History July 21, 2022 at 03:42 pm

Remembering the Clinton 12, first African-American teens to desegregate a public school in the South

Mildred Europa Taylor | Head of Content

Mildred Europa Taylor July 21, 2022 at 03:42 pm

July 21, 2022 at 03:42 pm | History

Clinton Twelve walking to Clinton High School, Tennessee, Sept. 5, 1956. Photo © Knoxville News Sentinel, Fair use image

In 1956, 12 young African-American students made history in Clinton, Tennessee, when they became the first students to desegregate a state-supported high school in the south. But the troubles continued right after.

Years earlier, in the 1940s, the African-American community of Clinton, Tennessee, had been fighting for the right to high school education. And after Brown v. Board of Education which called for the desegregation of public schools across the nation, a federal judge, Robert L. Taylor, ordered Clinton High School to desegregate with “all deliberate speed” in the fall of 1956.

Twelve African-American students, later known as the Clinton 12, then registered to attend all-white Clinton High School that year. White segregationists soon started organizing to hold protest rallies led by John Kasper, executive secretary of the Seaboard White Citizens Council.

Still, on August 26, 1956, the Clinton 12 made history as the first African Americans to integrate Clinton High in the state of Tennessee. The Clinton 12 included Regina Turner Smith, William R. Latham, Gail Ann Epps Upton, Ronald Gordon “Poochie” Hayden, Maurice Soles, Anna T. Caswell, Alfred Williams, Robert Thacker, Bobby Cain, Minnie Ann Dickey Jones, Alvah McSwain, JoAnn Crozier, and Allen Boyce.

There was no incident on the first day of desegregation but on the second day, the Clinton 12 started facing threats of violence from Kasper’s people and fellow students. On August 29, 1956, Judge Taylor issued a restraining order on Kasper but he went against it and spoke to a crowd of 1,500 people outside the school the same day. He was then arrested and made to spend a year in jail for contempt of court. But while in jail, the protests continued led by another White Citizens Council leader called Asa Carter. 

On September 1 to 2, 1956, cars were overturned by whites, windows were smashed, and Black people were threatened with cross burnings on their lawns. The white segregationists also sent threats to burn the mayor’s house and the Anderson County Courthouse. Tennessee Governor Frank Clement had to send 600 Tennessee National Guardsmen and 100 Highway Patrolmen to the city to restore calm but the rioting continued.

Whites shot at the homes of two of the Clinton 12 and Black businesses were attacked. Clinton High School principal David Brittain was not spared as he also received bomb threats, compelling him to send his family out of town. The parents of the Clinton 12 then removed their children from the school. On December 4, 1956, a white minister organized to escort the Clinton 12 to the school but he was severely beaten by a white mob after doing so.

Clinton High was closed by the principal until December 10, when a federal judge “reaffirmed his court injunction forbidding anyone from interfering with the integration process,” according to the Zinn Education Project.

On May 17, 1957, one of the Clinton 12, Bobby Cain, graduated, becoming the first African American to graduate from a Southern school desegregated by court order, as stated by BlackPast. The following year, Gail Ann Epps became the first Black woman to graduate from Clinton High. Cain went on to earn a B.A. in sociology from Tennessee State University and Epps also went to the same university before working as a substitute teacher.

There was still an uneasy calm even after Cain and Epps had graduated from Clinton High. On October 5, 1958, a bomb destroyed the school but it was rebuilt by local citizens.

Jo Ann Allen Boyce, one of the Clinton 12, would write a book for grades 7+, “This Promise of Change: One Girl’s Story in the Fight for School Equality”, recounting the Clinton Desegregation Crisis of 1956.

“Wednesday September 26, When word comes the Ku Klux Klan is driving up the Hill, my father gets his gun. We live here. He won’t run. . . When word comes my dad’s in jail ― my dad! And not the bombers! His crime? There’s only one: A Black man with a gun,” an excerpt of the book reads.

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