Blacks in Tennessee 1791 – 1970

Blacks in Tennessee
1791 – 1970

Here are portions about Anderson County and Clinton. Primarily the article is about the segregation of the schools.

Most importantly, black Tennesseans began to take aim at perhaps the key to the entire caste system-segregated schools. In 1950, thirty Tennessee counties, all having at least some black scholastic population in the ninth to twelfth grade range, offered no public schooling beyond the elementary level. Anderson County and a few others bused black high-school-age children as far as fifty miles toattend a segregated school in a neighboring county, but most did nothing. In a similar manner, except for the education curricula at Tennessee A & I the state provided almost no graduate programs for blacks. Therefore, black Tennesseans, building upon precedents established by the NAACP during the 1930s and 1940s, started litigation against the educational abuses in their state. As a result, the courts ordered the University of Tennessee to desegregate several of its graduate schools (most notably its law school) in 1952, and a case asking the desegregation of Clinton High School (Anderson County) began winding its way toward the Supreme Court in 1950.

Before the Clinton case reached its destination, the Supreme Court, on May 17, 1954, handed down the Brown VS Board of Education decision. By declaring that the doctrine of “separate but equal” had no place in public education and that “separate educational facilities are inherently unequal,” this decision paved the way for the abolition of those caste barriers wshich had frormally prevented the fulfillment of the promises of emancipation and reconstruction. But in Tennessee, as elswhere, black men and women would have to force the issue; they would have to draw upon the tradition of EdShaw and Ida Wells. This meant the emergence of new leaders. The old-line leadership of ministers and school principals was either too weded to accommodation and compromise or too dependent uppon white authority for their livlihood. Some of these men threw off their bonds to the past, but the battles of the 1950s and 1960s were most often led by younger, less patient men and women who, once involved, were willing to risk whatever security they might have enjoyed by continuing to conform to the old system. Viola and John McFerren, for example, had not been community spokesmen nor had they set out to become leaders. Yet, when the issue was joined, they committed themselves totally. For over a year, they had no source of dependable income because neither one had time to devote to a job or the farm. They “survived on whatever turned up.”

The civil right campaign among black Tennesseans moved galtingly during the 1950s. Important efforts pre-dated the “BROWN” decision and were not significantly aided by it at first. COurt actions, politacal pressure, and other challenges to the caste system remained local in their impact and, therefore, generated only modest popular involvement or enthusiasm outside the community where black leaders operated. The NAACP was still the most active “organization”, and it worked through local chapters. By the end of the decade, however, the contest over school desegragation and the rising national star of Martin Luther King, jr., had given at least a veneer of common identity to black civil rights workers in the state. King provided a spiritual symbol of purpose, and the school issue gave tangible meaning to the campaign. In reaching this stage, however, several important battles had already been waged in the state, and these gave a necessary legitimacy to the struggle.

The contest over desegregation at Clinton High School was the most dramatic. Clinton was a small mill town located in East Tennessee, fifteen miles from Knoxville and halfway between the model TVA town of Norris and the new atomic energy-based city of Oak Ridge. As was common in this region, its population of less than 4,000 was almost 95 percent white. When District Judge Robert L Taylor ordered the local high school to admit black students (previously bused to Knoxville) in the fall of 1956, the town authorities offered no resistance, and with an attitude “of resignation” made preparations for orderly compliance. One year earlier Oak Ridge had become the first southern school system to integrate when eighty-five black students enrolled in the junior high and high school programs without incident. At first it appeared that Clinton, likewise, would have few problems. Twelve black students moved quickly past a small group of white protesters on opening day and were received peacefully by the staff and other students. One black girl was even elected vice-president of her home-room class. By the third day of classes, however, rabid segregationist exhorters had descended upon the town, and these “outside agitators” began to play upon the emotional fears and racial prejudice which always lurked near the surface in the South. As the twelve students walked down to the high school from “Foley Hill,” the small black section of town, they now faced a gauntlet of men and women with “hate-contorted faces” shouting insults and threatening violence. And, as one of their white teachers noted, “each morning the twelve children marched straight ahead in a body, seemingly unmindful of those who shouted vile names. The boys led the way and the girls followed close behind them”.

Agitators came and went, were arrested, and made bail. The National Guard parked its tanks in courthouse square and for ten days in September gave the town an “occupied” appearance. And for four months the black students made their lonely trek down the hill to a chorus of abuse. After Christmas vacation, however, Clinton became quiet and disappeared from the state’s newspaper headlines. Only six of the black students withstood the strain and stayed all year, but one young man-the youth who each day led the way to school-graduated with the rest of the senior class in June. Bobby Cain, tehrefore, became “the first Negro to be graduated from a state-supported [previously] white high school in Tennessee.”

What Bobby Cain and his companions did in Clinton was as important as the NAACP-supported desegregation case itself. By braving “the storm of insult and harassment in the pioneer marches across the segregation ln Clinton”, these teenagers stimulated a deep sense of pride among blacks throughout the state. Other parents and students at other schools would be called upon to face those same dangers and indegnities, and they would know about the students at Clinton. In retrospect, it was anticlimactic when on Sunday morning October 5, 1958, after twenty months of racial calm, three massive explosions blasted Clinton High School to rubble. The battle in CLinton had already been won, and as the lines slowly moved forward in other communities there would be no retreat.

“Blacks in Tennessee
1791 – 1970”
By Lester C Lamon

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