'A most tolerant little town': The forgotten story of desegregation in Clinton, Tennessee
In August, 1956, in the small town of Clinton, Tennessee 12 boys and girls walked through the doors of the local high school.
“They were the first Black students to enroll in any high school in the former Confederacy under a court order — and they were making American history,” Rachel Martin says.
Jo Ann Allen was one of those students.
“On the inside some of the students were trying to be nice,” Jon Ann Allen says. “In fact, in my homeroom, one young lady nominated me to be vice president of my homeroom.”
Outside, it was a very different story. Segregationists blew up the high school. Years of unrest tore the town apart.
“They were yelling at us, screaming names, they started to throw rotten eggs and tomatoes and, a few rocks got past our heads,” Allen says.
Today, On Point: The forgotten story of desegregation in Clinton, Tennessee.
Rachel Louise Martin, historian and writer. Author of “A Most Tolerant Little Town: The Explosive Beginning of School Desegregation.”
Jo Ann Allen Boyce, one of the 12 Black students who went to Clinton High School. Co-author with Debbie Levy of a young adult book about her experience called “This Promise of Change: One Girl’s Story in the Fight for School Equality.”
Excerpted from A MOST TOLERANT LITTLE TOWN: The Explosive Beginning of School Desegregation by Rachel Louise Martin. Copyright © 2023 by Rachel Louise Martin. Reprinted by permission of Simon & Schuster, Inc. All rights reserved.
NEWS ANNOUCNER: This is Central High School. Little Rock, Arkansas. Troops, which for nearly three weeks lined the sidewalk here in front of the high school, under orders to keep the colored students out have been replaced now. And their order is to comply with the law, which means let the Negro students in if they come in.
MEGHNA CHAKRABARTI: On Sept. 25, 1957, nine Black students were finally able to first step foot inside Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas. They were escorted in by members of the National Guard and the Army’s 101st Airborne Division. Three years earlier, the U.S. Supreme Court had officially ruled that segregated schools were unconstitutional.
The Little Rock Nine had tried multiple times to enter Central High in 1957, but each time they were met with mob violence.
ARCHIVAL FOOTAGE: They got no business out here. This is our school, not theirs. They are their own.
Telephone calls have come to me at the mansion in a constant stream, and the expressions of all are the fear of disorder and violence in this attempt at forcible integration of Central High School.
CHAKRABARTI: On Sept. 2, just before what was supposed to be the student’s first day at school, Arkansas Governor Orval Faubus ordered the state’s National Guard to ring the school and block the Black students’ entrance. They did so for three weeks, in defiance of a federal court ruling that the Guard be removed.
And then on Sept. 25, 1957, President Dwight Eisenhower took the historic step of federalizing the National Guard. He also sent Army troops to Little Rock, as well. And the students finally were able to go to class.
DWIGHT EISENHOWER: Such an extreme situation has been created in Little Rock. This challenge must be met. And with such measures as will preserve to the people as a whole, their lawfully protected rights in a climate permitting their free and fair exercise. In the present case, the troops are there pursuant to law solely for the purpose of preventing interference with the orders of the court.
CHAKRABARTI: Governor Faubus was enraged.
FAUBUS: We are now an occupied territory. Evident of the naked force of the federal government is here apparent in these unsheathed bayonets in the backs of schoolgirls.
ARCHIVAL FOOTAGE, STUDENTS: You guard it all the time. It’s not even like a school, hardly. Every place you walk there is somebody telling you to go on or don’t stand there, something like that.
That’s right. Because there’s no certain place that you can go without someone pushing you on or say, “You can’t stand here, or you can’t do this, or you can’t do that.”
INTERVIEWER: Do the soldiers give these orders to the students?
STUDENTS: They have passed a bulletin around today.
CHAKRABARTI: This is On Point. I’m Meghna Chakrabarti. And those were the voices of white Central High students, expressing the injustice of being told where to stand, what to do, and where they were allowed to be. Of course, this is exactly the treatment that Black Americans had been living under in the segregated South for a century.
