Downtown Clinton, Tennessee, looks like any one of thousands of American downtowns. In the summer, the streets are given over to antique festivals and classic cars. In the fall there’s a steady stream of customers at the lunch counter at Hoskins Drug Store, the town’s historic pharmacy.
But Clinton isn’t just another small city.
As one or two residents are happy to point out to visitors looking for history, if you drive a little ways up the hill from the heart of downtown, you’ll get to the Green McAdoo Cultural Center, a former Black school that is a monument to the city’s history as one of the first Southern towns to desegregate its state-supported high school. There’s a striking bronze statue of the Clinton 12, the first Black students to attend all-white Clinton High School in August 1956, more than a year before the much better known integration of Little Rock, Arkansas.
The city was part of community efforts to reclaim this history 17 years ago by helping commission the Clinton 12 monument and museum. That history is now a source of civic pride. But it’s a story rooted in conflict, as a new book, “A Most Tolerant Little Town,” points out.
Author Rachel Louise Martin details how Clinton’s desegregation resulted not only in unrest, intimidation, riots, mob attacks, and the intervention of the Tennessee National Guard, but the destruction, two years later, of the high school in a racist bombing.
“A Most Tolerant Little Town,” published in June 2023, is the result of 18 years of research and interviews conducted by Martin, a Nashville-based writer. The book has been widely praised and was named one of the New Yorker’s Best Books of 2023 and the New York Times Editor’s Choice and Nonfiction Book to Read this Summer.
In an interview for this article, Martin said it’s possible that Clinton is lesser known than places like Little Rock because, despite days of protests and assaults and ultimately the destruction of the high school, Clinton did not re-segregate. It was considered a victory for the civil rights movement.
And it’s possible, Martin said, that Clinton residents both white and Black ones, have remained reluctant to talk about that summer for more than 60 years for a reason.
“I really wrestled with this,” Martin said. “Part of it is just sheer name recognition. You periodically hear about Birmingham or Little Rock. But it’s, ‘Where was that little town in Tennessee again?’ Some of it was also when the school was bombed, the white townspeople, in order to have something like peace, go silent. They stop talking about it.”
She said the size of the town may have had something to do with that silence.
“They all have to shop at the same stores, go to the same cinema. Their lives are so intertwined and overlapped. Not peace, but more like a détente.”
Black residents may have other reasons to treading carefully around the town’s history.
“For the Black students, there was so much trauma and pain, and many of them are still living in Clinton with those people who attacked them, not wanting to inflict (the history) on their children. (One woman) said, ‘My granddaughter is sitting in a classroom with the grandchild of a founder of the (white council).’ Faced with that reality, silence is a good option.”
Today, Clinton is a city of about 10,000 firmly within the economic orbit of nearby Knoxville. In 1956 it was a county-seat town of less than half that size with a U.S. highway connecting it to Knoxville and a state road running to nearby Oak Ridge.
Martin has been making appearances and giving talks about her book, and in mid-September followed her talk at the East Tennessee History Center with one at the Green McAdoo Center, the former Black grade school in Clinton.
“The book is about the power of small places and ordinary people to change the world,” she said. “We talk about Washington, D.C., and New York City, but we seldom focus on a place like Clinton in Anderson County. We focus on … the sort of people who tend to get our attention, but they are not actually the people who create change…It is the normal people in tiny places who wake up one day and say, ‘enough.’ ”
Cleo Ellis is one of those people.
Ellis, who is a Black man, was only 3 years old in 1956 when Clinton High School was integrated.
“The elementary didn’t integrate when the high school did,” he recalled in an interview for this article. “I grew up here. Clinton is my hometown. I remember seeing ‘whites only’ signs in restaurants and I remember having to sit upstairs in the theater.”
Pearls and History
When the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in May 1954 in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka that communities should begin desegregating schools, some had ill feelings about the government telling them what to do.
Whites who opposed desegregation were especially angry about the decision and the opportunities it would finally present to Black students. Clinton, in the fall of 1956, moved to comply with the court’s ruling. Histories of the time, including Martin’s book, note that officials, many of them privately expressing anti-segregation views, reluctantly followed what they called “the law of the land.”
In Clinton, that meant that the high school would see a dozen young Black residents of the town join the student body. These were students who had attended Black-only schools and had been bused a great distance. But they really wanted to just walk down the hill from Clinton’s Black neighborhood and go to high school in their own town. They became known as the Clinton 12, and their joining the high school would be the first desegregation of a public school in the American southeast.
As Martin notes, the first day of integration was oddly quiet. But each day of the first week saw more white students boycott classes and intimidate the Black students who were trying to attend and more white adults gather outside the school and on the courthouse square to protest and bully. Some whites, including some of the school’s star athletes, acted as unofficial bodyguards to the Black students. Others in the town’s white majority terrorized the children and their families. Local police tried to maintain order but could not, and eventually the Tennessee National Guard was sent by the governor.
Unrest became a factor of everyday life in Clinton for two years, climaxing in the bombing of Clinton High School in October 1958. As many as a hundred sticks of dynamite were used to heavily damage the school and the town found itself a national news story again.
