Saturday, January 19, 2019

The Ordeal of Bobby Cain

George McMillan (1913–1987)
From Reporting Civil Rights: American Journalism 1941–1973

Bobby Cain leads fellow students to the entrance of Clinton High School in Tennessee, Fall 1956. Photograph by Thomas J. O'Halloran. Image courtesy of Library of Congress.
“I was 16 years old, and I didn’t have any say in the matter,” Bobby Cain recalled nearly sixty years later, in late 2017. “We did not receive any special protections. We didn’t have any support groups, other than the churches we went to. The Little Rock 9, on the other hand, were escorted into the school by the 101st Airborne unit. They also received medallions from the president.”

A year before the better-known Little Rock 9 enrolled in Central High in Arkansas, the Clinton 12 became the first students to desegregate a state-supported school in any southern state when they entered the doors of Clinton High School in Clinton, Tennessee, on August 20, 1956. Six years earlier a group of African American citizens had sued the county for requiring black students in Clinton to attend an all-black school in Knoxville, seventeen miles away in another county. In April 1952 Judge Robert Taylor of the U.S. District Court sided with the argument that the Knoxville school met the “separate but equal” doctrine—but all that changed when the Supreme Court handed down the Brown v. Board of Education decision on May 17, 1954. (One of the attorneys arguing for the plaintiffs in both cases was future Supreme Court justice Thurgood Marshall.) Two weeks later the U.S. Court of Appeals reversed Taylor’s ruling and sent the case back to him. In January 1956 he ordered the county to integrate its high school by the fall; the county could no longer pay to bus its black students to another location.

In the mid-1950s fewer than 4,000 people lived in Clinton, including two hundred or so African Americans. There were twelve black students of high school age—and all lived within walking distance of the school. Student registration proceeded without incident, and the first day of school was relatively quiet. But trouble was brewing; John Kasper, the head of the Washington-based Seaboard White Citizens’ Council, called for protests and meetings. Mobs began to surround the students when classes ended on the second day; by Thursday, Kasper was whipping up crowds of up to 1,500 agitators—many (and probably most) of them arriving from outside the region. After Kasper was arrested, Asa Earl Carter, the soon-to-be infamous White Citizens’ Council leader from Birmingham, stepped in. On Labor Day weekend the protests turned into riots, with cars destroyed and windows shattered. In response Tennessee governor Frank Clement ordered out the National Guard.

In mid-September journalist George McMillan, on assignment for Collier’s magazine, interviewed Bobby Cain, one of two African American seniors attending the school, and his article is our Story of the Week selection. McMillan ends on a hopeful note, but subsequent events belie the optimism. The students continued to face sporadic protests, heckling (and worse) on their way to and from school, and physical abuse from groups of white students. Shots were fired into the homes of black families; white residents and students who attempted to support or befriend the black students also endured vandalism and harassment. In December, Paul Turner, the white minister of the First Baptist Church, escorted the students to school and was hospitalized after being attacked by members of the local White Citizens’ Council as he returned home.

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. Concerned for his safety, the principal organized a student patrol to protect him, and Cain made it through the ceremony unscathed. Afterward, however, he was ambushed while waiting to meet up with his parents, and he fought off his aggressors until his family and others arrived and rescued him. Cain’s fellow senior student, Alfred Williams, never graduated; he was suspended weeks beforehand for wielding a knife to defend his young brother from a gang of white students. The following spring in Clinton, Gail Ann Epps became the first black woman to graduate from an integrated public high school in Tennessee. But the battle was hardly over: on October 5, 1958, three immense explosions destroyed most of Clinton High School. The bombers were never identified.

In 1961 Cain graduated from Tennessee State University with a degree in social work. He worked for the Oak Ridge National Laboratory before being drafted into the army. Twenty-one years later he retired from the reserves with the rank of captain and went to work at the Tennessee Department of Human Services. Until recently Cain was reluctant to discuss his experiences as a teenager; according to the Tennessee Encyclopedia, his wife and daughter both “first learned the details of his achievement from others.” He will be 80 years old later this year and, now retired, he currently lives in Nashville with his wife, Margo.

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There is an ironic inevitability in the location of Clinton High School. It sits smack at the foot of Foley Hill, Clinton’s Negro community. . . . If you don't see the full selection below, click here (PDF) or click here (Google Docs) to read it—free!

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