by Mamie Hassell
Do YOU love school? Smart teachers, cool computers, a fun playground, art class, fancy instruments for music class, a big library, wonderful sports, and a tasty cafeteria for lunch. Are these some of your favorite things about it? Well what if your school had all this cool stuff, but another school in your town did not? Do you think this would be fair?
Sadly, schools were not always equal. Black students were not given rights because of the color of their skin. Many Black communities in the South were poor. They did not have money to spend on schools. The government did little to help with Black schools. However, this all changed in 1954 when the Supreme Court had a case called Brown v. Board of Education. The case decided it was unfair for Black and white children to go to separate schools. White schools had better facilities that Black children could not use.
Political Cartoon by Segregationists, TSM Collection
The Supreme Court ruling changed Tennessee. Black citizens began fighting for their children’s right to a better education. The earliest changes began in Clinton, Tennessee. The McSwain family sued the all-white Clinton High School because their daughter, Alvah, could not attend because she was Black. In January of 1956, the court ruled that Clinton High must admit Black students in the next school year.
Before the decision, Clinton bused Black students 20 miles to a segregated, all-Black high school in Knoxville. However, integration was coming to Clinton now and they had to follow the law. Since Clinton High would be the first integrated state-run public school in Tennessee, the news went wild when it happened. Twelve Black students registered on August 20, 1956.
The Clinton 12:
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.
Photo Courtesy of the Library of Congress.
The students, known as the Clinton 12, prepared for the integration process. They did not know what to expect. This made them nervous. The white community did not support them. On August 26, 1956, the Clinton 12 integrated state-run Tennessee public schools—they were very brave! Their first day of school went well, but challenges began to pop up.
“The Halting and Fitful Battle for Integration.” From the Sep. 17, 1956 issue of LIFE magazine, TSM Collection.
Angry mobs and members of the Ku Klux Klan showed up at the school to protest. They were filled with racial hatred and did not want white and Black students in the same school. The protestors called the Clinton 12 mean names and hurt them physically. It got so bad that the school had to close. The National Guard had to come and protect the town of Clinton and members of the Clinton 12.
Letter from the Sherriff in Clinton, TN to Governor of TN asking for help from National Guard, TSM Collection.
When school reopened, many students were mean to the Clinton 12. Sadly, since they were bullied so badly, only six of the twelve remained at Clinton High School for the 1956 school year. Some of their families even moved to other states because they were so afraid of the violence against their families. Bobby Cain (1957) and Gail Ann Epps (1958) were the only Clinton 12 members to graduate Clinton High School -- making them the first Black male and female to graduate an integrated state-run Tennessee public school.
White students harass Bobby Cain as he enters Clinton High School, Photo Courtesy of Library of Congress.
Two years after Clinton High School integrated, the school was bombed and destroyed. No one was hurt, but the bomber was never found or brought to justice. Clinton High School was rebuilt. It reopened in September of 1960 and has remained integrated. The Clinton 12 believed in equality as a basic human right and their sacrifice serves as a reminder of what we can do by having courage and patience.
The Green McAdoo Cultural Center in Clinton is a museum dedicated to telling the story of the Clinton 12, Photo Courtesy of the Green McAdoo Cultural Center.
Supreme Court - The highest court in the United States controlled by the judicial branch of government.
Brown v. Board of Education - In 1954, the United States Supreme Court decided that public schools should not be segregated. Before that, many cities, especially in the South, had separate schools for Black and white students. The decision helped to inspire the Civil Rights Movement of the late 1950s and 1960s.
Integration - To bring different groups of people together.
Ex: integrating a school with both white and Black students.
Segregation - To set apart or divide groups of people.
Ex: segregating people based on the color of their skin.
Bused - to be transported as a group.
Ex: Black students were bused to a school far away.
Clinton 12 - The first 12 students to integrate a state-run public school in Tennessee.
Mob - A large group of people who try to cause trouble, often using violence.
Ku Klux Klan - A club that uses violence and terror to spread their belief that white people are the best race and Black people are inferior.
National Guard - A military group maintained by the United States for federal use.
Racist - Someone who discriminates, is unfair, or judges someone because of their race.
What was the outcome of Supreme Court case Brown v. Board of Education in 1954?
Of the Clinton 12, how many graduated from Clinton High School?
How do you think the Clinton 12 members felt on the first day of school?
Through their bravery, the Clinton 12 impacted the Civil Rights Movement.
Do you think they realized how important their decision to attend Clinton High School would be?
What inspires you most about the Clinton 12?
Learn more about Brown v. Board of Education:
Learn more about the Tennessee State Museum and the Clinton 12:
Learn more about the Green McAdoo Cultural Center in Clinton, Tennessee:
Read more about the Clinton 12 in This Promise of Change:
Watch more on the Clinton 12:
Mamie Hassell is an Educator at the Tennessee State Museum.