“White supremacists bombed the high school in 1958, destroying the building, but not halting the progress of equality,” reads material at the Green McAdoo Cultural Center. “Instead, the Anderson County community, citizens, and students from Clinton and Oak Ridge refurbished an abandoned elementary school in Oak Ridge and Clinton High School was back in session in one week, still integrated.”
‘Few Remember What Happened There’
A new high school was built and, as the 20th century turned into the 21st, life became quiet in Clinton again. By 2018, one of the biggest issues was what could be done with seven acres of Clinch River riverfront property once occupied by the Magnet Mills apparel factory.
Promoters of redevelopment noted that the city retained its small-town amenities while being close to Knoxville, which is the economic hub for a multi-county metropolitan area that includes Clinton and surrounding Anderson County.
In 2006, Clinton acknowledged its past and created a focal point for the community, on the 50th anniversary of the Clinton 12 walking into Clinton High School, with the opening of the Green McAdoo Cultural Center in the former Green McAdoo elementary school, a segregated school for Black children that had been open from 1935 to 1965. It had been named after a Buffalo soldier, a Black soldier, who had served in the Army for 20 years in the late 1800s.
Outside the center are full-size bronze statues of the Clinton 12, depicting them as they walked into Clinton High School in August 1956. Inside are multi-media presentations of the history of Clinton, desegregation, and a 1950s-era classroom.
“I do believe it has been forgotten by most people,” Daryl D. Carter, director of Black American studies and professor of history at East Tennessee State University, said in an email interview for this article.
“Outside of Clinton, few people remember what happened there. Even there I suspect the younger people have little in the way of understanding of the town’s importance in the civil rights struggle. This is a result of the upheaval in cities such as Nashville, Little Rock, Birmingham, and Oxford, just to name a few.”
Martin’s book, an exhaustively researched but pleasantly conversational history, details the turmoil of the town in a way that should be understandable to young people who have no idea what happened more than a half-century before.
Adam Velk, director of the Green McAdoo Center, said there’s synergy between Martin’s book and the center.
“Dr. Martin played a really big part in the center,” Velk said in an interview. “She went out and got the oral histories.”
Martin acknowledged that the center “valorizes some of the white participants (in the town’s history) and I don’t know that they earn quite all that.”
“I am pleased to hear that the people of the town are encouraging visitors to go there and encouraging the conversation to continue.”
Martin expressed concern that in the past few months, Clinton has – like many cities, large and small – been the scene of attempts to ban or restrict books in its public library.
“They are facing the same attempted censorship everyone else is facing at the moment,” Martin said. “The majority stand on the side of freedom of thought, of leaving books in the library. I was there … and it’s clearly something that’s dividing the town.”
A Civil Rights Success Story?
Martin said that Clinton could understandably be considered a success story. “The bar is very low, but if we accept the bar is very low, Clinton is a success story. There was so much physical and emotional damage done, but the school does not close and it does not re-segregate.”
Is Clinton indeed a success story in the history of the civil rights movement?
“One can view it as a success, sure,” said Carter, the professor of Black history. “But the issues around integration are somewhat harder to make sense of in places where the Black communities were so small. There is no doubt about the bravery of those young men and women. Further, the support and assistance of sympathetic whites is also noteworthy. In short, the persistence of racism and discrimination and hatred continued there (and) other parts of East Tennessee.”
Today, just over 1% of Clinton’s population of 10,000 people is Black, according to Census figures.
Asked if it were surprising that so few Black people live in Clinton, Carter said, “No, not at all. There are still lovely small communities throughout the South which hold little appeal for many Black Americans. The residual hatred and resentment among some white Americans combined with the lack of economic opportunity has forced many to make their home elsewhere.”
“When Clinton integrated in ’56, the African-American population was higher,” said Cleo Ellis. “Families moved out of Clinton. The drive-by shootings, the bombing.” Still, Ellis added, “I don’t think Clinton was any more racist than any other city in the South.”
Ellis said he believes white and Black people should speak out when they see injustice, as he did five years ago when a Confederate veterans float was to be included in a Veterans Day parade.
“I didn’t like that. I thought it was disrespectful to Black veterans. I went to the county commissioners and the commissioners and veterans organization eliminated that.”
Ellis lives a few miles south of Clinton now. “I live in Claxton, but I always tell people Clinton is my hometown.”
“I suspect Clinton is like everyplace else in the United States,” Martin said. “There are people who are really trying and others who are pushing just as hard in the opposite direction.”
Keith Roysdon is a Tennessee writer of news, pop culture, and fiction. For the Daily Yonder, he’s written about the Brushy Mountain State Penitentiary, now a tourist attraction and distillery, and about the popularity of rural and small-town crime fiction, as well as small-town libraries, rural economies and the “tourism of infamy.” His fourth co-authored true crime book, “Cold Case Muncie,” about murders without justice in the Indiana city once dubbed “the typical small American city,” was published by the History Press in August 2023.