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A Most Tolerant Little Town

The Explosive Beginning of School Desegregation



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About The Book

A “masterful” (Taylor Branch) and “striking” (The New Yorker) portrait of a small town living through tumultuous times, this propulsive piece of forgotten civil rights history—about the first school to attempt court-ordered desegregation in the wake of Brown v. Board—will forever change how you think of the end of racial segregation in America.

In graduate school, Rachel Martin was sent to a small town in the foothills of the Appalachians, where locals wanted to build a museum to commemorate the events of September 1956, when Clinton High School became the first school in the former Confederacy to attempt court mandated desegregation.

But not everyone wanted to talk. As one founder of the Tennessee White Youth told her, “Honey, there was a lot of ugliness down at the school that year; best we just move on and forget it.”

For years, Martin wondered what it was some white residents of Clinton didn’t want remembered. So, she went back, eventually interviewing over sixty townsfolk—including nearly a dozen of the first students to desegregate Clinton High—to piece together what happened back in 1956: the death threats and beatings, picket lines and cross burnings, neighbors turned on neighbors and preachers for the first time at a loss for words. The National Guard rushed to town, along with national journalists like Edward R. Morrow and even evangelist Billy Graham. But that wasn’t the most explosive secret Martin learned...

In A Most Tolerant Little Town, Rachel Martin weaves together over a dozen perspectives in an intimate, kaleidoscopic portrait of a small town living through a turbulent turning point for America. The result is at once a “gripping” (The Atlanta Journal-Constitution) mystery and a moving piece of forgotten civil rights history, rendered “with precision, lucidity and, most of all, a heart inured to false hope” (The New York Times).

You may never before have heard of Clinton, Tennessee—but you won’t be forgetting the town anytime soon.


Prologue: Coming to the Clinch, September 2005

PROLOGUE Coming to the Clinch, September 2005
The town of Clinton curls into the cup of land formed where the Clinch River turns sharply to meet the Tennessee, a fertile, gently rolling valley that fosters the community of some ten thousand residents. Behind the town square, the hills crack into a series of long, narrow ridges—ancient fold-and-thrust belts formed when the mountains rose up some 480 million years ago. Veins of coal lay pressed between the strata of rocks. When the land stopped shoving upward, sharp peaks pierced the sky, gathering the morning fogs from the valleys around them. Erosion and time have worn the mountaintops into the hills and hollers of Tennessee.

The first people moved to the mountains at least twelve thousand years ago, and possibly much further back than that. From the Clinch, they gathered mollusks and mussels and fish and turtles. They hunted muskrats and geese and otters on the valley floor and stalked raccoons and rabbits and bears and deer and bison on the ridges. Through careful cultivation of the surrounding forests, they grew nuts and berries for food; they harvested vines and canes that they transformed into baskets and clothing. When they wanted to visit neighboring villages, they navigated the Clinch River, but they also carved a path through the mountains that linked them into an intercontinental network of trails, a trading web stretching from Northern Canada to central South America and from the sea islands of the mid-Atlantic to California. Some of them called their home the Ouasioto Mountains. Then about 250 years ago disease and warfare and the American government drove the Indigenous residents away.

White settlers renamed the peaks the Cumberland Mountains, an homage to Prince William Augustus, Duke of Cumberland. They founded Clinton and made it the seat of the newly created Anderson County. Then they set about extracting wealth from the hills. Coal miners burrowed and blasted and picked tunnels deep into their hearts. Farmers and bankers and textile workers staked lives on their steep sides and verdant vales, the monied along the river basin, and crofters out in the ravines and glens where planting was hard and seasonal storms washed away the topsoil. Since the rugged landscape wasn’t good for large-scale plantation-style farming, slavery never took hold in the region the way it did deeper south, but the richest white leaders still bought and sold the enslaved, shoring up their assets and power in human bodies.

