Posted by: Lisa Hill | January 21, 2019

The Ordeal of Bobby Cain, by George McMillan

Today, Robert (Bobby) Cain (b.1939) is one of the heroes of the Civil Rights movement in America, but in 1956 when he became the first African American student to enrol at Clinton High in Tennessee, he was just a very anxious 16-year-old boy.  People talk about schoolyard bullying today, and it’s a frightening, debilitating thing when it happens, but Bobby Cain’s entry into a segregated white high school sparked violence and intimidation on an unprecedented scale.

This week’s story from the Library of America ‘Story of the Week‘ is reportage from the time by journalist George McMillan (1913–1987).  The introduction to The Ordeal of Bobby Cain on the LOA site features a photo of Bobby Cain leading a small group of fellow-students into the school, flanked by white students on either side of the path.

“I was 16 years old, and I didn’t have any say in the matter,” Bobby Cain recalled nearly sixty years later, in late 2017. “We did not receive any special protections. We didn’t have any support groups, other than the churches we went to. The Little Rock 9, on the other hand, were escorted into the school by the 101st Airborne unit. They also received medallions from the president.” (Introduction, citing an interview at the Tennessee Magazine.)

Bobby lay awake the night beforehand, knowing—as his parents did from the local African American grapevine—that there would be trouble.  His first day was not too bad, but things rapidly escalated under the pernicious influence of an out-of-towner called John Kasper, who led the Washington-based Seaboard White Citizens’ Council.  There were hostile mobs outside the school on the second day, and when Kasper was arrested, he was replaced by Asa Earl Carter, the soon-to-be infamous White Citizens’ Council leader from Birmingham.  

Notable in the story of this unedifying time in American history, is McMillan’s recognition of what we might today call post-traumatic stress.  Interviewing the boy three weeks into the term, McMillan noted the same symptoms as those displayed by combat veterans.

During those weeks, this quiet adolescent who wanted to avoid any “disturbance” had been the victim of some of the most angry racial vituperation in recent American history. Afraid though he was to go to school because there might be a picket line, he had continued to go after the school was besieged by an uncontrolled mob.

But he had trouble explaining why. It was still too soon, for one thing. As we talked, drops of sweat gathered on his forehead and began to run down his cheek. He pressed his palms together nervously. He reminded me of the men I had interviewed when I served as a Marine combat correspondent in World War II. It is impossible for men who have really “had it” to talk about their experience until their memories have had an interval in which to reject the intolerable.

When I asked him, for example, what names he had been called when he ran the gauntlet of segregationists who crowded around the sidewalks of Clinton High, he looked away, and answered in a voice so low I could barely hear him. “Coon . . .” he said, his voice trailing off. He insisted he could not remember any others.

And Bobby, like most true combat veterans, knew very little about the shape of the larger events of which he was a part. (p.3)

McMillan also had a grasp of community dynamics and the history of the town:

That night Foley Hill began to stir in fear. It was a small community, about 200 Negroes in a town of 4,000, with nothing in its history to prepare it for racial violence.

East Tennessee was not Mississippi; indeed, America’s first abolitionist newspaper was published in the area, and the region had voted against joining the Confederacy. But if the Negroes could, as one of them said, “go almost anywhere in East Tennessee,” it was still a region with another pertinent tradition. Clinton was within an area where it was part of the code to settle disputes without help from the law. The danger, as some of the adults on Foley Hill saw it, was not so much from racial hatred, as that any open argument might be settled with gunfire. (p.4)

McMillan’s story suggests that there were two factors that supported Bobby Cain: his mother’s determination and the attitude of fellow-students who were white.  It’s intriguing to compare what Cain says in that first interview in the third week of term, with what he says about the white students over half a century later in an interview with the Tennessee Magazine. We can only speculate about the reasons for the discrepancy.

I looked up McMillan at Goodreads: he also wrote two books about marines in WW2: The Old Breed (1983) and Uncommon Valour (1986), and one about James Earl Ray, called The Making of an Assassin (1976).  According to the (semi-paywalled) NY Times obituary, he died in 1987 aged 74.

As far as I know, this story is only available at the Library of America Story of the Week website, where it was published January 19th, 2019.

PS There’s a sculpture commemorating the courage of the Clinton 12 here.

PPS Thanks to Sue at Whispering Gums whose posts about other Library of America Stories of the Week encouraged me to subscribe.

 


Responses

  1. Let’s hope these times never come back.

    Like

    • Kids still suffer racism at school: we have to do more to combat this.

      Like

      • Yes, they do. Things have improved but not enough.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. I have such a backlog of LoA stories I want to write about. I particularly like the social history ones like this, and ones by my favourite authors.

    Like

  3. I’m glad you brought this to us. Overt racism is so hard to understand (as is much of rural USA). It’s difficult to overstate this young man’s courage, and his mother? How could she send him into that each day. And yet, how could she not.

    Liked by 1 person


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