Out of the Silence:
On August 28, 1956, twelve African American students walked into the formerly all-white high school in Clinton, Tennessee. Riots rocked the town. The governor sent in the National Guard, but he sent the troops to protect the students and keep the school open. The school was destroyed by dynamite, but it was rebuilt by an international fundraising campaign headed up by the evangelist Billy Graham. It was the focus of worldwide media attention, and it was the blueprint for what happened at Little Rock, Birmingham and elsewhere. Through it all, the school did not close, nor did it resegregate.
In 2005 I launched an oral history project in Clinton. I interviewed most of the black students who helped to desegregate their school along with their families. I talked to white students and teachers. I included the segregationist protestors who fought desegregation as well as white town leaders. Read more here …
I first began conducting oral history interviews in 2004 as a part of the research for my MA thesis. Since that time, I have interviewed hundreds of individuals including fishermen in Lower Alabama; black students who desegregated Southern school systems; coal miners in Appalachia; Confederate re-enactors in South Carolina; emeritus professors and business leaders.
In the process, I have learned that very few of us are heroes or villains. History is the story of human beings, individuals who respond in fear and bravery to events they set in motion and yet never controlled. And many of them end up doing things they never expected, sometimes for the good of those around them and at other times doing injury to people they love. These stories can be hard to reconstruct from newspaper accounts or other sources, but they form the heart of our individual memories. They are key to how we understand our communities. They hold power over us as we imagine the future.
Oral History Clips:
The black students couldn’t eat in Clinton High’s cafeteria. One day, some of the boys went to eat at the Richy Kreme. They didn’t make it back. Bobby Cain, Jo Ann Allen Boyce and Maurice Soles tell the story.