Stewart Harris of the Lincoln Memorial University – Duncan School of Law offers this bit of history that we must remember. Stewart is also host of the NPR program “Your Weekly Constitutional.”
In Our Own Back Yard
Constitutional law sometimes seems like something that happens out there, somewhere, to someone else. Think the Electoral College or the crisis at our southern border. But that’s not the case. The Constitution affects each us, every day, right where we live. Sometimes profoundly.
If you’re of a certain age, you know all about East Tennessee’s great constitutional moment, which occurred in the late 1950s. But if you’re a young whippersnapper (say, under 40), or if you came to the area only as an adult, you may need a refresher.
The Clinton 12 were a dozen African-American high school students—Maurice Soles, Anna Theresser Caswell, Alfred Williams, Regina Turner Smith, William R. Latham, Gail Ann Epps Upton, Ronald Gordon “Poochie” Hayden, Robert Thacker, Minnie Ann Dickie Jones, Bobby Cain, Alvah McSwain, and Jo Ann Crozier Allen—who led the first court-ordered desegregation of a Southern public school after Brown v. Board of Education. It was a year before Little Rock. (Oak Ridge desegregated even earlier than Clinton, but it did so without a court order).
Recently, Marilyn Hayden, the Director of the Green McAdoo Cultural Center, arranged for me to speak with retired lawyer Jerry Shattuck. We met at the Center, a memorial to the Clinton 12 constructed in a building that was once a segregated school for “colored” children. Jerry and I sat down in the former principal’s office, a tiny room that had also served as the school’s library.
Jerry told me that a local legal challenge to segregation, McSwain v. Anderson County, had started before Brown, but ran smack into controlling precedent: U.S. District Judge Robert L. Taylor followed the “separate but equal” doctrine of Plessy v. Ferguson. But then, after Brown overruled Plessy, Judge Taylor ordered the school to desegregate, pursuant to Brown II, “with all deliberate speed.”
Clinton did not need much time for deliberation. The school board came up with a plan, and, in the fall of 1956, Clinton High School implemented it, mostly without incident. There were protests, mostly small, mostly by outsiders, but the community followed the law.
But then the protests grew. Segregationists from throughout the South made Clinton their rallying point. Thousands of rabid racists flooded the small town, recruiting like-minded locals, taunting and spitting on the Clinton 12 as they walked from the black part of town to attend school. Some students harassed the Clinton 12 at school, jostling them in the hallways, knocking their books to the floor. The international press took notice. It was a circus.
But most Clintonians responded with dignity and compassion. Clinton High’s principal posted his strapping young football team (including a teenaged Jerry Shattuck) in the halls. The harassment quickly ended. Baptist minister Paul Turner, a white man, escorted the Clinton 12 to school. He kept the children safe, but, on his way back to his church, he was chased and beaten by the mob.
A group of thugs forced their way into the high school. The Home Economics teacher, a diminutive woman, confronted them. They slammed her into a wall. A member of Clinton High’s marching band, Dennis Holland, ran, alone, toward the thugs. They ran away. Dennis soon received death threats. His family sent him to live with relatives in Florida.
As at Lexington and Concord, the call went out. Local citizens stepped forward to stand with the police, to repel the invaders. But the invaders kept coming. Eventually, the newly-formed “White Citizens’ Council” decided to do more than scream and spit and beat innocent people. They decided to charge the police, to take their weapons, and kill them.
Town officials had been in constant touch with state authorities, who were understandably reluctant to intervene. But when the racists attacked, Governor Frank Clement responded. In a scene reminiscent of a John Ford western, a convoy of cars roared into town, red lights flashing. A door opened and Greg O’Rear, the six-foot-eight head of the Tennessee State Police, rose and leaned his shotgun over his shoulder. “Boys,” he said, “it’s all over.”
And it was. For a time. The next school year was uneventful. Black children and white children learned together. Jerry Shattuck graduated and went off to college at Princeton.
Then, in the fall of 1958, two years after integration, the people of Clinton awakened to a series of explosions. Someone had dynamited the high school. It was gone.
Instantly, East Tennessee sprang into action. Nearby Oak Ridge, Clinton’s perennial football rival, opened an old closed school. Volunteers cleaned and painted. Within a week, the school was ready.
Buses took Clinton High’s integrated student body to Oak Ridge. As they emerged, Oak Ridge’s marching band greeted them with Clinton’s alma mater.
The Constitution touches all of us, where we live, every day. But it means nothing unless good people stand up for it. In the late 1950’s, the good people of East Tennessee did just that. May we all be inspired by their example. And may we always remember the Clinton 12.