African American Students’ Civil Rights History

Introduction

The Civil Rights movement in the United States has a long history. Starting in the 1950s, this social impetus for change implied taking direct action; it was primarily focused on the realm of education, although its proponents also addressed other areas where African American people were experiencing severe discrimination and segregation.1 In retrospect, the emphasis on the educational setting as the primary arena for the Civil Rights movement to take place was understandable. Those who fought for the right to equal access in terms of decent education clearly viewed this as the first step toward ensuring the introduction of principles of equality into American society. Furthermore, education was a major area where racism was especially rampant and one that affected African American people to the greatest extent2.

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The absence of opportunities to obtain proper education led to a drastic gap in proficiency and skills between African Americans and their White counterparts, leading to a lack of opportunities for the former in the areas of finding employment, being financially secure, and, most importantly, developing the ability to fight against the systemic oppression to which African American people had been deliberately subjected for decades.3 In addition, the lack of support and even direct threats against African Americans who were willing to become integrated served as discouraging factors. Therefore, the decision to start the integration process with Clinton High School can be viewed as a doubtless controversial move. On the one hand, the integration process could be regarded as a crucial step on the way to proving the absurdity of segregation and providing African American people with the rights and freedoms to which they were entitled as American citizens. On the other hand, the lack of protection against the hatred and aggression that African American students faced at Clinton High School showed that it was necessary to address the issue of social injustice as well. Despite the fact that the U.S. government had taken the first step toward desegregation and integration on a legal and educational level, it was the endeavors of African American fighters for civil rights that led to tackling the problem of social injustice and promoted the idea of democracy and civil rights for all citizens.

Integration and Difficulties Faced by African American Students

Change on a Legal Level

The alterations witnessed in American society in the 1950s regarding the status of African American citizens occurred primarily in the context of the educational system. In particular, the idea of desegregation in schools was promoted by the state government, and Clinton High School was the first school where the process was supposed to take place. Known as Clinton 12, the first African American students who were integrated into the environment of an American public school for White citizens faced huge challenges. The specified redesign of legal standards governing the way American society functioned at the time was expected to reduce the levels of segregation in American schools.

The identified alteration held profound meaning for the African American community since it opened new opportunities to gain the information that would allow its members to fight against the oppression they had in the past and now continued to experience. Recognition of African American people’s rights regarding equal educational opportunities provided chances to make the anti-segregation movement even more powerful and influential. Therefore, the fact that the Clinton High School was opened to youthful members of the African American population was an indication that the change was implemented at the legal level and thus was about to become the basis for a continuing imposition of other alterations. However, the absence of support on the part of state authorities during the implementation of the desegregation process affected the overall efficacy of the change to a great extent.

Social Reactions

Although the legal changes implied that African American students were allowed to participate in an equal educational process, the lack of social support made the legal change null and void for most African American students. The lack of an appropriate response from the U.S. government meant that African American students were forced to face a daunting amount of disdain and aggression from the rest of the student body at Clinton High School. The backlash that the specified decision caused among the members of the White community who were not ready for change was tremendous, pointing to the ultimate failure of the state government to provide any social support for the African American community.

Safety versus Education

Because of the absence of a coherent response from the government, African American students at Clinton High School were subjected to the constant threat of being attacked. In 1958, a bomb planted on the school premises by the opponents of the desegregation process set off an explosion. Even though no deaths or injuries were reported after the incident took place, the incident exerted a drastic effect on the levels of security and confidence of African American members of society. As the levels of safety among the specified demographic plummeted at Clinton High School, the lack of government support was evident.

Therefore, the lack of support from the state authorities and the refusal to encourage social change led to African American parents’ unwillingness to let their children become a part of Clinton High School, as well as students’ fear of attending the academic institution. The specified phenomenon became a major obstacle in the way of receiving education for African American students.4 Therefore, the process of desegregation could be described as extraordinarily unequal, which was the primary problem preventing the change from occurring at the societal level. Without due support from the government and the active promotion of change, the introduction of principles of equality was barely possible.

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When considering the desegregation crisis that occurred at Clinton, the lack of support from the state authorities was the primary factor that contributed to the rise in the levels of helplessness and exposure to threats among African American students. According to evidence provided by people who attended Clinton High School, the primary threat to African American students’ well-being lay outside of the school boundaries.5 In particular, some of the witnesses to this tumultuous time mentioned that neither White students attending the school nor the White teachers employed there prevented the newly integrated African American students from learning in the specified environment.6 Although it would be wrong to assert that no tension existed between the White students attending the school and the students from the Black community who had recently been integrated, most of the threats to the vulnerable population came from the outside.

