It was only 4/10 of a mile, but this walk’s impact will stay with me for a long time.
The Clinton 12 Commemorative Walk brought together people of different races, ages, backgrounds, and political persuasions. This brief walk down the hill to Clinton Middle School (then High School) was an occasion to honor the first students to integrate a high school in the South.
Today’s walk was a far cry from what happened in 1956; angry protesters, racially charged signs, and death threats greeted those students as they walked down the hill to enter Clinton High School. I doubt if they realized at the time that they were walking into history, and that 60 years later they would be making this walk once again. Only this time, it would be to the cheering and standing ovations.
First Baptist Church has an historic place in this community. In 1956, Rev. Paul Turner, Pastor of FBC, walked with six black students to ensure they would get into the school safely. As he left the building, Turner was surrounded by angry protesters who beat him severely. He took a stand and it proved costly for him, all because he wanted to lead the church to “do the right thing.”
In my sermon last Sunday, I told the church I’d be taking a walk similar to what Rev. Turner and those students did. However, the only thing that might be the same is the physical distance from the Green McAdoo school and the Clinton Middle School (High School in 1956). For me, the only concern I might have had was whether or not it would rain, and how hot it would be, and what clothing to wear to remain comfortable. It didn’t take a particular degree of courage to lead the remaining members of the Clinton 12 down the hill into the school where they would be recognized and honored.
Walking with them now isn’t the same as walking with them then, very few of us know what it’s been like to walk in their shoes since that moment in 1956.
It was a humbling yet joyous experience to have walked down the hill with my wife Lori on my right side, Bobby Cain on the other, and some words of Rev. Turner in my coat pocket. Cain was the first black student to graduate from a high school in the South. Turner’s words were from the sermon manuscript that he preached on the Sunday after he was beaten for walking six black students down that same hill into the high school.
I found his words, uttered more than 60 years ago, eerily applicable and relevant for our nation today:
Now we see clearly again it is Christ or Chaos! Necessity is upon us. Either we assert ourselves in the spirit of the Christian ideal, or life, and government, and business, and economics, and peace, and community integrity, and joy, and Christian usefulness are all on the toboggan sliding backward! Let life be anchored to faith, hope, and love. Let God make us better people, and immediately our community and nation will see better days.
It was a honor to meet Bobby Cain those other students who walked down a hill and into history. Today’s ceremony is a reminder of how far we have come, and how much farther there is to go for the causes of justice, equality, and compassion.