• Chronicle of a Battle Foretold: How One Town Went to War Over Desegregation

    Rachel Louise Martin on the Explosive Fight for Civil Rights in the American South

    Labor Day morning, the white members of Magnet Knitting Mills’ American Federation of Hosiery Workers woke up early, downed their coffees, and hustled their kids through their morning routines. They were off for their annual holiday picnic.

    This day marked ten years since the mill had unionized, so it should’ve been more special than usual, a celebration of a hard-won victory against the bosses, but as the workers drove out of town they were forced to yield and even pull off the road for tanks rumbling along the streets. They passed a barricaded checkpoint staffed by armed guards directing holidayers and rubberneckers alike away from Clinton. Already the line of cars stretched miles down the highway. Could they get back into their town? And would the soldiers believe they were residents and not outsiders?

    When union members arrived at the park, far away from all the foofaraw at last, a pall still loomed over the day. As the kids climbed trees and skipped rope, the adults gossiped. Who’d gone downtown? What had they seen? Wait, was anybody here part of that there Home Guard that had thrown grenades at the protestors? And hadn’t the last week shown how different some folks felt about the troubles that had come to Clinton! Hopefully by next Labor Day life in Clinton would be back to normal. Maybe. How that’d happen, though, well, wasn’t that anybody’s guess? This thing sure would be damn hard for anyone to forget.


    Adjutant General Joe Henry woke up Labor Day morning ready to win the battle for Clinton’s streets. After a short meeting with the mayor and the Board of Aldermen, he called a press conference. As of that moment, he announced to the twenty-two assembled reporters, he’d be enforcing his rules. No more milling about on the courthouse lawn.

    The reporters jumped in, shouting questions over each other. What was going to happen tomorrow? Would the National Guard be at the school? Would they allow picket lines? Would they arrest any and all protestors?

    Well, now, Joe Henry replied, the Guard would be over there at the school on Tuesday morning, and they’d be keeping an eye on things.

    Would the Guard escort the Black students?

    No, no, there’d be no formal escort, but the Guard would be on hand.

    They were there to protect every resident’s life and property.

    But what if a picket line formed?

    No, the day wasn’t peaceful, but even this tense quiet was a relief.

    A picket line? On that, the general would just have to wait and see. He didn’t think a small picket line would be a violation, but of course anything that got too large or out of hand would be a different situation.

    What would make a picket line too large?

    It couldn’t impede anyone entering the school.

    What about the Guardsmen who’d been downtown last night? Where were they now?

    Well, the men were sleepy after the excitement of the weekend, but by evening they’d be ready for action. And they weren’t there to bother the townspeople, only there to keep the peace.

    Is this martial law? one reporter eventually asked. Not at all, the general replied.

    Joe Henry’s decrees appeared to do their job. On Labor Day, Clinton was quiet for the first time in over a week. It might not have felt like peace, what with the turreted tanks trundling by. No, the day wasn’t peaceful, but even this tense quiet was a relief.

    As evening neared, however, the National Guardsmen prepared for potential upsurgences. When they saw neighbors hailing each other downtown, the soldiers stepped up and asked that the townspeople keep it moving, in a polite and friendly way, of course, with plenty of “sirs” and “ma’ams” and “pleases.” Most civilians obeyed and went home. A few ducked into Hoskins Drug Store, which had a record-setting day of business selling Cokes and chocolate milkshakes and hamburgers to the curious. 

    Other businesses in town, though, were suffering because of the chaos. An owner of another café who also ran two gas stations was about to list two of his businesses for sale. “No tourist in his right mind would stop here after all the hell that’s been raised,” he told a reporter for the Baltimore Afro-American. “If I can get my money out, I’m leaving.” A novelty store owner said he hadn’t earned enough in the past week to even cover his light bill, and a taxi driver said he hadn’t had a single fare since the trouble started.

    But maybe all that was about to get better since, true to Joe Henry’s word, no one but the Guard stepped foot on the courthouse lawn. Well, just after dusk a group of about fifty folks tried to gather, but the soldiers quickly dispersed them. The protestors left without making a fuss.

    The journalists sat in their makeshift headquarters in the front of the Southern Bell Telephone Office, waiting for action. The photographers had managed to grab some pictures of the tanks rumbling around this small mountain town, but the writers were going to need a story to keep their editors happy. They would give it a day, or maybe two, before they headed off in search of the next headline.

