I had the opportunity to participate in the annual All State East Senior Clinic in 2009 (my senior year of high school).
It’s an audition-only event for high-caliber high school musicians from all over East Tennessee to participate in a weekend of learning challenging new music under the baton of world-class conductors. It culminates in a performance of that music the final evening.
As a clarinet player who enjoyed a challenge, it was my favorite high school tradition.
After the band I was in performed, I stayed to listen to the top band. During the concert, the conductor paused to read aloud the composer’s statement from their next piece.
While I don’t have access to the full composer’s statement for “Walking Into History (The Clinton 12)” by Richard Saucedo, here’s how the music distribution company JW Pepper describes it, in part: “In August 1956, Clinton, Tennessee, was the site of one of the most significant events of the American civil rights movement as 12 courageous teenagers walked into history becoming the first students to desegregate a state-supported high school in the south.”
You read that right. 1956 – one full year before “The Little Rock Nine” desegregated Little Rock High School in Arkansas.
The conductor then shared more of the story. Two years after “The Clinton 12” integrated Clinton High School, white supremacists bombed the school. No one was hurt, but the nearly 100 sticks of dynamite damaged the building beyond safe use.
In an incredible act of allyship, Oak Ridge High School (our football rival) offered classroom space to the students and teachers of Clinton High School while the building was rebuilt.
The first day that students arrived from Clinton, the Oak Ridge High School Marching Band was outside in full uniform, playing the Clinton High School Alma Mater while “The Clinton 12” got off the bus.
“Walking Into History (The Clinton 12)” captures all the aspects of this harrowing, courageous journey, incorporating parts of the Clinton High School alma mater throughout to symbolize the bravery of “The Clinton 12.” It’s powerful; I suggest clicking the link above to give it a listen.
This concert was the debut performance of the piece. As I sat listening to the familiar melody of my alma mater, tears filled my eyes. I had never been prouder to wear the Clinton High School band uniform I donned that day. Had I been wiser, I would have been livid.
I grew up in Clinton from the time I was a baby until I graduated high school at the age of 18. We never talked about “The Clinton 12” in any of my history classes. The building that is now Clinton Middle School – where I attended – was the original high school that got bombed and then rebuilt.
We had been told that the building used to be the high school to explain why the current high school’s football stadium was next to the middle school instead of the high school, but no one mentioned the bombing.
One of the members of “The Clinton 12” was a janitor at Clinton Elementary School while I was a student there. My family and I knew the late Alfred Williams.
My mom teased him because, while he was one of the sweetest men on earth, his face naturally rested in a frown. She dubbed him “Grumpy” (a nickname my siblings and I never failed to call him), and we gave him something with the Disney character Grumpy on it every Christmas.
Never once did we talk about the brave actions of his youth, even though he gave several interviews throughout his life recounting the events.
Even with the proximity I had to this history, I learned more in the two minutes it took to listen to that composer’s statement in 2009 than I had ever learned in 18 years of living in the town – and attending the very school – where that historic event occurred.
But even that short history lesson ignored the harassment that “The Clinton 12” endured from white students at Clinton High School: getting shoved in the halls, finding threatening notes in their lockers, and getting the backs of their heels stepped on so frequently they walked home with bloody socks.
The abuse was so terrible that only one of the three female students in the group stayed to graduate.
Williams said in an interview that he couldn’t believe that the white town folks had “so much hatred in their hearts [over] 12 little Blacks trying to get an education. That’s all we wanted was to get an education.”
The Green McAdoo Cultural Center dedicated to “The Clinton 12” now exists in what used to be the public school building for Black K-8 students during segregation. Even though the museum opened in 2006, my high school didn’t plan field trips there while I was a student (at least, not for my classes – potentially for none at all).
The late Representative John Lewis attended the grand opening himself to give remarks; I heard no mention of that historic occasion in the halls of my school in the days that followed.
My teachers weren’t Proud Boys. My Girl Scout Troop Leaders weren’t members of the KKK. They were people I saw in church on Sunday, volunteering their time where they could lend a hand and teaching kids like me how to pray.
They simply believed the lie that their interpretation of history mattered more than learning the truth. That’s how white supremacy is a poison to us all.
White supremacy isn’t only physical violence. It’s the practice of preventing folks from learning the truth about where they live.
There are countless stories of courageous Black folks all over the country that we’ve never heard because they’re buried. And white supremacy is supporting people in positions of power like Florida Governor Ron DeSantis who are seeking to make sure those stories stay buried.
Late actor Cameron Boyce (the grandson of Jo Ann Boyce, one of “The Clinton 12”) was able to use his platform on the Disney Channel in 2016 to tell the story of “The Clinton 12.”
A national platform like that certainly did its part to make this story less obscure, but there are many more stories like this one that remain hidden by the whitewash of history.
As you celebrate Black History Month, don’t just revisit the sanitized stories we hear every year. Find the buried stories. Exhume them. Polish the whitewash off them. Share them with your friends; post them on social media. We all need to know these stories.
If you’re not sure where to start, check out The Legacy Museum’s exhibit, “From Enslavement to Mass Incarceration.”
One of the best things about the information age is that these stories are now more accessible than they ever were. It is our duty to share them with the same fervor that we proclaim, “Jesus is Lord.”
As Jesus said, the truth will set us free.
A bivocational pastor, writer and spiritual director based in Atlanta, Georgia, she currently serves as the Pastor of Congregational Care at The Faith Community and works as a Spiritual Director at Reclamation Theology. Cawthon-Freels is the author of Reclamation: A Queer Pastor’s Guide to Finding Spiritual Growth in the Passages Used to Harm Us (Nurturing Faith Books), and a contributing correspondent at Good Faith Media.