One of the Clinton 12 remembers

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By The Staff



On Aug. 27, 1956, history was made in the small town of Clinton — history that would lay the ground work for the future.

On that day, 12 high school students said a prayer and then made the long trek down Broad Street and Foley Hill to the front of Clinton High School to become the first African American students to walk through those doors.

They were also the first black students to attend an all-white public high school in the South.

Although the integration at Little Rock Central High School in Arkansas has become more prominent in history books, Clinton was, in fact, integrated a year before Little Rock.

“We weren’t chosen,” said Jo Ann Crozier Allen Boyce, who was one of those 12 groundbreaking students. “We were all there just for an education. It was our time.”

Boyce remembers that first day being quite calm and her white classmates being curious.

“They wanted to know everything about me,” Boyce said.

By the third day though, the mood had changed.

Segregationist John Kasper rolled into town to protest the integration that had been ordered by Judge Robert L. Taylor after the ruling in the U.S. Supreme Court case of Brown vs. Board of Education. He brought his hatred and bigotry with him.

“The kids were a little more aggressive,” Boyce said after Kasper began to protest.

Curiosity had turned into hate for some.

Boyce said before integration most blacks knew their place and were tolerated in the city.

“It was very different from that Southern living that you’ve been living your whole life,” she added.

With Kasper fueling the hatred, crowds began to gather and stand in the street waiting for the 12 students to ascend the hill to the school.

“It’s a long distance to be in the position to encounter violence,” said Boyce, who remembers people yelling and screaming — and then throwing  rocks and rotten tomatoes at her and her friends.

“I can literally hear rocks going by my ear,” Boyce said.

What was once anxiety had escalated into terror.

“Things went from hopefulness to sheer fear,” she said.

Many days, the black students left school early and were taken home in police cars,

“Learning is almost impossible at this point,” Boyce said.

But she commends her teachers, who she calls phenomenal.

“They tried as much as they could to keep the environment conducive to learning,” she said.

A hero of hers was her teacher, Margaret Anderson, who she said took the time to get to know the black students.

“She really took us under her wing,” Boyce said. “She was a woman way before her time. She seemed to understand us more than other white people.”

The principal at the time, David Brittain, also gave it his all.

“But it only takes one bad apple to show us the other rotten ones,” she added.

The protests increased, and Boyce and her classmates began to notice out-of-state license plates on vehicles of people who went to Clinton to join in the protest around September 1956. At that time, another protester showed up in the form of Asa Carter.

“It stirred up that group that absolutely hated black people,” she added.

If these two men hadn’t made their way to Clinton, or if the local  government had stepped in more than they did, Boyce said things may have been different.

“They let Kasper get his foothold. He got his foot in the door. He got his whole body in. He took over,” she said. “They (Kasper and Carter) were sheer bigots.”

The uproar became too much for the small Clinton police force to handle. A home guard of area men was formed.

However, it was too overwhelming for that group, as well, and state troopers came in. That also didn’t appear to be enough so Gov. Frank Clement turned to the National Guard for help.

The head of the National Guard was a magnanimous creation and someone who was determined to get the situation under control, she said.

“There were some days when you knew there was goodness at work,” Boyce said.

The sight of the town after the National Guard came was unforgettable.

“Here you are in this little town and you have tanks going up and down the street,” Boyce said. “It made you think, I guess we really are at war.”

All Boyce and the other African Americans wanted to do was go to school where their families paid taxes and supported the schools.

“We were shipped off to a school that’s almost 20 miles away because of the color of our skin,” Boyce said. “We were brown. We were black.”

Boyce and her family decided in December 1956 to leave Clinton for Los Angeles.

Boyce said it was really the decision of her mother, Alice Josephine Hopper Allen, who began to fear for the lives of her husband and her children.

Boyce said she didn’t want to move.

“I begged. I wanted to see it through,” said Boyce, who hoped she and her white classmates might eventually become friends.

Although Boyce left, several others stayed to finish their education.

Tears stream down her face as she speaks of the courageousness of her fellow classmates.

“Most of them stayed and kept walking down that hill,” she said. “They continued to be brave.”

Bobby Cain, who Boyce described as the ring leader of the Clinton 12, became the first African American to graduate from a white public high school in the South.

Gail Epps Upton was the first African American woman to graduate from an integrated public high school in Tennessee.

Boyce also continued her education. She graduated from Dorsey High School and went to college to earn her nursing degree.

Now almost 70 years old, Boyce said she still doesn’t understand hate.

“You struggle and wonder, why are we so hated,” Boyce said of that painful time in her life.

However, Boyce believes those 12 students paved the way for other black students.

“The Clinton 12, I think were instrumental in helping a lot of kids be courageous and do what was right for them,” she said.

She added that Clinton was a success story.

“The people of Clinton never closed the doors,” she said.

Boyce still lives in California, but she returns every year to East Tennessee and Oliver Springs, where most of her family lives and where her mother was born.

She is also part of the Oliver Springs Historical Society, which is sharing the stories of the Clinton 12 and other African Americans.

“It’s very exciting,” Boyce said.