After Emancipation, many of the county’s five hundred or so newly freed Black residents moved into Clinton, settling on the first ridge overlooking downtown. They worked wage-earning jobs that protected them from the sharecropping system taking hold of the agricultural South but sent them into the white neighborhoods where segregation and racism reigned. To shelter themselves and their families from hate, they built a neighborhood. They erected houses around two churches—one Baptist and one Methodist—and a small primary school. Soon the district had become known as Freedman’s Hill, which locals shortened to simply the Hill. (Ninety years on, the journalists who covered Clinton High’s desegregation assumed this was the same as Foley Hill, a white enclave a couple miles away, a confusion both Hill communities found distressing.)

Like most other Black neighborhoods around the South, the Hill’s population fell during the early twentieth century as its young fled north and east and west seeking better lives and more opportunities. But the area’s numbers rebounded in the 1940s thanks to a cluster of federal projects nearby. By the 1950s, the region supported a small Black business district that included a nightclub and a sandwich shop, but the heart of the community was still the school, by then called Green McAdoo Grammar School, which stood on the crest of the Hill, flanked by Asbury Methodist and Mt. Sinai Baptist.

Downtown, postbellum prosperity had transformed the by-water town into a center of commerce. Back then, industry thrived. Railroad cars heaped with coal lumbered through, coasting out of the mountains to fire the nation’s power grid. Many local men, both white and Black, worked in the mines. Another quarter of the town’s white adults were employed at Magnet Knitting Mills, a brick industrial complex two blocks from the square. A handful harvested and traded freshwater pearls plucked from the oysters that thrived in the Clinch River despite its annual floods.

Two highways intersected at the square. US 25W, or the Dixie Highway, shuttled drivers from Ohio to Florida; though these travelers didn’t realize it, they were following the trail originally opened by the county’s first residents. SR61 went into the mountains, connecting the coal miners to the rest of the nation. In 1890, the community had erected a two-story Romanesque brick courthouse with a clock tower and covered porticos in the center of the town square to house the Anderson County Court. Offices and restaurants and shops and one hotel popped up on the streets around it, all catering to white customers, of course. White travelers stopped in Clinton to buy food and gas and rent rooms for the night.

Clinton doesn’t bustle any longer, although its population today is the largest it’s ever been—about triple what the town’s size was in 1956. Globalization and the interstate highway system have contracted the community from being a regional hub into a typical small Southern town with a few historic homes, some rows of empty storefronts, and a smattering of modernist monstrosities, all radiating from the town square.

The coal industry left the county when the veins around Clinton played out, devastating the economy. And then Magnet Knitting shut down, its hosiery farmed out to other parts of the world. Over the next four decades, its redbrick buildings crumbled, a reminder of what the town used to be but was no longer. When I-75 replaced the Dixie Highway, travelers stopped trekking downtown for supplies or a place to sleep. Local boosters have turned Market Street’s abandoned shops into an antiquing district, but younger generations prefer a more minimal style of decorating. Only a handful of tourists bother to make the drive.

I first came to Clinton in September 2005. That year, I was a research fellow at Middle Tennessee State University’s Center for Historic Preservation, and I’d been sent to the town to launch an oral history initiative. I was to collect stories about the high school’s desegregation—it was the first instance of court-mandated desegregation in the South, one year before Little Rock—so that the community could open a small museum. Though I’d grown up just a few counties away, I had never heard of Clinton High School before that September. That didn’t surprise Clinton’s then-mayor, Winfred “Little Wimp” Shoopman. What had happened there in 1956 “was swept under the rug for fifty years,” he told me. “History, if it was a pie, they were taking a bite out of it every year by not talking about it. Eventually, the pie was going to be eat up and no more story.”

