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Clinton After Segregation: A Small Southern Town’s Struggle With The Past

Statues of the “Clinton 12″ look out over downtown Clinton, TN.
Christine Jessel
Southern Education Desk

Ever since the Supreme Court declared segregated schools unconstitutional in Brown-versus-Board-of-Education in 1954, the racial makeup of our schools has been in flux.

Forced integration made the South’s public schools some of the most integrated in the country. But now, here and across the nation, schools are re-segregating.

Some of the earliest desegregation efforts played out in  Clinton, TN.

In 1957, Bobby Cain was the first black graduate of a court-ordered desegregated public school in the South.

“When people start talking about things that have happened in civil rights, they talk about Little Rock and other areas and for some unknown reason they have not spoken about Clinton,” he says.

There were 700 white students registered at Clinton High School when Cain started his then-senior year. Cain was one of twelve black students.

“We were greeted with a throng of people there saying certain things; things we probably didn’t wish to hear,” he remembers.

By 1983, when Steve Jones graduated from Clinton High School, the past was past. Jones remembers his uncle wouldn’t talk about his time as principal during Clinton High’s desegregation … but neither did anyone else.

“I had white and black friends and they were just my friends,” he says.

“You know I never really thought about it, but I guess it’s just how we were raised in the community and how the – teachers taught us when we went to school and maybe that was a result of they didn’t want to re-enact what happened in the 50’s.”

But the ratio of black to white students never really changed in Clinton. And fifty-six years after desegregation, there are still only 24 black students to more than a thousand white students. Bobby’s brother James says that’s not surprising.

“Clinton has always been, there’s always been a small number of blacks living in Clinton when you compare it to other cities,” says James. “And that still remains true today.”

And Margery Turner with the Urban Institute says the fact that some of the nation’s schools remain predominantly white or black doesn’t necessarily mean schools stopped working towards diversity. Sometimes it just comes down to where people live.

“Whites and blacks are still more segregated from each other than they are from Latinos or Asians,” says Turner.

City councilman and former Clinton High student Jerry Shattuck says Clinton is changing. There are more business opportunities in town. And he says he can’t help but see a social change when he describes segregated water fountains … swimming pools … buses and schools to elementary schoolchildren.

“They sit there and you can just see this look of utter amazement on their faces. And my first reaction is always, well, why don’t they know more about their own history. But then the flip side of that is, 50-60 years later, isn’t it fantastic that all that is so alien to them,” he says.

The school’s demographics – 2% black, .05%Asian, and .06% percent Hispanic reflect those changes, too. Clinton High School sophomores Tyler Sexton, Zane Hall and senior Julio Rivera have come to reconcile Clinton’s past and present.

“You’ll have those old people that walk around and call you n-word and stuff,” says Rivera.

Why? ”They grew up with it,” all three say.

“It’s just your past,” adds Rivera. “Our generation’s not like that, and it’s the time, I mean we have  – everything’s different.”

But that doesn’t mean the past is forgotten in Clinton. There’s now a museum and twelve bronze statues at the old all-black elementary school. James and Bobby both say this museum marked a significant turning point in the town’s history: It was a sign of progress.

Are we where we need to be? No, we’re not where we need to be, but I think we’re trying to get there,” says James.

And for both brothers, knowing the next generation not only remembers … but is working to make things better … is a good place to start.

The Southern Education Desk is a public media consortium exploring the challenges and opportunities for education in the region.           

In part two of the series on re-segregation. Dan Carsen reports from Alabama on private schools created by whites to avoid public school integration.