The most famous moment following the Brown vs. Board of Education ruling is probably the day in 1957 when National Guard intervention was required to get Black students into Little Rock Central High School in Arkansas. But that was just one small example of the vast changes that swept through the Jim Crow South. The first court-mandated desegregation in the former Confederacy was actually in Clinton, Tennessee, in 1956—and the effort was just as fraught with violence, fear and fortitude as the more well-known event in Arkansas.
Historian Rachel Louise Martin (Hot, Hot Chicken) first visited Clinton in 2005 as a researcher involved in an oral history project. Her fascination with that town’s story has now culminated in A Most Tolerant Little Town: The Explosive Beginning of School Desegregation, a day-by-day account of the desegregation of Clinton High School. The book’s title is sadly ironic. After desegregation began, it didn’t take long for a racist intimidation campaign to form, including mob assaults and dynamiting.
At the center of Martin’s tale are the 12 Black students who initially integrated Clinton High and who braved threats and violence against them and their families. But another interesting faction stands out in A Most Tolerant Little Town: the significant number of white people who opposed desegregation but opposed lawlessness even more. Their ranks included judges, National Guard leaders, the high school principal, teachers, student football players and jurors.
Little as many white Tennesseans liked it, desegregation was continually enforced. Tellingly, one turning point on the way to the community’s acceptance of desegregation was the conviction, by a local white jury, of the bigoted rabble who attacked a respected white Baptist minister shortly after he said from the pulpit that Black students in Clinton had a right to attend the high school. The Black victims in town seldom got such justice.
For decades, residents were reluctant to reminisce about these events in Clinton, where Black desegregation pioneers continued to interact daily with their former tormentors. Today, the Clinton 12 are honored with statues and a mural. But in her moving conclusion, Martin stresses that de facto segregation is surging across the U.S. and that the challenge to work together for lasting change is as great as ever.