That first visit, Clinton’s downtown snuck up on me. One stoplight, I was surrounded by car lots and fast-food joints and other architectural detritus left by 1970s-era urban redevelopment. Next, I was peering at the abandoned Magnet Knitting Mills. Then I pulled up alongside Hoskins Drug Store. In another community, this pharmacy/lunch counter/gift shop would have closed decades ago. It would have sat abandoned until some local kid came back to remodel it, replacing its pumpkin-colored vinyl booths with sleek kitsch. The food would have been billed as “homestyle” or “haute Southern.” But in Clinton, Hoskins has survived by selling its customers—mostly lawyers doing business at the county courthouse—the same lunches they’ve always ordered: small hamburgers on ready-made buns, grilled cheese sandwiches, malted milkshakes.

Past Hoskins, I saw the recently remodeled Ritz Theater, all art deco curves and sporting its original marquee. In the 1950s, it was the place to be on a Friday or Saturday night. The weekend after the high school desegregated, the feature film was The Fastest Gun Alive, starring Glenn Ford and Jeanne Crain. That Saturday night, the local white boys who usually gathered out front to court local white girls had faced down the Tennessee National Guard under the Ritz’s lit sign: two rows of lanky, white teenagers, most of whom did not yet need a daily shave. One line wore khaki uniforms with lacquered steel pot helmets. The other had rolled jeans and slicked-back hair. The Clinton boys had pressed into the Guards’ bayonetted muzzles, pushing forward until the weapons had left crisp creases in their starched button-downs.

On the lawn across the street, outside the county courthouse, sat the war memorial where machinist Willard Till announced the formation of the Anderson County White Citizens’ Council. Neighbors had queued up to pay their three-dollar membership fee; they leaned on the monument, signing their registration forms on the rock upon which was carved “Lest We Forget.” Over 150 joined the group within the first two hours.

Just past the courthouse, I saw the rebuilt high school, though it now housed the city’s middle school. There was the stone wall supporting the school’s embankment where Clinton High’s first twelve Black students turned, climbed the steps, and waded through the crowd of white teenagers. The white kids had simply watched the Black students enter the school on the first day, but soon they were jeering and then heckling and then assaulting their new classmates.

Starting up the Hill, my vehicle juddered over the railroad tracks where segregationists had once set off three sticks of dynamite. I saw the ditches where the Black men and boys had crouched, sipping coffee to stay awake during the long night watches, hand-built squirrel rifles and inherited Winchesters and borrowed Remingtons clutched in their hands. I passed the empty lot where Ronald Hayden had posed for Life magazine on his grandmother’s front lawn, standing a few steps from where a bomb would explode. He had dressed up for the occasion in a hip white cotton shirt that laced at the collar instead of buttoning. He’d left the brown leather ties undone and then chained a medallion around his neck, maybe a talisman for safety. While the photographer set up the shot, Ronald had cradled his baby sister, perhaps explaining to her what was going on as a way of making sense of it himself. He’d been a serious boy by then, just a skinny fourteen-year-old kid sent out to undo generations of inequality.

Above me loomed Green McAdoo Grammar School where the children of the Hill met to pray before their hopeful and terrifying descent to Clinton High. Most of the old structure was still sound. Before installing the museum, all the town needed to do was peel away five decades of neglect and abuse: reopen the front porch bricked in to create a small, stuffy storage room; reseal the roofing; remove the paneled drop ceiling; refinish the original floors.

Deciding what narrative—or, more accurately, whose narrative—to feature in the exhibits would be more challenging. The battle over the story of Clinton’s desegregation is part of an ongoing national struggle over the politics of memory. History, like all things involving power in America today, is seen as a zero-sum game. But our memories are not time machines. They reveal something much deeper and truer and more personal than a simple timeline of events. We choose what we want to remember, and we also choose what we will forget.

