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How Did Tennessee Handle Desegregation?

Updated on February 19, 2013

Prior to Brown v. Board of Education

Prior to the landmark court ruling of Brown v. Board of Education, people in Tennessee were striving for the desegregation of schools. Tennessee schools, like other states, had been divided across color lines. There were "black schools" and "white schools". Things were happening in the country though that were about to change that.

Where colleges were concerned, there were struggles to desegregate as early as 1950. Four black students applied for admission into the law and graduate schools of the University of Tennessee. The university resisted, but the students took their case all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. The school finally relented and agreed to allow blacks to enter the institution in 1952. In 1954, Lillian Jenkins became the first black person to graduate from the University of Tennessee. Soon after U.T.'s desegregation, other universities and colleges followed suit.

A black student walks through a sea of white students in Clinton, Tennessee.
A black student walks through a sea of white students in Clinton, Tennessee. | Source

The Clinton Twelve

High Schools in Tennessee were not as easily desegregated. Clinton and Nashville are two examples of this. In 1951, black students sought entrance into Clinton High School. In 1955, Judge Taylor ruled that the school had to allow blacks by the 1956-1957 school year. People in Clinton, while not happy with the ruling, made preparations for this to happen.

While it seemed that desegregation was going to happen without conflict, this was far from the case. John Kasper, a militant activist arrived in town with one mission. He wanted to stop the desegregation of Clinton High School. He went about the community inciting the citizens with racial hatred. Soon, there was fear among city leaders that violence would soon erupt.

The National Guard was called in to help protect the students who had become known as "The Clinton Twelve". This was not enough though, because the harassment of the black students continued. White citizens began escorting the students to school. One such person, Reverend Paul Turner, was brutally beaten by whites and left for dead. People in the community were shocked by this, and many knew it needed to stop. Later in the year, Clinton High School was bombed. The community(both black and white) joined together to stop the violence. Tensions over desegregation soon ended.

First Graders in Nashville
First Graders in Nashville | Source


In Nashville, a black teen wanted to attend an all white high school. His father sued the school board, and Judge Miller ruled that the school system had to have a desegregation plan in place by 1957. The board was not willing to give in so easily, and shrewdly agreed to desegregate one grade per year, starting with first grade. They zoned the schools in such a way, that most black parents decided to keep their first graders in the all black schools. Only nineteen black students were slated to enter the white schools. This probably would have happened without incident had John Kasper not entered the fray. Kasper had not succeeded in Clinton, but he was determined to keep schools segregated in Nashville. The police were on to him though, and arrested him time after time, leaving him unable to cause much harm. The previous one grade per year plan was eventually shot down by the court, and all twelve grades were desegregated.


A Model for Other States?

Even though the Supreme Court had ruled in 1954 that all schools be desegregated, many southern states resisted. Tennessee was no exception. Blacks in Tennessee struggled for years to be allowed enrollment in white schools. These struggles were violent at times. The perseverance and unwillingness to settle helped these people win their battle. Even with the struggles, Tennessee endured desegregation with ease compared to other states. While a handful of racists caused harm, the majority of Tennesseans were compliant with the rulings on desegregation. Places like Little Rock, Arkansas should have taken a cue from those in Tennessee who acted with relative abidance instead of mass resistance.


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