Little Rock’s Central High is also the story most Americans know about the earliest efforts at school integration in this country, but it’s not the first. There are others that came earlier, and one of them is almost entirely forgotten today. It’s the story of what happened in the tiny mountain town of Clinton, Tennessee.
Joining me now from Nashville to tell us that story is Rachel Louise Martin. She’s a historian and writer, and her new book is “A Most Tolerant Little Town: The Explosive Beginning of School Desegregation.” Rachel, welcome to On Point.
RACHEL LOUISE MARTIN: Hi, I am so excited to be here today.
CHAKRABARTI: Okay, so Clinton, Tennessee, tell us what the town was like in 1956.
LOUISE MARTIN: On the one hand, it was a fairly small place. There were only a couple thousand people who lived there, and it was on the edge of Tennessee’s coal country. On the other hand, it was about seven miles from the site of the first Tennessee Valley Authority Project, Norris Dam, and it was also seven miles from Oak Ridge, which was one of the Manhattan sites that helped create the atomic bomb during World War II. So it was a very connected and yet isolated place, all at once.
CHAKRABARTI: We’re going to talk a little bit more about Oak Ridge later in the hour. Because it’s interesting that there was a very large federal site right next to Clinton. What were the attitudes of the residents there in the mid-20th century about race and segregation?
LOUISE MARTIN: Most folks, most of the white folks around Clinton like to think of themselves as being pretty moderate for the south, it wasn’t a place where the most extreme or most violent forms of segregation flourished very openly, and yet at the same time, if Black Clintonians went to the Lou Miller department store, they couldn’t try on any clothes.
And if they bought something and it didn’t fit, they could not return it. They could not sit on the bottom floor of the local theater. All of those sorts of rules still govern their lives, and they still attended separate schools, which for the teenagers in Clinton, meant that they actually got bust out of county in order to go to high school.
CHAKRABARTI: So they believe themselves to be relatively tolerant, but still fully embraced separate but equal, which of course Brown v. Board had struck down in 1954. Can you tell me the story then of how Black parents in the community decided to test whether they could use a Supreme Court ruling to send their children to the mostly white school in Clinton?
LOUISE MARTIN: Black parents in town had been fighting for equality and education since about 1865, when the Civil War ended. They had founded multiple different institutions for their kids, sometimes building their schools by hand to make sure that their students couldn’t go to school somewhere. In 1940, there had been no Black high school available to their children.
So only the kids who had parents who could afford to send them away to boarding school got to go to high school. They had threatened desegregation in 1940, which meant the county school board began busing them out to a very bad high school, one county away. At that point, the parents actually brought a lawsuit in 1950, saying, “This situation is inherently unequal.”
It was filed about the same time as the cases that would become Brown v. Board of education. To equalize things, the county decided to send the kids into Knoxville, to a much better high school. But it still, the parents argued, put an undue burden on their children. They couldn’t participate in any extracurriculars.
If the weather was bad, they couldn’t get to school, the roads would wash out, all of those sorts of problems. So when Brown is handed down, the parents with their partners in the NAACP reactivate the court case and argue that the situation where their kids are getting bused to Knoxville is one of those things that is inherently unequal.
At that moment, the federal judge agrees with them. And then he said, “You must desegregate by the following semester.” Which was August of 1956.
CHAKRABARTI: So 12 Black students then enrolled in the high school in Clinton. What happened at first, on the first day? Because again, the year later it would be what happened in Little Rock that truly horrified the nation and captured the nation’s attention.
So what happened the first day in 1956 in Clinton?
LOUISE MARTIN: The first day was, I think, a very interesting contrast. Everybody is testing out the waters, and so there are some protestors outside the school. No one’s really sure how many. It depended on who was counting. Somewhere around 50 to 75 folks were out there.
Some of the kids, the teenagers were holding signs, those sorts of things. They actually, when the Black students walk up to the school doors, everybody goes absolutely silent, instead of shouting. Which some of the Black students found at least as eerie as if they had been shouting the expected slurs.
But nevertheless, the kids get through the doors without too much hassle. And when they get in there, some of them think it goes really well. We’ll be talking with Jo Ann Allen Boyce later. She was elected vice president of her homeroom. Some other kids have conversations with their white peers.
