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The Clinton 12

Documentary revisits civil rights history

By Aaron Broder | null null , null
Scholastic Kid reporter Aaron talks to Keith MacDaniel, director of <i>The  Clinton 12</i>. (Photo: Courtesy Aaron Broder)
Scholastic Kid reporter Aaron talks to Keith MacDaniel, director of The Clinton 12. (Photo: Courtesy Aaron Broder)

A documentary recently shown at the 2007 Nashville Film Festival gave audiences a glimpse into the past, at a story that many people don't know much about. The film—The Clinton 12—tells the story of a group of students who led integration of a Tennessee school more than 50 years ago.

“One of the things about the Clinton 12 is that the story has never really been told well,” Keith McDaniel, the film's director, told Scholastic News Online. “I grew up 30 miles from Clinton and I didn’t know the story. I knew something happened there, but I didn’t really know what. So it’s great for everybody to see this and learn what happened.”

Little Rock Central High School is widely regarded as the first school to be integrated in the South, but the fact is that Clinton High School, located in Clinton, Tennessee, was integrated one year earlier. The “Clinton 12” refers to the first group of African-American students to attend the school in 1956.

Bobby Cain, one of the Clinton 12 and the first African-American graduate of Clinton High School, attended the film festival. He spoke to SN Online about his experience living through that time.


Aaron Broder and Bobby Cain
Kid Reporter Aaron Broder and Bobby Cain, one of the Clinton 12 and the first African-American graduate of Clinton High School. (Photo: Courtesy Aaron Broder)

“The only thing I was thinking about [on the first day of school]" he said, “was my safety, in terms of entering the school, and hoping that I would be able to go back to my home that evening.”

According to Cain, McDaniel did a good job of telling the story of the Clinton 12 in his film.

“The documentary was well-done,” said Cain. “[McDaniel] showed both [sides] of the situation.”

McDaniel believes there is an important message anyone can take away from the film.

“There’s one lady in the movie, Alvah McSwain, and she said in looking back at what happened in 1956, ‘There’s only one race, and that’s the human race,’ ” said McDaniel. “I feel like that really sums up the whole movie and what it’s about.”

Looking Back

Prior to 1956, African-Americans in Clinton were required to go to a high school 18 miles away in Knoxville, Tennessee. In a historic court case, Brown v. Board of Education, the U.S. Supreme Court decided that segregation in schools was unconstitutional, and that African-Americans had the right to learn in the same environment as whites.

African-Americans students walk to school
African American students (part of the Clinton 12) walk down the middle of the street to Clinton High School, despite demonstrations regarding the school intergration issue. (Photo: Howard Sochurek/Time Life Pictures/Getty Images)

That same year, when the new school year began, 12 African-Americans went to Clinton High School, setting in motion events that nobody could have predicted.

Though the response to this integration was initially positive, it all changed when white supremacists started showing up in town, primarily one named John Kaspar. He came from Washington, D.C., with amloads of anti-integration propaganda. Almost instantly, violence erupted, with everyone in the town choosing sides. The tension reached a breaking point two years later when Clinton High School was blown up.

Fifty years after the integration of Clinton High School, the Green McAdoo Cultural Center, housed in the pre-integration elementary school for African-Americans, decided to find a filmmaker to make a documentary commemorating the event. It chose Keith McDaniel, from Oak Ridge, Tennessee, to make The Clinton 12.

“I think it is important to hear those stories, [even though] those stories aren’t always easy to hear,” said McDaniel. “Knowledge is power, and if we have the knowledge of what happened before, then we have the power to change tomorrow.”

At the Nashville Film Festival, McDaniel's documentary won two awards—the NPT Human Spirit Award and the Audience Award for Best Documentary.

Critical Thinking Question

Read today's news story, and then answer the following question.

What lesson do you think people can learn from the story of the Clinton 12?

Join a discussion of this question on our bulletin board.

About the Author

Aaron Broder is a member of the Scholastic Kids Press Corps.

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