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Clinton Desegregation Crisis

Two of Clinton High School's first African-American students.

A series of events from 1947 to 1958 placed the Civil Rights story of Clinton, the seat of Anderson County, on the national stage as one of the starting points in the modern Civil Rights movement. With the end of World War II, local African American citizens began to demand more equal school facilities, noting that their two-classroom building that had no cafeteria, no gymnasium, no indoor restrooms, and no high-school classes. In reaction, local officials approved an expansion to Clinton Colored School, adding a cafeteria and interior restrooms, in 1947-48. They also agreed to change the school name to honor African American resident Green L. McAdoo, an army veteran who had been one of famed “Buffalo Soldiers” in the late-nineteenth-century West. In 1896, at about forty years of age, Green McAdoo returned home from the army and was employed as custodian of the Anderson County Courthouse for twenty-five years.

Next, African Americans challenged in federal courts the lack of black high-school education in Anderson County. In August 1950, four black youths who were eligible to attend Clinton High School attempted to enroll but were rejected by school officials. In December 1950 a group of citizens filed a lawsuit, which became known as McSwain et al. v. County Board of Education of Anderson County, Tennessee. The lawsuit received its hearing on February 13, 1952, in the U.S. District Court of Knoxville, with 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 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 attorney. But most important 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 signified that the NAACP considered the Clinton proceedings to be of national significance, and that the case had the potential of being yet another building block in the NAACP’s patient legal strategy of undermining segregation.

In his ruling of April 1952, Judge Taylor denied the lawsuit and upheld the position of the county school board. Taylor rejected the argument that it violated the separate but equal doctrine for African Americans to attend high school in another county, and he was not convinced that the African American families were terribly inconvenienced by separate schools. Two years later, however, the federal legal landscape totally changed when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Brown v. Board of Education (1954) that segregation was inherently unequal and struck down the separate but equal doctrine. Two-and-a-half weeks later, the U.S. Court of Appeals, Sixth Circuit, reversed Taylor’s 1952 ruling and returned McSwain et al. v. County Board of Education to federal district court for a new decision.

Local government officials moved quickly to upgrade African American school facilities to placate local blacks and to delay desegregation. They also appointed a committee to develop an integration plan, which delayed integration for the 1955-56 school year. Then, in January 1956, Federal Judge Taylor ordered the school board to end segregation by the fall term of 1956.

No public displays of outrage or attempts to stop the process took place in the summer of 1956. Registration of twelve African American students took place without incident on August 20. The following weekend, however, white pro-segregationists arrived in Clinton and began to rally many white citizens to join them in protest. Two days before classes began, John Kasper, executive secretary of the Seaboard White Citizens Council, arrived in the city and issued a call for mass meetings of pro-segregationists and the organization of picketers. Nevertheless, on Monday, August 26, 1956, the “Clinton Twelve” made history by walking down Foley Hill from Green McAdoo School to attend classes at the high school; they were the first students to desegregate a state-supported Tennessee high school and the first to do so in any southern state.

The first day of integrated classes happened without a major incident, but the next day was filled with 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 Taylor issued a temporary restraining order, forbidding Kasper and his followers from interfering with school integration. Yet, Kasper that very day addressed a crowd of 1,000 to 1,500, bragging that the restraining order was meaningless and that the Brown decision was not the law of land. Judge Taylor ordered federal marshals to arrest Kasper for criminal contempt of court. On August 30, he gave Kasper a one-year sentence. His aggressive 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 a federal order designed to allow desegregation to proceed in an orderly manner.

Taking Kasper out of the picture, however, did not calm the situation. Asa Carter, another White Citizens Council leader from Birmingham, Alabama, joined the protest effort in Clinton. Crowds at the courthouse continued to grow, reaching 1,500 according to some estimates. Then, on a hot, steamy Labor Day Weekend, September 1-2, 1956, full-scale rioting broke out. Cars were overturned, windows smashed, and Negro travelers, some of them servicemen 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 segregationists driving through, but this was reported only later when dynamite was thrown in their neighborhood. The small Clinton police force was overwhelmed, and city officials asked 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. With the arrival of approximately 600 guardsmen, and their occupation of the town, the worst of the violence ended. The use of the National Guard by Governor Clement was another first in the Civil Rights movement. The National Guard stayed in Clinton for the rest of September to keep order.

For Governor Clement, the Clinton request had been a moment of truth: Would the state’s chief executive support the law of land and a request from city officials or would he refuse to activate the National Guard (the situation that occurred in Little Rock, Arkansas, the following year)? Governor Clement activated state highway patrolmen and National Guard forces to maintain the peace and keep the roads open in Clinton. Segregationists across Tennessee decried Clement’s decision, but as the news from Clinton received national and international attention, other Tennesseans praised the governor’s decision to intervene.

That fall, 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.

Tensions continued in spite of the state’s intervention, especially once a slate of pro-segregationists challenged city incumbents in municipal elections. The segregation of the schools was the main, and really only, issue. Harassment and threats escalated against the African American children, their property, and their institutions to the point that the black parents met at 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, and others escorted the black students to Clinton High School on December 4, 1956, the day of municipal elections. That morning, the Reverend Paul Turner of the white First Baptist Church, along with Sidney Davis and Leo Burnett, met the high-school students at Green McAdoo School and escorted them down Foley Hill to the white high school, creating in effect a white human shield to protect and reassure the black students. Once the three white leaders left the students at school, they went their separate ways and a white mob severely beat Reverend Turner on his way to First Baptist Church. In reaction to the attack on Turner, and other threatened violence, Principal David J. Brittain closed the high school and did not reopen it until December 10, during which time Federal Judge Robert Taylor again reaffirmed his court injunction forbidding anyone from interfering with the integration process.

In December 1956 and January 1957, leading national journalists were in Clinton recording the events and interviewing local residents. CBS TV’s Edward R. Murrow produced one of his famous “See It Now” programs on Clinton, titled “Clinton and the Law.” The process of desegregation in Clinton became national and international news throughout the spring of 1957. Attention 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. 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 not only in Tennessee, but also in the South. The following spring, in 1958, Gail Ann Epps became the first African American female to graduate from a public integrated high school in Tennessee. Sadly, on Sunday morning, October 5, 1958, Clinton High School was bombed and much of the school was destroyed. But with the assistance of evangelist Billy Graham, columnist Drew Pearson, and a host of local citizens, the school was rebuilt.

The desegregation of Clinton High School in 1956-58 was not replicated at the city’s primary grammar school for African Americans. Not until 1965 would the Green McAdoo School end its days as a segregated blacks-only institution. Finally, in that year, the ten-year struggle to desegregate public education in Clinton and Anderson County was over.

Suggested Reading

June N. Adamson, "Few Black Voices Heard: The Black Community and the Desegregation Crisis in Clinton, Tennessee, 1956," Tennessee Historical Quarterly 53 (1994): 30-41.

Published » December 25, 2009 | Last Updated » January 01, 2010