They talk about how their white friends actually … might become friends, they smile at them. A couple of the boys actually come out and tell a journalist, “I think it’s going so well. They might let us try out for the basketball team.” But then by that afternoon things start to disintegrate. And by the evening there’s a massive segregationist rally downtown.
CHAKRABARTI: Okay. So tell me more about what began that disintegration.
LOUISE MARTIN: I think a lot of people in the town did not believe desegregation would actually happen. I think it was so incomprehensible. Segregation had seemed like such an absolutely unassailable tenant of southern life that many people had stayed home that first morning thinking there was no way the Black students would actually be allowed inside.
And then when they were, the segregationist movement had been organizing, since the ruling had been handed down the previous January. About 500 local residents had signed a petition protesting desegregation. There were already some nascent white supremacist organizations getting going. There was already an active clan in the community, and so when the kids actually make it through the front door, I thank everyone panicked, and began moving really fast to try to stop this.
CHAKRABARTI: Rachel, you had talked about how the response from the white residents in Clinton, at first, on the first day, those 12 Black students went to school was muted at the beginning. But then by the end of that day, and as the week progressed, things became explosive, in part because of the entrance of overt racist groups in Clinton.
And so I want to talk a little bit about one of the key figures there. His name is John Casper and he was a neo-Nazi and a member of the Ku Klux Klan, and here he is speaking to a White Citizens’ Council in Kentucky in 1957.
JOHN CASPER: The argument simply does not hold that the white race being a minority, rather being a majority in the United States should turn over to a group of people only removed from slavery 80 years, and only removed from the jungle by a few hundred years. Turn over to them the control of our entire civilization.
CHAKRABARTI: Now again, I want to note that Casper was an overt racist and Klan member. So he uses awful language as you can hear, but we felt it was important to have people hear firsthand what folks like him were saying. Especially because they tied their white supremacy directly to what they believed were the laws that should be kept in place, the laws around segregating schools. So here again is Casper speaking in Kentucky.
CASPER: In 11 years, in every southern state, the segregation laws we are fighting for today were written. Every one of them. By the Ku Klux claim, which saved us all.
And the man who stood face to face at Chickamauga, Braxton Bragg and General Thomas, if they didn’t have a principle to fight and die for, if they said, “We’ll just let this thing go on.” Every single one of us here tonight would be Mulattos and not white. Every one of us.
CHAKRABARTI: Rachel, who was John Casper and what role did he play in turning the Clinton, Tennessee response into an explosive and horrific one?
LOUISE MARTIN: Oh gosh. John Casper is quite a character. He was originally from New Jersey. He had what appears to be a fairly troubled childhood. He was repeatedly kicked out of schools and put into corrective organizations. His parents got him through that and got him into Columbia. He actually graduated from Columbia.
And attempted to enroll in the armed services, but was deemed for F, which means he was not acceptable. I’m not positive why. It could be anything from he had flat feet to, they did not think he was mentally stable. But when that happened, he had become an acolyte of the fascist poet Ezra Pound. And he carried on a long-term correspondence with Pound that lasted for years, in which pound instructed him on all aspects of his life, who to befriend, how to use his business as he opened up a bookstore in honor of Pound in New York City and then in DC. At some point along in there, he also got to know a man named Asa Carter.
Carter was, would become one of Governor George Wallace’s speech writers. He was a very well-known white supremacist and fascist in his own right, and he told John Casper about what was happening in Clinton. As I was doing this research though, my interpretation of Casper’s role in the Clinton story ended up changing.
When I first got started, everybody talked about him as the catalyst or the pied piper that brought this trouble to town. But as I looked at it, first of all, he’s an Ivy League educated Yankee, walking into Appalachia, so that puts him on stable soil to begin with. He showed up this Saturday before desegregation.
He was arrested less than 24 hours later. And he stayed in the local jail until that Thursday. By that Thursday, there were already thousands of people in the streets. White folks rioting, and Casper did a few keynotes. He talked about himself as the leader of the movement. But the locals jettisoned him pretty fast.
