Written By: Lily Rothman, Liz Ronk

The most famous photographs resulting from the conflict over school integration would be taken the following year in Little Rock, Ark., but in 1956 school integration was, as LIFE put it in a story that September, already “the greatest unresolved national issue.” The Supreme Court had ruled on the matter in Brown v. Board of Education two years before, but the implementation of that order was still being met with violence in places like Clinton, Tenn., as seen in the photos here taken by Howard Sochurek and Robert W. Kelley.

LIFE reported that the desegregation process in Clinton (a town that had been involved in court battles on the subject for years) had seemed to be moving relatively peacefully until a white supremacist named John Kasper came to town from New Jersey. He helped instigate citizens to rebel against the law that required the town’s white high school to serve citizens of all races starting in the new fall term that year. Though Kasper was sentenced to a year in jail by a federal judge in Knoxville, his influence had already contributed to mob violence that peaked that Labor Day weekend.

The situation in Clinton was bad enough that town leaders asked for state help. The governor called in the state police and the National Guard to help a local band of newly recruited deputies make sure the order for integration was followed. Even though many of the officials involved had previously acted to support segregation, they recognized that this law had to be obeyed.

The week of violence ended with a dozen African-American high-schoolers in class at the integrated high school. Though problems in the area would continue for months and de facto school segregation remains a serious problem in many places in the United States today, that September the presence of those 12 students was a victory.

“In spite of agitation, in spite of zealots and the misgivings of the majority, the pattern was changing,” LIFE noted. “This fall 45,000 Negro students were free to attend integrated schools for the first time. It was a slow, small, painful change but it began to look inevitable.”

School integration and race riots in Clinton, Tennessee, 1956.

A line of National Guardsmen faced off against a night crowd on Clinton’s Main Street.

Robert W. Kelley The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images

School integration and race riots in Clinton, Tennessee, 1956.

A mob rocked African-Americans in an out-of-state car passing through Clinton. For four hours the town police stood by helpless as cars were dented and windows smashed. A policeman persuaded part of the mob to attack only Tennessee cars.

Robert W. Kelley The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images

School integration and race riots in Clinton, Tennessee, 1956.

A group of teenage boys with signs on their car protesting school integration in Clinton, Tenn.

Robert W. Kelley The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images

School integration and race riots in Clinton, Tennessee, 1956.

A crowd attacked cars driven by African Americans to protest integration in the schools in Clinton, Tenn.

Robert W. Kelley The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images

School integration and race riots in Clinton, Tennessee, 1956.

The National Guard was on the streets during race riots in Clinton, Tenn.

Robert W. Kelley The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images

School integration and race riots in Clinton, Tennessee, 1956.

Deputies threw tear gas bombs and the mob broke up briefly but then regrouped, until state police quelled them.

Robert W. Kelley The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images

School integration and race riots in Clinton, Tennessee, 1956.

The national Guard on the streets, Cinton, Tenn., 1956.

Robert W. Kelley The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images

School integration and race riots in Clinton, Tennessee, 1956.

Fourteen-year-old student Ronald Hayden held his school books outside his home in Clinton, Tenn.

Howard Sochurek The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images

School integration and race riots in Clinton, Tennessee, 1956.

A scene from the African-American section of Clinton, Tenn., with some of the youths who would be going to Clinton High School.

Robert W. Kelley The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images

School integration and race riots in Clinton, Tennessee, 1956.

Students Robert Thacker (left) and Minnie Ann Dickey relaxed in the African-American section of town in Clinton, Tenn.

Howard Sochurek The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images

School integration and race riots in Clinton, Tennessee, 1956.

Major General Joseph Henry Jr. led the two Guard battalions.

Robert W. Kelley The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images

School integration and race riots in Clinton, Tennessee, 1956.

Pro-segregation agitator John Kasper, center, being led off in handcuffs..

Robert W. Kelley The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images

School integration and race riots in Clinton, Tennessee, 1956.

White rioters stood around during the demonstrations regarding school integration in Clinton, Tenn.

Howard Sochurek The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images

School integration and race riots in Clinton, Tennessee, 1956.

The National Guard patted down prisoners in Clinton, Tenn., 1956.

Howard Sochurek The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images

School integration and race riots in Clinton, Tennessee, 1956.

The National Guard brought M-41 tanks to Clinton.

Robert W. Kelley The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images

School integration and race riots in Clinton, Tennessee, 1956.

Heading to school after the National Guard had moved into town and begun patrolling, ten of Clinton High’s 12 African-American students started the half-mile walk. Previously they had had to ride 16 miles to a segregated school in Knoxville. Clinton’s principal told this group, “You have all shown great courage.”

Howard Sochurek The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images

School integration and race riots in Clinton, Tennessee, 1956.

National Guardsmen escorted African-American teens through the front door of school, while white students watched on in Clinton, Tenn.

Howard Sochurek The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images

School integration and race riots in Clinton, Tennessee, 1956.

A scene from inside Clinton High School on the first day of integration.

Robert W. Kelley The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images

School integration and race riots in Clinton, Tennessee, 1956.

“The Halting And Fitful Battle For Integration.” From the Sep. 17, 1956 issue of LIFE magazine.

School integration and race riots in Clinton, Tennessee, 1956.

“The Halting And Fitful Battle For Integration.” From the Sep. 17, 1956 issue of LIFE magazine.

LIFE Magazine

School integration and race riots in Clinton, Tennessee, 1956.

“The Halting And Fitful Battle For Integration.” From the Sep. 17, 1956 issue of LIFE magazine.

School integration and race riots in Clinton, Tennessee, 1956.

“The Halting And Fitful Battle For Integration.” From the Sep. 17, 1956 issue of LIFE magazine.

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