur Until 1965
Not until 1965 would the Green McAdoo School end its days as a segregated blacks-only institution. Finally, in that year, the 10-year struggle to desegregate public education in Clinton and Anderson County was over.
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1 Janice M. McClelland, "Clinton Desegregration Crisis," Carroll Van West, et al., eds., Tennessee Encyclopedia of History and Culture (Nashville: Tennessee Historical Society, 1998), 182;
McClelland, "Structural Analysis," passism;
June N. Adamson, "Few Black Voices Heard: The Black Community and the 1956 Desegregation Crisis in Clinton," Trial and Triumph: Essays in Tennessee's African American History, ed. Carroll Van West (Knoxville, 2002), 334-349;
in 2004, the Library of Congress produced an exhibit and a website titled "With an Even Hand": Brown v. Board at Fifty (www.loc.gov/exhibits/brown), which covered the Clinton events as the first example of integration in the South.

2"Mt. Sinai Baptist Church, Anderson County," and "Asbury United Methodist Church, Anderson County," Rural African American Church Survey Records. MTSU Center for Historic Preservation;
Janice M. McClelland, "A Structural Analysis of Desegregration: Clinton High School 1954-1958," Tennessee Historical Quarterly 56(Fall 1997): 296.

3 See the biographical entries for Zephaniah Alexander Lobby and Avon N. Williams in the online edition of the Tennessee Encyclopedia of History and Culture (http://tennesseeencyclopedia.net)

4 McSwain et al. v. County Board of Education of Anderson County, Tennessee (104 F. Supp. 862-3, 1952).

5 Ibid., 864.

6 Ibid., 872.

7 McSwain et al. v. County Board of Education of Anderson County, Tennessee (214 F.2d 131, 1954).

8McClelland, "Structural Analysis," 299.

9Federal Judge Bans School Picketing," Clinton Courier-News, August 30, 1956.

10Russell W. Maddox, "The Federal Executive and Desegregation," Western Political Quarterly 10(Sept. 1957: 739-740.

11Adamson, "Few Black Voices Heard;"
McClelland, "Structural Analysis."

12McClelland, "Clinton Desegregation Crisis." 182.

13Adamson, "Few Black Voices Heard;"
McClelland, "Structural Analysis."

14George McMillan, "The Ordeal of Bobby Cain," Collier's, 23 November 1956, 68-69;
June N. Adamson, "Clinton High School's First Black Graduate was 40 Years Ago," Oak Ridger, 16 May 1997, p. 1A.

15Adamson, "Few Black Voices Heard," 342-346.

16Ibid.

17Ibid.

18Ibid.