They actually bomb his headquarters in December. The local Klan bans him from all meetings in the spring. The white Citizens’ Council bans him from their meetings in the spring, so he liked to think he was in charge. But I think a lot of the locals thought otherwise.
CHAKRABARTI: Yeah. It’s quite something to be even too broken for the clan.
LOUISE MARTIN: It’s a new measure, isn’t it? (LAUGHS)
CHAKRABARTI: Yeah. But this is an important point though. Because as we Americans today look back in history, we tend to gravitate towards these very strong narratives of individuals, right? Having had this outsized impact on how people think and behave.
It’s easier for us to process history that way, rather than facing the more distasteful and horrific truth that it’s from what you’re describing, even though the response in Clinton at first was muted, there was already sufficient racism in town for thousands of people, without the encouragement of a Klan member, to turn around and violently respond to black students trying to get an education to the point that they dynamited the school.
LOUISE MARTIN: Yeah. We love to have very clear heroes who are better than we could ever be, and we love to have very clear villains who are worse than we could ever be. And one of the things I discovered while writing this book is that most history is written by ordinary people who are making choices with how they’re going to treat the other folks around them.
And that means we are all responsible for what is happening in our towns, in our schools, in our societies. We are the history makers. It’s not about the folks who end up on monuments, or giving us horrible sound bites to play on air. It’s about what everyday folks are doing.
CHAKRABARTI: Yeah. And the mirror image of those everyday folks who turn hateful, are the everyday folks who put their lives on the line in order to stand up for their rights as human beings and Americans.
I want to now introduce Jo Ann Allen Boyce into the conversation. Today she joins us from Los Angeles, but she was one of the 12 Black students who went to Clinton High School. And by the way, she’s authored a YA book about her experience. It’s called “This Promise of Change: One Girl’s Story in the Fight for School Equality.”
Ms. Boyce, welcome to On Point.
JO ANN ALLEN BOYCE: Thank you. Glad to be with you.
CHAKRABARTI: So tell me a little bit about your life before you went to Clinton High School and were one of the first brave young people to desegregate the high school. What was it like living there?
BOYCE: I lived in primarily all Black community. We didn’t have a lot of things to do as kids, so we made up our own games and hung out together. Usually around church, we could sit on the church steps and play games. It was a very quiet, very communicable community. Everybody got along really well. Most of our parents worked either in housekeeping, or working in car shops, cleaning up cars, that kind of thing.
Didn’t have a lot of money, but we dressed nice.
CHAKRABARTI: Over the last few days I was actually watching a lot of the television footage from Little Rock. Which happened the year later. And I was particularly focusing in on the incredible faces of bravery from the Little Rock nine, and how their faces are all, they’re just unmoved. All they want is to go to school. And I just had to keep reminding myself, these are teenagers. And so I wanted to know okay, what was happening behind that face of bravery? How did you actually feel Ms. Boyce on the inside, that first day that you stepped into high school at Clinton?
BOYCE: To be honest, I wasn’t actually fearful as much as I just had anxiety about going to a new place. It could have been an all-Black school. And I would’ve felt the same way, just anxious hoping that the day would go well and that we make new friends. And that this was going to work.
That our little town had shown that it was fairly tolerant over time. And that desegregation would just be maybe a week or two of getting used to it. And then it would be okay. Of course, I was highly disappointed on the first day. It wasn’t as bad as the second and third. But you felt the tension in, within the classrooms.
Although as Rachel mentioned earlier, thank you, Rachel, that I had been nominated for the homeroom vice president, and that was very exciting. It was surprising and it was done by one of the girls who had approached us in a friendly manner and had spoken to us. That first day was not as bad as the second and third, because by then the crowd started to grow. And we felt the tension on the inside even more.
CHAKRABARTI: Can you remind me how old you were at the time?
BOYCE: I was 14.
CHAKRABARTI: You were 14?
CHAKRABARTI: I’m in awe.
BOYCE: I entered school early. I graduated early and I entered high school at 14. I turned 15 shortly after, in September. So it wasn’t a long period of time that I was 14.
