“The story itself is quite dramatic, as dramatic as any Hollywood movie ever made, but the important thing about it is that it is true.” That is a quote written by Bonnie Albright Shoemaker in the historically accurate forward for the book she wrote with Danny Thomas.
That book is called Pellissippi Ghosts.
The book starts out with a factual account written by Shoemaker, detailing the events surrounding the integration of Clinton High School in 1956.
One might find it hard to believe that, once upon a time in Clinton, there were rabble-rousers fanning riotous flames in the hearts of demurring citizens, averse to integration and change. Or that a vigilante police faction formed to help an understaffed local police force handle said riotous citizens. But these things did occur in Clinton. And these are only a few examples of the events that occurred in Clinton surrounding the moving forward of the largest civil rights campaign the United States had ever seen.
When thinking about school integration in the South, most turn immediately to what happened in Little Rock, Ark., in 1957, but in her forward, Shoemaker points out that the events leading to school integration in Clinton occurred an entire year prior, in 1956.
“With all deliberate speed,” was the message from Judge Taylor of Knoxville in 1956, on how and when Clinton High School would integrate.
According to Shoemaker, the people of Clinton knew it was happening and were going to abide by the law. There had even been preparations the year before.
“Everything went smoothly.” Said Shoemaker. Everything was fine until an outsider by the name of John Kasper showed up in town.
“It was the weekend before the beginning of school that John Kasper showed up and started passing out pamphlets and going door to door.”
“The tension increased daily. It doubled everyday with the crowds of people that were coming to town: the press and people from out of town,” said Shoemaker.
All of this happened over a one-week span. From the time school started on Monday to that Friday and Saturday, a mob of thousands of people had assembled near the courthouse.
A home guard formed to assist the police force with keeping the unruly crowd at bay.
Just about the time the mob was beginning to overrun the home guard and police force, the National Guard rolled into town.
The National Guard put a stop to the public riots but private meetings continued for a while. Groups opposing integration continued meeting behind closed doors until a few events such the brutal beating of Pastor Paul Turner caused a record number of voters to turn up at the polls to vote and the eventual bombing of Clinton High School in 1958.
After the factual account of the civil rights struggle in Clinton in the late 1950’s comes the historical fiction narrative written by Danny Thomas.
Thomas went to high school in Clinton and then attended the University of Alabama. There he graduated with a degree in English education. At the University of Alabama, Thomas played football under Coach Bear Bryant.
Thomas’ story revolves around “respected attorney Luther Reeves, a widower, that finds himself drawn to a young female teacher who has become the target of malicious, racist acts.
“Luther Reeves’ story illustrates one man’s search for fulfillment after years of numbing solitude, focusing on how he is forced to forsake his lawyer’s tools of rhetoric and persuasion, relying instead on his instincts, taking dangerous chances, and learning to love again.”
“This year is the 60 year anniversary of the bombing of Clinton High School, and I think there are a lot of students in school in Clinton that have no idea that such a momentous event occurred in the civil rights struggle in our small town,” said Thomas.
Thomas was in the fourth grade when Clinton High School was bombed.
“I remember seeing the jeeps and the soldiers and the tanks because of the National Guard presence there for 60 to 90 days after the bombing of the high school in October,” he said.
“I was only in the fourth grade and didn’t really understand the significance of it. And as I grow older, it’s important to know what happened when I was younger, how the world has changed and how the world continues to need to change, because it is an interesting time.”
Thomas said that he was aware that something was happening but due to his young age, he didn’t fully comprehend the weight of the events.
“As you get older your past becomes more important to you. My reason for writing the book was to express the way people were overwhelmed with the uncertainty of what’s going to happen next.” Said Thomas.
“It really was a scary time, and it was an exciting time in some ways. It made everyone examine what they thought was right.”
The main antagonist in Thomas’ story is “firebrand” John Kasper. John Kasper was a far right activist and Ku Klux Clan member from New York that strongly opposed integration and desegregation. When it was announced that Clinton High School would integrate, he came to Clinton, bringing his noxious ideologies with him. What ensued proved to be a major event not only in Clinton’s history, but also in the United States’ history.
“If you don’t study history then you’re doomed to repeat it,” said Thomas. “There is a lot of racial tension these days, and some of the answers we thought we had found for the tension between cultures and ethnicities need to be reinforced.”
Thomas and Shoemaker want to reach a younger generation in order to show that there was a precursor to the way that things are now.
Pellissippi Ghosts is an elaborately layered piece of work, with real, historical characters blending with fictional characters that are dealing with problems of their own such as grief and loss.
Pellissippi Ghosts is available in Clinton at Hoskins Drug Store, Mitchell’s Beauty Salon and various antique shops on Market Street.
Thomas finished by saying, “There’s a lot to be learned from what used to be happening in Clinton, and it has lessons for today.”