A Lesson for Ferguson, MO, From the Pages of History

It’s amazing how some things just don’t change. Riots like those currently happening in Ferguson, MO, have happened over and over throughout history. I attended Clinton Senior High School in East Tennessee. In 1958, three bombs ripped the high school building apart in protest of court-ordered integration. I wrote a research paper in high school about this bombing and the events leading up to it, which was then published in a local periodical.

Clinton High School was the first state-supported public school in the Southeastern United States to be integrated. And it was integrated by court order of federal judge Robert Taylor, whose order said Clinton High School was to be desegregated with “all deliberate speed.” And so in 1956, after the U.S. Supreme Court decided Brown v. Board of Education (1954), twelve African-American students enrolled in Clinton High School.

They attended class for the first time on August 27, 1956, and came to be known as the “Clinton Twelve.” On the morning of each school day they would walk together down Broad Street from Foley Hill to Clinton High. There were no problems that first day of class. But then the agitators arrived from out of town. Perhaps most notably, New Jersey white supremists John Kasper and Asa Carter came in and stirred the pot. Speaking publicly at the Anderson County Courthouse in Clinton on September 1, 1956, they rallied anti-integration campaigners and protested the desegregation order.

Violence was narrowly avoided that day, but the agitators got what they wanted when riots broke out in early September of 1956. Tennessee Governor Frank Clement called up the National Guard and stationed units in Clinton throughout September. Sporadic violence and threats continued for the next two years. The protests resulted in a jury trial for criminal contempt, of which seven of ten defendants were convicted.

On the morning of December 4, 1956, Rev. Paul Turner, the white minister of the First Baptist Church, was severely beaten after escorting the Clinton Twelve to school. The violence culminated on October 5, 1958, when bombs ripped through the Clinton High School buildings. An estimated 75 to 100 sticks of dynamite had been placed in three locations in the building. No one was injured, but school officials estimated damages at $300,000 (in 1958 dollars). While the school was rebuilt, Clinton High School students had to be bused to Oak Ridge (of the Manhattan Project fame) where the school operated in the recently vacated building that had housed Linden Elementary School. Clinton High School reopened in its own building in 1960.

Here’s the moral to this true story. Those outside agitators left town and all the destruction had no negative effect on them. The only ones who suffered were the local residents, and in this case their kids. The same thing is happening in Ferguson. Outside agitators tip the delicate scale of tension in favor of violence, and all hell breaks loose. I sat in my house the night the Ferguson grand jury no-bill was announced and watched the riots live. The violence only hurts the local community. This is in no way Dr. Martin Luther King’s dream. Protect your own community. Turn a deaf ear to the outside influences.

Personally, I would like to see the agitators prosecuted for conspiracy to commit all this violence. To oversimplify, encouragement = common purpose = conspiracy. It would admittedly be a tough case, but at some point these folks need to learn that their actions have consequences for them too.