CHAKRABARTI: Oh, honestly, Ms. Boyce, I am in awe. Because again, just thinking of a 14-year-old putting herself on the line for justice is amazing. Now, given the fact that you were 14, it makes what we’re about to hear even more remarkable. Because there was a documentary made at the time of what was happening in Clinton, Tennessee. And Jo Ann Allen, Jo Ann Allen Boyce now, who was Jo Ann Allen then is in this documentary which we found. So here she is. Here you are. Jo Ann, a 14-year-old, describing your first days at school in 1956.
BOYCE: Monday morning when we started school, there were only a few people around and I thought maybe they’re just here to be curious, and they wanted to see us come in and that they would leave later.
But then on the next day, when more people came and a young boy started walking with signs, I began to wonder and think maybe they’re not going to accept us like I thought they were. And on Wednesday morning, I almost cried to go back home because there were so many people and they looked so mean.
They looked like they didn’t want us at all. I could just see their hate in their hearts. And when we got inside the school, most of the children were very nice to us. And then there was some, they threw paper as, and they shoved us in the halls, and they threw chalk at us and said all such of nasty things.
And it just made me feel bad and I couldn’t concentrate at all on my lessons.
CHAKRABARTI: That’s 14-year-old Jo Ann Allen Boyce in 1956. How does it make you feel to hear that now?
BOYCE: It’s interesting with me, I moved away in December of ’56 and came here to Los Angeles, which was, totally different.
And think about how I was treated in Clinton and as opposed to how I was treated here in Los Angeles. And it still hurts, actually. I didn’t want to carry any hatred or feelings about how we were treated then. I wanted to be a person who rose above all of that. Because I felt like it would influence how I was, the kind of person I would grow up to be.
And I still think that’s true. But when I think about, when I go back to Clinton, actually, on visits, and when I think about it, it still saddens me that we had to go through that, that any kid has to go through that for any reason. And for us. it was primarily the color of our skin.
CHAKRABARTI: Yeah. I hear you loud and clear when you say that you carry that pain, that it still hurts to this day and you’re 81, now. The other thing that I hear in that recording of 14-year-old you is the true, authentic confusion of a young girl who’s on the verge of womanhood, right? About, “Why?”
Because it makes no sense, right? Like why would the children who treated you okay the first day, turn around and pour out all this hate? I think that is still the fundamental question that we’re grappling with as Americans today about racism, isn’t it?
BOYCE: Absolutely. Absolutely. It’s so true. It feels like we’ve gone back to that time, instead of moving forward. It feels like we’re going backwards again. And that saddens me as well. And this is why I continue to speak out against, not just segregation, but hatred. Hatred is something that eats at your soul.
And I feel for the people who are haters. I myself cannot bring myself to hate or dislike or even think of people who mistreated me during that time in a vicious way. As my father said, they were just not educated in the right way.
CHAKRABARTI: I want to play a little bit more of 14-year-old Jo Ann Allen. as she joins us today from Los Angeles. She’s 81, so this is her back in 1956, talking to a reporter from CBS News with her father at her side, recounting what it was like to try and do schoolwork in the middle of violence and anger.
BOYCE: Doing all the excitement, all the things that the people are doing.
I was able to accomplish something. I made two A’s and a B, and the only grade was a C. Which isn’t very bad, but I wish it had been an A or B one. My teachers were very proud of me and my parents were, too. Because they thought I did well, even through all of the strain that we did have to go through, because sometimes I couldn’t keep my mind on my lessons.
But thinking about the people on the outside and what they were thinking of.
CHAKRABARIT: Oh, Ms. Boyce hearing you lament your C, just grabs my heart. It really does. Now you mentioned your father. So we have the voice of Herbert Allen, your father, talking about the family’s decision to leave Clinton and move to California, as you said, in December of 1956.
And he talks about how you didn’t leave only because of the unrest, but also for better opportunities that he hoped were to be found in California.
BOYCE: We’re not leaving here with hatred in our hearts against anyone, even those who was against us. We do not hate those people. Because we realize that those people just misled.
And they was trained and brought up the way, that way, that’s why they were never able to understand.
This article was originally published on WBUR.org.
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