Publications to Note

By Linda T. Wynn Assistant Director for State Programs & Publications Editor

 Simon & Schuster in New York City published Rachel Louise Martin’s A Most Tolerant Little Town: The Explosive Beginning of School Desegregation. When one thinks of noted school desegregation cases, the first to come to mind is Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas, which captured the nation’s attention. Three years after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled unanimously in Brown v. Board of Education that separate educational facilities were fundamentally unequal, nine African American students: Minnijean Brown, Terrance Roberts, Elizabeth Eckford, Ernest Green, Thelma Mothershed, Melba Patillo, Gloria Ray, Jefferson Thomas, and Carlotta Walls—attempted to desegregate Little Rock’s Central High School. Recruited by Daisy Bates, president of the Arkansas branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), the students, became known as the Little Rock Nine. On September 4, 1957, the first day of school, a white mob gathered in front of the school to prevent the African American students from entering. Governor Orval Faubus deployed the Arkansas National Guard. In response to the governor’s action, a team of NAACP lawyers, including Thurgood Marshall, won a federal district court injunction to prevent the governor from blocking the students’ entry. With the help of police escorts, the students successfully entered the school through a side entrance on September 23, 1957. However, fearing escalating violence, officials rushed the students home soon afterward. As president of the Montgomery Improvement Association, the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote President Dwight D. Eisenhower, requesting a swift resolution allowing the students to attend school. While the Little Rock Nine and Arkansas’s Central High School received attention across the nation, another school desegregation case played out in Appalachian town of Clinton, Tennessee. Dr. Martin received her Ph.D. from the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. As a historian she concentrates on narrating the troublesome and problematic stories of inequality and how they structure families, communities, and the country. The author of Hot, Hot Chicken: A Cultural History of Nashville Hot Chicken, her work has appeared in The Atlantic and the Oxford American. Martin’s A Most Tolerant Little Town: The Explosive Beginning of School Desegregation, takes the reader into the community of Clinton, Tennessee, following the U. S. Supreme Court’s ruling in the Brown decision and federal Judge Robert L. Taylor’s ordering the desegregation of Anderson County’s Clinton High School. On August 26, 1956, twelve African American students (Jo Ann Allen, Bobby Cain, Anna Theresser Caswell, Gail Ann Epps, Minnie Ann Dickey, Ronald Gordon Hayden, William Latham, Alvah Jay McSwain, Maurice Soles, Robert Thacker, Regina Turner, and Alfred Williams), who became known as the “Clinton Twelve”, attended their first day of class, making them the first students to desegregate a public high school in the South. Martin interviewed over “sixty residents of Clinton ― including some of the first students to desegregate Clinton High School.” On May 17, 1957 — three years to the day after the Brown decision—Bobby Cain became the first African American graduate of a white Southern public high school during the Jim Crow era.

A Most Tolerant Little Town makes a definitive statement about the terminologies: “integration” versus “desegregation” and the reader realizes they are not interchangeable. The students at Clinton High School and Little Rock’s Central High School merely desegregated the schools’ environs. Simply put, the students in both schools entered those spaces in compliance with the law as enunciated in Brown v. Board. They were not woven into a smooth-running system amid an association liberated from latent hostility. As she focuses the lens on that southern town, the desegregation of Clinton was literally “quite explosive.” From the death threats and beatings, picket lines and cross burnings, the town of Clinton was a powder keg waiting to explode. It took a bombing two years after the desegregation of Clinton High School, on October 5, 1958, to draw townsfolk together who splintered into factions and spat insults at each other over the issues of desegregation and law and order. As with much of Tennessee’s Civil Rights History, although it took place prior to that which captured national chronicle, the story of Clinton, Tennessee, and school desegregation became a loss memory and barely an endnote in the civil rights scholarship. Though this volume, Martin places the desegregation of Clinton High School in the annals of Civil Rights History. As the author notes, “unless we change how we talk about history, future generations will refight the same battles that are being waged today.” This work should be of interest to those wanting to know how Clinton’s school desegregation history fits into Tennessee’s Civil Rights scholarship and consequently how that narrative adds to the topic’s general account. Paper, $29.99.