I was able to reconstruct these previously unknown stories because the people of Clinton were generous with their memories. My narrators taught me to think of memory as being like music. The basic building blocks are the solos: one voice telling its story. As soon as more voices join in, the music of the past becomes more complex. Some people have held on to perspectives that harmonize, differing only by gradations of nuance, but more often the various voices are in discord and disagreement. This is the most troubling part of memory, but it can also be the most revealing. There is power in the complexity of a community’s story, when it clashes like Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring. If you stand next to only one voice, the rest of the orchestra seems to be in chaos, but if you can step back and listen to the whole of the group, the differing narratives become the melodies, harmonies, and descants of the piece.

As I’ve learned about the struggle in Clinton, I’ve been amazed by its erasure from official accounts of the civil rights movement. Midway through this project, I climbed to the fourth floor of the Davis Graduate Library at the University of North Carolina. I studied the call numbers, searching for E185.61.A425 2002, the beginning of the library’s main civil rights history section. I reached for the first book, The Origins of the African American Civil Rights Movement, 1865–1956, and flipped to its index, looking for any reference to Clinton. Nothing. I checked the next likely book, The American Civil Rights Movement: Readings and Interpretations; still no references to Clinton. I continued down the shelf.

What happened in this little town between 1956 and 1958 wasn’t a small story at the time. People around the world followed as twelve Black students braved mobs and beatings and bombings for the right to attend high school in their home county. The Associated Press, Reuters, Life, Time, the New York Times, America’s three major television networks, even the BBC and the London Daily Sketch, all stationed journalists there. Pioneering documentarian Edward R. Murrow filmed two award-winning specials about the school. Evangelist Billy Graham hosted a crusade in the school’s gymnasium, urging repentance, healing, and reconciliation.

The events in Clinton challenge how we talk about our civil rights history. Many of the best-known desegregation narratives—Little Rock, New Orleans, Boston, Birmingham—have been told in ways that give us clear-cut heroes and villains. What happened in Clinton is messier than that. It’s a tale of how apathy enables hatefulness. It’s a story of how discord can balloon into violence. It’s an account of how doing the wrong thing gave some people unprecedented power and opportunity. It’s a record of how doing the right thing can leave some individuals permanently scarred, physically and mentally. It’s a chronicle of how a small Southern town can explode, and then a whole entire country can forget.

On the first day of the 1956–57 school year, however, none of the participants knew any of this was about to happen. They were doing something never before accomplished in American history. Had their success been decisive and immediate—or had local, state, and federal officials shut down dissent and stood up for the court order, calling integration right and fair—where would we be as a nation today? Instead, everyone in power waffled or looked away. Today we are split by many of the same divisions and grievances that splintered Clinton in 1956. How will our leaders respond? And if they, too, continue to abdicate their responsibility, how will we take charge?

The process of forgetting an event as important as the desegregation of Clinton High School sounds passive, but it requires an active “correction” of the record. When I started my work in Clinton back in 2005, my first oral history interview was with Margaret Anderson, a white woman who had been the high school’s business and typing teacher. She had served as the unofficial guidance counselor for the twelve Black students. Though she had not believed in desegregation when the 1956 school year began, she did believe in obeying the law. The Black students’ struggles to remain in Clinton High changed her into a true integrationist. She wrote about desegregation in a series of articles for the New York Times, which she later expanded into a memoir, The Children of the South. In her narrative, she centered the Black students and castigated many white leaders. Maybe that was why when I was introduced to her by a local white official just old enough to have seen the events for himself, he admonished her. “Now remember, Ms. Anderson, you lied in your book,” he said. “You tell Rachel what we agreed had occurred.”

After he left, Margaret made me a mug of instant coffee, and we sat down in her parlor to chat. She was nervous. “When I don’t want you to record it, could I just raise my hand or something, give you a signal?” she asked me. “That way I feel free. You know what I mean?”