    By 10:00 that night, many folks in Clinton felt safe enough to go to bed. But they were awakened an hour later by the sound of a convoy of armed vehicles speeding out of town, pushing their overburdened engines as fast as the machines could go. Clinton might have been quiet, but Oliver Springs had exploded. Rumor was, someone had even been shot! Joe Henry ordered his men to “lock and load,” driving into town with their weapons armed with live cartridges. Eighty men and a tank should be enough, he calculated.

    The members of the Southern War Correspondents Association grabbed their notebooks and their cameras and hurried to join the caravans heading east on SR61. Though they left after the deployed Guardsmen, the journalists managed to beat the soldiers to Oliver Springs, passing the tank and the jeeps in their faster civilian automobiles.

    Seven miles outside town, SR61 took a sharp right, veering through a mountain pass. Though the soldiers were supposed to have spent their free time catching up on sleep, the man driving the tank hadn’t yet recovered from the hours he’d missed over the weekend. He was drifting off when he reached the turn. He veered into the Mountain View Service Station, ran straight over one of the pumps, hit one of the business’s lights, and took off part of its sign.

    He then plunged the tank down a small embankment and drove across a neighbor’s lawn before he made it back onto the highway. Debris from the tank and bits of the gas pump and glass from the light were strewn across the service station’s parking lot and the neighbor’s grass. The driver never stopped. He left it to the neighbor to call the gas station’s owner and let him know. The businessman wasn’t quite sure what he was going to do about the repairs. He owned the building, but the gas pump was on lease from the petrol company. Could he get money from the state for damages incurred in the line of duty?


    D.J. Brittain Sr.—principal of Oliver Springs High School and father of Clinton High’s principal—thought the rumor about Oliver Springs High’s pending desegregation was a new plot to hurt his son, a plan by the White Citizens’ Council to divide the Brittain family, alienating father from son by pointing out one man had desegregated his school while the other had stood firm.

    However it had started, that gossip had festered and spread. Two hundred and fifty or perhaps five hundred white people had gathered in front of the theater down by the railroad tracks to listen to speakers shout about their Southern heritage. Police officers from Oliver Springs called the sheriffs of Roane and Anderson Counties for help. When the mob outgrew the combined forces’ efforts to contain it, they reached out to the local highway patrol. Next had come the call to Joe Henry.

    When the first squad of Guardsmen arrived in town, the troopers lined up on one side of Main Street, again facing off against jeering white civilians across a town’s thoroughfare. The photojournalists jumped into the gap between the two groups to document the standoff. The sight of these men snip-snapping away outraged many of the protestors. The mob attacked two reporters from the Tennessean. The journalists only escaped because the soldiers extricated them and took them back to Clinton in protective custody.

    Bob Kelley of Life magazine was taking photographs from on top of one of the National Guard jeeps when five men came toward him carrying shotguns. He jumped to the ground ready to flee. Instead, he broke his leg. Rather than helping him, the men smashed his camera, an $800 loss. Terror-stricken, other photographers stashed their cameras in their cars or under bushes. Then the mob turned on the soldiers. A highway patrolman radioed back to Clinton, telling General Henry to send more backup. “They’re as mad at the Guard down here as much as they are at the Negroes,” he warned. Joe gathered up a few more men and set off for Oliver Springs to oversee the situation himself.

    That’s when William Capshaw, L.T. Spraggins, and two friends returned to Oliver Springs from a weekend-long squirrel-hunting expedition. When they’d left a few days earlier, they’d assumed that they would be fine if they avoided downtown Clinton. In fact, the mountains might be about the safest place for young Black men while the white folks marched and rioted in the county seat. They hadn’t heard the rumor about Oliver Springs’ own school desegregation, and no one had a way to warn them.

    Now they found themselves in the middle of the white mob. They sped out of Oliver Springs as the crowd hurled rocks at the vehicle. After dropping off their friends, L.T. and William faced a choice. Would they drive miles out of their way on a detour back home to Oak Ridge or would they attempt to again cross through downtown? They’d made it the first time, right? Surely, they’d be OK a second time.

    For the first Labor Day in recent memory, there hadn’t been a single traffic death.

    L.T. started back down Main Street. One white man on the perimeter of the crowd began beating on his car. Others joined. They shook the automobile, rocking it on its axles, lifting the wheels all the way off the ground and then letting the vehicle fall back onto the pavement. L.T. inched his way through the rioters and pulled away from the mob. Then he got out of his car and shouted back toward the segregationists. “What are you doing?” he asked.

    “Better get out of here!” one man warned him. Others called him a series of hateful and predictable names.

