Sunday, September 1, 2013

Clinton School Integration and me

I grew up in a quiet neighborhood in the city with tree lined sidewalks. I knew all the neighbors and they knew me. We could walk just about anywhere I wanted to go. One of my uncles owned the drugstore, Mr. Proffitt owned the little neighborhood grocery store, Mrs. Hall had a perfect crabapple tree in her backyard. On hot summer nights we would play in the sprinklers while the grow-ups wold take turns churning ice cream. My great grandparents lived down the street and my family would get together at their house very often. The women would cook, the men would sit around and talk, but the cousins could play.

When I started school, it was the same school that my father and grandfather attended.  On my way to school each morning, I would walk down the street, past my great grandparents house, across the railroad tracks, past the church, past my uncle's drugstore on my way to school. I knew every person, every single step of the way and they knew me. Once I overheard two women sitting on their porch and one of them said, "There goes Buddy's little girl."

Sometimes, when we least expect, something happens that changes your world forever. For me, this was one of those days and I would never look at the world in the same way again.

One Sunday we were walking up the sidewalk to the church and a crowd of people was gathered in front of the door. When we got closer, I could see that someone had thrown red paint on the doors.

Lincoln Park UMC

Although I was still pretty young, this was very upsetting to me because I had never seen anything like this before. I could tell that all of the the adults were upset too. I asked my Mother about it and she told me that some people were upset with with our church and the things that we believed. It was not until many years later that I would understand what happened that day.

On December 5, 1950, a group of citizens filed a lawsuit which became known as McSwain et al. v. County Board of Education of Anderson County, Tennessee (104 F. Supp. 1861, 1952).

In his ruling announced on April 26, 1952, Federal District Judge Taylor denied the lawsuit and upheld the position of the county school board. "Judge Taylor decided Clinton African Americans had little to complain about and the problems and inconveniences of separate schools were “too small to be regarded as a denial of constitutional rights.” link

The legal setting changed, however, on May 17, 1954 when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Brown v. Board of Education that segregation was unequal and struck down the separate but equal foundation of Jim Crow segregation. Two-and-one-half weeks later, the U.S. Court of Appeals, Sixth Circuit, in a hearing where the Clinton black families were again represented by Looby, Williams, Cowan, and Marshall, reversed Taylor’s 1952 ruling and returned McSwain et al. v. County Board of Education of Anderson County to federal district court for a new decision “in accordance with the decision of the Supreme Court in Brown et al. v. Board of Education.”

As a result, Clinton High School was ordered to intergate. The Knoxville Ministerial Association (KMA), publicly supported the integration of Clinton High School. This organization of ministers in the local area, integrated themselves, was interested in equality. Ted Witt, our minister, fully supported the KMA on this issue.


I was right to be fearful. White people who supported integration were putting, themselves, their families and even their communities at risk. "Rev. Paul Turner, a white minister of First Baptist Church in Clinton, made his contribution when he escorted 10 of the 12 black students to school on December 4, 1956. When Turner returned from his walk, he was assaulted by a mob and badly beaten." reference

Years later, I had the honor of working with Alex Stuart, this is his story.

"On May 14, 1964, Mr. Stuart, then vice moderator of the local Union Presbytery, was attacked and injured during participation in a Presbytery matter. He, along with the Reverend Geddes Orman, the stated clerk of Union Presbytery and pastor of Norwood Presbyterian Church in Knoxville, and the minister of First Presbyterian Church at Knoxville College, were sent to Camden, Alabama, to check on some black churches in Alabama. Because the Knoxville College minister was black, he stayed with friends because he did not think the Camden hotel where his colleagues planned to stay would give him a room. After word got out that Mr. Stuart and the Reverend Orman had come to Camden with a black man, the two white ministers were attacked in their hotel room by a white man about 40 years old who mistakenly thought the men were civil rights workers. (This event occurred about a year after the Selma, Alabama, protest march during which a Unitarian minister was killed.) Mr. Stuart was severely beaten with the barrel of a shotgun; he suffered a broken right arm and multiple bruises on his left arm and leg and had to spend a week in Oak Ridge Hospital following his escape from Camden. His story made front-page news in the Knoxville News-Sentinel; the headline was "Pastor Tells of Alabama Beating." He was invited to tell his story at the June meeting of the General Assembly in Oklahoma City." reference

Jackie Lennon tells the story of her experience as a young black girl growing up in Knoxville, Tennessee in The Mee Street Chronicles.  It is a compelling, straight forward and honest look at her experience. 

 As an adult, I still remember how scary that Sunday morning was to me.  I am aware the my experience with fear was very limited compared to the brave black students that took those first steps to integrate public schools.

Statue of the Clinton 12, the first black students to enroll in Clinton High School

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