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by Mamie Hassell
The 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, ratified in 1868, stated that “no state may deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the law.” Many Southern states found loopholes when the Plessy v. Ferguson Supreme Court case ruled in 1896 that the 14th Amendment was not violated as long as the state provided “separate but equal” facilities or accommodations for African Americans.
In 1954, the Supreme Court ruled in Brown v. Board of Education that “separate schools for black and white children are inherently unequal and deprive black children of the equal protection of the law guaranteed by the 14th Amendment.” Tennessee had failed for nearly eighty years at establishing “equal” facilities, and the decision stunned the South. Federal court case McSwain v. County Board of Education of Anderson County, TN, ruled in January 1956 that “all-white Clinton High must admit black students in their upcoming school year.”
Prior to 1956, Clinton bused African American students twenty miles to a segregated high school in Knoxville, though integration was upon them. The ruling launched Tennessee into the national spotlight, and 12 African American students registered on August 20, 1956: Alfred Williams, Alvah Jay McSwain, Anna Theresser Caswell, Bobby Cain, Gail Ann Epps, Maurice Soles, Minnie Ann Dickey, Regina Turner, Robert Thacker, Ronald Gordon Hayden, William Latham, and Jo Ann Allen.
Our ancestors have seen slavery,
and we’re done with that.
Unlike those 12 sons of Israel,
we twelve sons and daughters of Clinton will not have
descendants in slavery.
That’s not me being optimistic.
That’s the gospel truth.
-This Promise of Change, Jo Ann Allen Boyce, Jan. 2019
The combination of state segregation laws and an unspoken code of conduct allowed the races to coexist in Clinton; though it prevented African Americans from prospering. The students, known as the Clinton 12, prepared for the integration process, pondering the potential challenges. Although the white leadership of Clinton followed the federal law, it was clear they did not embrace integration.
On August 27, 1956, the Clinton 12 integrated Tennessee public schools — a unified front. The first day was successful, but the peace was short lived. Protestors, mobs, and Klansmen filled with racial hatred flocked to Clinton. By November, the Clinton 12 could not attend school due to harassment and violence against them by white mobs. The school closed until National Guardsmen neutralized threats and reopened in December with lowered enrollment. When they returned, the limited cordiality amongst students had been severed. The Clinton 12 faced isolation, harassment and violence.
Of the Clinton 12, only six remained through the 1956 school year. Bobby Cain (1957) and Gail Ann Epps (1958) were the only members to graduate Clinton High School — making them the first African American male and female to graduate an integrated Tennessee school. Twenty-six months after the Clinton 12 integrated Clinton High, the school was bombed and destroyed. Despite no injury, the responsible party was never identified or prosecuted. Clinton High rebuilt and opened in September 1960 and has remained integrated. The Clinton 12 embraced racial equality as a human right and their efforts serve as a testament to courageous perseverance.
We, at the museum, have been honored to meet Jo Ann Allen Boyce and help share her story as a member of the Clinton 12. We were heartbroken to hear of the passing of her grandson, Cameron Boyce. He was committed to telling her story. As are we. We hope that you will learn more about the Clinton 12 here at the Tennessee State Museum and at the Green McAdoo Cultural Center in Clinton, Tennessee.
If you are interested in learning more about the Clinton 12, we encourage you to attend our book club on July 18, 2019, at 6pm. We will discuss This Promise of Change, a novel by Debbie Levy and Jo Ann Allen Boyce — one of the members of the Clinton 12. Following the discussion, guests are welcome to view the civil rights section of the museum, where a portion highlights the achievements of the Clinton 12. Please RSVP to Mamie Hassell at Mamie.Hassell@tn.gov.
Learn more about the Tennessee Book Club
Book cover illustration by Ekua Holmes
Pictured in image above: Bobby Cain, one of the Clinton 12, speaks with WSMV news anchor Alan Frio in the Clinton 12 exhibition area of the Tennessee State Museum.
Mamie Hassell is a member of the Museum's Public Programs staff and organizer of the Tennessee Bookclub.