    L.T. hopped back in his car and sped away, but three autos stuffed with white people followed. SR61 between Oliver Springs and Oak Ridge was a winding, twisting path notoriously popular with drag racers, who frequently crashed while speeding around its corners. In other words, it was the sort of route where enraged white men could force a Black driver into a fatal wreck and have it ruled an accident. Maybe that’s why L.T. swung his car off 61 just east of Oliver Springs. Safer to try to lose his trackers on a dark country road. The white men turned too. He was close to a friend’s home. Maybe he and William would find shelter there.

    He pulled into the driveway and the two men ran for the porch, hoping to get inside before they were seen. They weren’t fast enough. One of the white men pulled his vehicle across the friend’s driveway. The white passengers surrounded L.T.’s car and began to vandalize it. L.T. started down the porch steps to try to stop them. Someone shot at him. He fired back with his squirrel-hunting rifle, shooting without aiming. He just wanted to buy himself enough time to run into the weeds and hide. One of his pellets struck sixty-year-old Jack Payne in the arm.

    Or that’s what L.T. told the Oak Ridger. William gave the Clinton Courier-News a different account. He said he had been the one to grab his shotgun and that L.T. had been holding a pistol. L.T. fired at the ground to scare the men away, but William shot toward the advancing posse. One of his shotgun pellets had struck the retired coal miner in the right biceps. Perhaps the men were trying to protect each other by both claiming credit or maybe, in the confusion, they genuinely did not know whose gun had shot Jack Payne.

    No matter who shot the rifle, a white man had been injured. This could mean death. Both William and L.T. got back in the car, somehow outmaneuvering the blockade of people after them. The pair sped away. The white mob chased them, their numbers swelling as word spread, perhaps reaching six hundred strong. The Roane County sheriff and the local highway patrol joined in. At one point, the sheriff and a patrolman thought they’d spotted the men’s car hidden in an Oliver Springs alleyway, but when they followed the car its passengers reportedly fired upon the lawmen before squealing away.

    The sheriff gave chase, following the vehicle back into the Anderson County countryside. When the car finally stopped, he cautiously approached the automobile, wary lest the men shoot again, but William and L.T. had disappeared, losing themselves in the woods. The white mob descended and surrounded the grove, trying to hem the two Black men in. They carried shotguns, pistols, and clubs. But the National Guard had regrouped, its ranks filled out with additional men and the general himself. Joe Henry tried to reason with the crowd, begging them to go home. The Black men would face prosecution, he promised; they could entrust justice to him. A few gave in and headed out. Most stayed where they were.

    “Can we have our hands on that nigger just one time?” one of the crowd asked Joe.

    Those who wouldn’t listen would have to respect force. The general told his soldiers to break up the would-be lynching party. The Guardsmen plunged into the melee, forcing them back to their cars and then herding them toward their homes. Fifteen armed white men resisted, so troopers took the group into custody and shipped them to the Clinton jail, holding them without bond on charges of breaching the peace. Every one of the men arrested was a local. One was forty-six. The rest were between seventeen and thirty-one years of age.

    Though the white rioters had been dispersed, they weren’t finished. Earlier that night, the folks in the tiny Black section of Oliver Springs had been jolted awake (if they’d managed to fall asleep) by a blast of dynamite. Then another. And another. And then a fourth. And a fifth. No property damage was done; that wasn’t the point. The bombers meant to terrorize, and they accomplished their mission. These were the first bombings of the campaign to take back Clinton High.

    Another contingent of white men marched over to Harlan Sisson’s house and fired up a six-foot cross wrapped in rags and soaked in kerosene. Harlan, a white man who owned the general store in Oliver Springs, had nothing to do with the events in Clinton, but his brother was a member of the Anderson County school board. The cross was a message for the family.

    Still, the Clinton Courier-News did manage to find one bright spot in the weekend’s events. Thanks to the looky-loos and the holiday travelers and the roadblocks, cars had often gone no more than ten miles an hour as they traversed Anderson County. For the first Labor Day in recent memory, there hadn’t been a single traffic death.


    Excerpted from A Most Tolerant Little Town: The Explosive Beginning of School Desegregation by Rachel Louise Martin. Copyright © 2023. Reprinted by permission of Simon & Schuster, Inc. All rights reserved.

    Rachel Louise Martin
    Rachel Louise Martin
    Rachel Louise Martin, PhD, is a historian and writer whose work has appeared in outlets like The Atlantic and Oxford American. The author of Hot, Hot Chicken, a cultural history of Nashville hot chicken, and A Most Tolerant Little Town, the forgotten story of the first school to attempt court-mandated desegregation in the wake of Brown v. Board, she is especially interested by the politics of memory and by the power of stories to illuminate why injustice persists in America today. She lives in Nashville, Tennessee.

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