I didn’t realize it that morning in Margaret Anderson’s kitchen, but I would spend the next eighteen years of my life immersed in the stories the people of Clinton had to share, whether their neighbors wanted them to or not. As each person I spoke with would show me, William Faulkner was right: history wasn’t dead; it was barely the past. And I don’t just mean that stories told by grandparents and great-grandparents lived on in their descendants’ minds. This history was so recent that many of the participants themselves were still alive. When locals looked at the pictures of white rioters around the school, they knew the faces captured on film. These were the people they shopped with at the local Food City or worshiped with at First Baptist Church or traded presents with every Christmas. The people in the pictures had birthed and raised them.

The best way to settle the conflict over desegregation was to let it lie, many white folks said. Or, as one founder of the Tennessee White Youth told me when I asked him for an interview, “Honey, there was a lot of ugliness down at the school that year; best we just move on and forget it.”

But though the rest of the world did forget about Clinton High School, the students and teachers and parents and townspeople affected by the story could not. Their experiences had changed them, scarred them, broken them. Some were able to rebuild their lives, but others were not. Two of the people I’d come to admire—complicated individuals with the hamartias necessary for classical heroes—never recovered. Both would die by suicide.

The first lesson of this book is this: 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. At other times they do injury to people they would have called friends.

Very few of us are simply heroes or villains. None of us deserves to be remembered for only the very best or the very worst things we have done. And yet we must be accountable for our damage.

And a lot of damage was caused in those years.

About The Author

Joan Martin

Rachel Louise Martin, PhD, is a historian and writer whose work has appeared in The Atlantic and Oxford American, among other publications. The author of Hot, Hot Chicken, a cultural history of Nashville hot chicken, and A Most Tolerant Little Town, the forgotten story of the first school to attempt court-mandated desegregation in the wake of Brown v. Board, she is especially interested by the politics of memory and the power of stories to illuminate why injustice persists in America today. She lives in Nashville, Tennessee.

Product Details

  • Publisher: Simon & Schuster (June 13, 2023)
  • Length: 384 pages
  • ISBN13: 9781665905145

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Raves and Reviews

“Rachel Louise Martin’s masterful narrative will stir and break your heart.”
Taylor Branch, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of America in the King Years

“Striking. Martin is a good storyteller… and Clinton is a good story.”
The New Yorker (A Best Book of 2023)

“Martin’s book provided the disturbing, destabilizing experience of being thrust back into a period of intense racial hatred as if it were happening in real time.... A historian who began researching the Clinton events in 2005, Martin renders them with precision, lucidity and, most of all, a heart inured to false hope.”
The New York Times (Editor's Choice)

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

“With painstaking attention to detail and a careful reading of archives both written and oral, Rachel Louise Martin has resurrected a history that explains the triumph and loss connected to American school desegregation. A Most Tolerant Town uncovers a not so distant forgotten past and forces readers to confront the intractability of race and American education.”
—Erica Armstrong Dunbar, author of Never Caught

“[Martin] lets people speak for themselves, and their voices come through on the page, giving the narrative an emotional veracity…. Thanks to the author’s descriptive storytelling, skillful pacing, and respect for her subject, A Most Tolerant Little Town offers a vivid portrayal Clinton High School’s long-ago desegregation and the lingering consequences of racism… across the nation.”
Washington Independent Review of Books

“Martin’s deep research and sparkling narrative tear away the protective gauze of selective memory to uncover the personal cost of our nation’s long battles over racial equality. A timely reminder of the importance of honestly wrestling with the hard and heartbreaking parts of our history.”
Elaine Weiss, author of The Woman's Hour

“One of the most intriguing aspects of Martin’s book is the way she shows how white views differed and evolved over time…. For all its nuanced exploration of a time that seems both remote and sadly familiar, A Most Tolerant Little Town pulls no punches.”
—Chapter 16

“Rachel Louise Martin has rescued this essential story in an illuminating and surprising account.”
—James S. Hirsch, author of Riot and Remembrance

“A compassionate and nuanced portrait… [Martin] strikes an expert balance between the big picture and intimate profiles of the families involved. The result is a vivid snapshot of the civil rights–era South.”
Publishers Weekly

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