Sixty years ago, Bobby Cain became the first African-American man to graduate from an integrated high school in the South. Just one year prior, he and 11 other black students had enrolled at Clinton High School in East Tennessee. They became known as the Clinton 12.
This week, Cain gave a rare presentation to social studies teachers from all over the state in hopes that his personal story might help them better engage their students to learn about the history of civil rights in Tennessee.
Growing up, Bobby Cain lived just a few blocks from all-white Clinton High School. Yet every day, he and other African-American students had been bused to Austin High School in Knoxville. That changed the summer before his senior year, when a court order mandated that Clinton begin accepting black students that fall.
Cain says he preferred the long bus rides to the cold shoulders he encountered at Clinton.
"It was difficulty, in terms of meeting new friends. The problem was, we didn’t have friends — at least I know I didn’t have any friends."
But he didn't have much of a choice. Anderson County would no longer pay for tuition and transportation across county lines. The high school senior could either drop out, join the military or enroll at the nearby school. He knew his mom would never let him join the Army and dropping out was out of the question. He enrolled at Clinton in 1956.
On the first day of class he met with the other students and together they walked through the front doors.
It was fairly calm. But as the days passed, segregationists descended on Clinton, creating a volatile environment for the students. Soon protestors rioted — overturning cars, smashing windows and threatening to blow up city buildings. The governor had to call in the National Guard.
Cain says not all students were aggressive, but they also weren’t too friendly.
"The white students — if they had talked to me, they would have gotten jumped on," he says. "It was a year of not any friends, to be honest."
When graduation rolled around, Cain was the only black senior eligible to graduate. Fearing for his safety, the principal organized a group of white students to protect him at the ceremony. Everything was fine until he went to change into his cap and gown. He was ambushed.
A group of students turned off the lights and attacked him, striking another white student on accident. When the lights came back on, they spotted Cain and descended on him. Cain hit back — he remembers swinging his arms, not caring who the punches landed on.
When he got away, he called his father. In his cap and gown, he went home and grabbed the family shotgun, promising to shoot anyone that came up over the hill into his property. After a year of aggression, he had finally broken down. His father consoled him, taking the shotgun from his arms.
Cain says he is thankful that his father did.
While the Clinton 12 broke racial barriers in the South, the Little Rock Nine received much more national attention when they integrated an Arkansas school a year later. Cain points out a number of differences — for starters, those students were handpicked by the NAACP.
"We did not receive any protections. We didn’t have any support groups. They were escorted into the school by the 101st Airborne Unit," he said. "They also received medallions from the president."
That was not the case for the Clinton 12. The fact that their story is lesser known is the reason Bill Carey, founder of Tennessee History for Kids, thought it was so important for Cain to share his first hand account with educators.
"In Bobby’s case, this happened in 1956. It isn't that far away from us when you realize someone like that is still in our midst," said Carey. "He is someone you might sit next to in an airplane and not realize that he is a real civil rights hero and he lives in Nashville."
After Cain’s graduation, he went on to TSU and got a degree in social work. He spent years in the military and, now in his 70s, still works in Nashville government.
The school was bombed the year after he left. Nationally, the incident was still overshadowed by the Little Rock Nine.
"Clinton was just put on the background, I don’t know if it was by choice. We never talked about it until about 40 years afterwards."
Even now, Cain doesn’t revel in the attention and turns down most requests for appearances. But he does hope that telling the story to teachers can help them educate the next generation to better understand the civil rights struggle in their own state and appreciate the sacrifices made by those before them.