The observed phenomenon could be labeled as evidence that some government actions were overdue. While managing the situation within the school and addressing the issue of interpersonal relationships between students would not have been the responsibility of the U.S. government, reducing the level of external threats was well within the official scope.7 However, U.S. government officials preferred to refrain from taking any actions that would have affected the situation. Legal repercussions imposed on the members of local gangs that were seeking to prevent the process of integration would have improved the situation, yet the lack of action on the government’s part made the process increasingly difficult.

The fact that Clinton, Tennessee firmly and enthusiastically adhered to the principles of the Jim Crow law also complicated the process of promoting new values along with the concept of desegregation as an essential foundation on which relationships between different ethnicities had to be built.8 One might presume that the presence of the specified law prevented state authorities from reinforcing the process of desegregation and encouraging acceptance within the community, even in the face of the rampant racism some of its members displayed. However, without the proper foundation for change, Clinton was representative of a typical small town in the South, where the power of traditions often overshadowed the necessity to introduce change.9 Therefore, the process of desegregation in Clinton was supposed to start with societal changes as opposed to legal ones so that most of the community members could support the decision.

Reverend Paul Turner

The fact that a member of the U.S. clergy supported the movement aimed at liberating African Americans from the oppression to which they had been systematically subjugated in the academic system also serves to underline the government’s inaction. Reverend Paul Turner’s actions led to making the environment in Clinton High School more secure for the members of the African American community, yet social pressures continued. According to the evidence provided by witnesses, parents were reluctant to send their children to Clinton High School in light of the threats of violence and injuries.10

The violence and the assault Rev. Turner experienced as he attempted to walk students safely to Clinton High School and the response that followed from American society showed that the rift between members of the divided communities was extraordinarily high. On the one hand, the fact that the White population of the United States finally responded to the lack of justice exhibited by the society of the time when Rev. Turner was beaten indicated that the problem of inequality was finally being acknowledged. On the other hand, the fact that the rest of American society produced an emotional response only after a White person was assaulted for defending the rights of African American people showed that, in general, people were not yet prepared to recognize the problems affecting the Black community. Therefore, it could be argued that even though the actions of Paul Turner provided a platform for social change, they did not lead directly to reconsideration of the phenomenon of segregation as it existed at that time.

Nevertheless, the attention that Rev. Turner brought to the problem of segregation could be regarded as a starting point for engaging the entire American community in the fight for the rights of African American people. While the accusations unleashed on Turner after his attempt to speak for the rights of African Americans were numerous and outrageous in tone and substance, the fact that society was reacting to his actions served as a sign of the problem being finally recognized. For example, the endeavors of integration’s opponents to discredit Turner’s actions by alleging that he was a Communist were a primary manifestation of the fact that Turner’s actions could be viewed as efficient in subverting social stereotypes and promoting change.

In Retrospect: Achieved Progress

Nevertheless, when considering the events that took place at Clinton High School during the span of time under discussion, it is important to note the sense of unity and the willingness to act against blatant discrimination that led to a massive societal change. Even though the families of the African American students were terrified by the threats of violence that Black students faced in the effort to be integrated into the previously Whites-only school environment, the unity within the movement, coupled with the willingness to prompt a social change and attain justice, helped African American people to make a difference in American society.11 While the events that took place at Clinton High School were beyond tragic, including the injuries and deaths that followed the attacks, African American students managed to retain their integrity. Thus, the statement made by the actions of the Black community members during the events of the Clinton High School integration stood out against the backdrop of history.

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Conclusion: Clinton High School and Civil Rights

The events at Clinton High School can be seen as an important step forward in the promotion of desegregation in American society, yet the lack of support from the U.S. government made the process incredibly difficult. Because of a close focus on legal issues and disregard for social concerns, the U.S. government failed to create a safe environment for African American learners, leading to the unwillingness of both parents and children to accept the proposed solution.

