It’s been sixty years since the Supreme Court ended segregation in education, since the teenagers of Clinton fought for their right to go to school in their town rather than being sent 45 minutes away, since Little Rock’s schools closed for three years rather than desegregate, but racism and inequality are woven too deeply into American society to be excised by a court order or dismantled by an act of Congress.
School inequality remains at the heart of the struggle. In 1955 in Brown versus Board of Education, Topeka, the United States Supreme Court declared that segregated schools were inherently unequal. In response, after the initial flurry of protests and riots, many municipal and educational authorities allowed a token number of minority students into all-white schools as a symbolic victory over racism. From the late 1960s to the 1980s, civil rights advocates, federal agencies and the nation’s court systems fought to turn those initial gains into true educational equality for all students, altering the racial composition of many of America’s schools but—as was true in my elementary school—not always changing much at the classroom level. Over the last three decades, however, much of the progress toward integrated education has been reversed. The Southern Poverty Law Center recently found America’s schools are more segregated than they were in 1968. The Government Accountability Office estimated segregation more than doubled between 2001 and 2016.
School inequality remains at the heart of the struggle for civil rights. Educational segregation is both the source of the other battles the Black Lives Matter activists fight and the product of those forces. “School segregation is … shaped over generations by financial redlining, social disinvestment and, lately, gentrification and displacement in city neighborhoods,” Michelle Chen wrote in The Nation’s 2016 segregation study. It drags our nation’s most vulnerable children ever downward. Schools alone cannot remedy inequality. Integrated schools do not transform high-poverty, minority neighborhoods into multi-racial, interclass experiments, but they are a substantive place to start.
While I watched, and at times participated in, Black Lives Matter, the new civil rights movement, I was researching the desegregation of Clinton, Tennessee, High School, one of the first tests for the earlier movement. I decided to look into the past to try to understand why we have not yet won the battle for equality.
I first stumbled across Clinton High’s story while working for the Tennessee Civil War National Heritage Area in 2005. Over the course of the next decade, I interviewed most of the black students who helped to desegregate their school. I talked to white students and teachers. I included the segregationist protesters who fought desegregation and the town’s white leaders. The people who shared their memories with me taught me that very few of us are heroes or villains. History is the story of human beings, individuals responding to events already in motion and seldom under their control. Along the way, many of them end up doing things they never expected. Sometimes they act bravely, changing their world for good. Other times they do injury to people they would have called friends.
My work focuses on the politics of memory, or how we remember and how we choose to forget the past. Memory and history—like all things involving power in America today—are seen as zero-sum games. But memories are not time machines into the past. They reveal something truer than a simple timeline of events. The narratives we tell ourselves about the past hold great power over our individual lives and our society. I believe my work as a writer is a form of social justice, a means of addressing the wrongs of the past so as to offer hope for the future. Unless we change how we talk about history, future generations will refight the same battles we are waging (again) today.
Out of the Silence is my attempt to tell a new story, one that explores the complex ways that we have woven inequality into the waft and the woof of our society. Only then will we finally be able to move beyond the inequalities that continue to divide us today. When I talk about school integration, I often call it a failure, but what I really mean is that it is an experiment that we have never really tried.
Oral History Clips related to Clinton:
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.