Fighting for the Right to Graduate, an Interview with Bobby Cain

Before the federal judge ordered Clinton High to desegregate, the white school board did not fund a black high school in town, a decision they justified by claiming there were too few black students in town to necessitate one. Instead, every morning, the African American teenagers caught a public bus to Knoxville’s Austin High School. During inclement weather, the mountainous road quickly became impassable.

Going to school in another town also made it harder for the teenagers to fully participate in Austin’s student life. Bobby Cain wanted to join the basketball team, but he would have had to wait until almost midnight to catch the bus back to Clinton. Jo Ann Allen Boyce attended only one social event at Austin: the homecoming football game during the fall of her sophomore year. In celebration, she bought a new coat, and she fondly recalled feeling that she was “so gorgeous … sitting up in the stands with my friends and yelling for the team.” 

When the federal judge announced Clinton High would desegregate, black parents hoped it meant their students would have an opportunity for a better education, one where they could be part of the school community. There were rumors that the African American students would be able to try out for the school’s sports teams and join its clubs.

The violence that erupted the first week of school quickly ended that dream. Some of the students who desegregated the school dropped out or moved before the end of the year, but senior Bobby Cain made it through.

I met with Cain at the Nashville Public Library to hear what he remembered of that year. He told me about what helped him to survive: his family, his responsibility for his younger siblings’ education, his sense that he deserved better and his knowledge that he could escape Clinton at the end of the year. Cain decided he had a right to attend his graduation. Not everyone else agreed. In this clip, he tells me what happened that night.

This oral history is one of the conversations I recorded as part of Out of the Silence.

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