The assistance offered by Rev. Paul Turner can be seen as a crucial step toward motivating the members of the White community to care for the needs of the oppressed and recognize the failure of the legal and social justice systems. However, the specified change in the dynamics within the interracial relationships in the United States of the 1950s was not devoid of controversy. Although the support that Turner provided to the members of the African American population, and in particular, the students who attended Clinton High School, was essential in safeguarding the lives of the newly integrated learners, it also revealed that the White population in American society at the time could only show concern when a member of their race was attacked.

Nevertheless, despite the lack of support from the government and an increasingly high rate of injustice and inequality within American society, African American students managed to build significant resistance against the systemic oppression to which they were subjected. With the help of the active promotion of unity, African American people managed to survive even in an environment that could be defined as extraordinarily hostile to them, and the events at Clinton High School can be viewed as a graphic example of the specified phenomenon. Although affecting a range of people’s lives in a most deplorable way, the events at Clinton High School should be seen as some of the most important changes affecting the success of the Civil Rights movement. Leading to the ultimate integration of African American students into high schools, the change under consideration served as a platform for recognizing the rights of the Black community, and thus, it lent even more weight to the movement.

Bibliography

Aretha, David. The Story of the Little Rock Nine and School Desegregation in Photographs. Berkeley Heights, NJ: Enslow Publishers, Inc., 2014.

Baldwin, James. The Amen Corner. Stamford, CT: Cengage Learning, 1968.

Bosarge, Alexandra B. “The Impact of the Civil Rights Movement on the Advertising Industry.” PhD thesis, University of Southern Mississippi, 2015

Bryant, Brenda H. Reflections of African American high school students’ literacy and education experiences after Brown v. Board of Educatio. Huntsville, TX: Sam Houston State University, 2015.

Erickson, Ansley T. Making the Unequal Metropolis: School Desegregation and Its Limits. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 2016.

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Gallagher, Charles A. and ‎Cameron D. Lippard. Race and Racism in the United States: An Encyclopedia of the American Mosaic. Santa-Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO, 2014.

Holloway, Jonathan and Stephen J. Whitfield. “Two takes on Ta-Nehisi Coates.” Patterns of Prejudice 50, no. 3 (2016): 302-310.

Littlejohn, Jeffrey L. and Charles H. Ford. “Arthur D. Morse, School Desegregation, and the Making of CBS News, 1955–1964.” American Journalism 31, no. 2 (2014): 166-185.

Novotny, Lawrence. Documenting the Black Experience: Essays on African American History, Culture and Identity in Nonfiction Films. New York, NY: McFarland, 2014.

Shull, Steven A. A Kinder, Gentler Racism? The Reagan-Bush Civil Rights Legacy. New York, NY: Routledge, 2017.

Footnotes

  1. Lawrence Novotny, Documenting the Black Experience: Essays on African American History, Culture and Identity in Nonfiction Films (New York, NY: McFarland, 2014), 32.
  2. Steven A. Shull, A Kinder, Gentler Racism?: The Reagan-Bush Civil Rights Legacy (New York, NY: Routledge, 2017), 11.
  3. Charles A. Gallagher and ‎Cameron D. Lippard, Race and Racism in the United States: An Encyclopedia of the American Mosaic (Santa-Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO, 2014), 26.
  4. David Aretha, The Story of the Little Rock Nine and School Desegregation in Photographs (Berkeley Heights, NJ: Enslow Publishers, Inc., 2014), 14.
  5. Brenda H. Bryant, Reflections of African American high school students’ literacy and education experiences after Brown v. Board of Education (Huntsville, TX: Sam Houston State University, 2015), 27.
  6. Jeffrey L. Littlejohn and Charles H. Ford. “Arthur D. Morse, School Desegregation, and the Making of CBS News, 1955–1964,” American Journalism, vol. 31, no. 2 (2014): 171.
  7. Jonathan Holloway and Stephen J. Whitfield, “Two takes on Ta-Nehisi Coates,” Patterns of Prejudice 50, no. 3 (2016): 305.
  8. Alexandra B. Bosarge, “The Impact of the Civil Rights Movement on the Advertising Industry” (PhD thesis, University of Southern Mississippi, 2015), 3.
  9. Ansley T. Erickson, Making the Unequal Metropolis: School Desegregation and Its Limits (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 2016), 39.
  10. James Baldwin, The Amen Corner (Stamford, CT: Cengage Learning, 1968), 4.
  11. Ansley T. Erickson, Making the Unequal Metropolis: School Desegregation and Its Limits (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 2016), 40.
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