This Promise of Change: Jo Ann Allen Boyce and Debbie Levy's 2019 BGHB Nonfiction Award Speech

Co-authors Jo Ann Allen Boyce and Debbie Levy delivered their acceptance remarks as a conversation. 

 

JO ANN ALLEN BOYCE: Thank you. I speak for both Debbie and myself in expressing our gratitude to The Boston Globe, The Horn Book, and the awards committee. (We’re sending our healing wishes to the chair of that committee, Monica Edinger. As a stroke victim myself, I can understand what a hard and uncertain road she is on right now.) We’re grateful to our editor, Susan Dobinick, and the whole team at Bloomsbury. And our agent, Caryn Wiseman! You’ll hear more about her in a few minutes. 

First, Debbie, will you give these good people some background about the events at the center of the book? 

 

DEBBIE LEVY: For years, African American parents in your hometown of Clinton, Tennessee, had been fighting for better educational opportunities for their children. There was an all-Black grammar school, which you attended from kindergarten through grade eight. I know you loved your teacher, but you didn’t love having all eight grades together in two rooms; didn’t love the worn books, cast off from the whites-only elementary school; didn’t love the used desks. 

Once they reached high school age, the African American children of Clinton were forced to leave town if they wanted to continue their education, because Clinton High School — which was a short walk down the street from your house — was only open to white students. Among the lawyers on the lawsuit that Black families in Clinton brought in the early 1950s against their school system was…Thurgood Marshall! But not even Thurgood Marshall could convince Clinton to desegregate its schools. 

He had better success in another case. In 1954, the Supreme Court of the United States decided Brown v. Board of Education, ruling that racially segregated schools violated the Constitution’s guarantee of equal protection of the laws. Everywhere in the country, it became unconstitutional to bar children from a school based on the color of their skin. 

And so the doors of Clinton High School flew open to you and your neighbors!  

 

JAAB: Nope! 

 

DL: No. They didn’t fly open. Nothing happened, because the white people in Clinton, and certainly the ones in charge, didn’t want those doors to open. A court ruling, even one by the Supreme Court, doesn’t automatically change things. To turn a “promise of change” into real change, people have to take steps, and risks. So in 1956, you, Jo Ann, and eleven other African American students took those steps, walking down the hill from your neighborhood and into the all-white high school of eight hundred students in Clinton, Tennessee. 

What went on in Clinton — the good, the bad, the ugly, and the uglier — was front-page news all over the country at the time. Dear audience, you can watch video of fifteen-year-old Jo Ann calmly fielding questions on Edward R. Murrow’s See It Now TV show. You can read fifteen-year-old Jo Ann’s comments in the New York Times of 1956. There’s a news photo of her standing onstage with the legendary Jackie Robinson at a 1957 NAACP event that honored them both. 

And yet, today most people haven’t heard of the Clinton 12. So one reason this award is so sweet is that it helps remedy that oversight and shine light on the unsung heroism of the Clinton 12 — and, particularly, of you. 

Jo Ann, will you tell these good people how this book came about? 

JAAB: The story of the Clinton 12 hasn’t received widespread attention, but I’ve spent more than twenty-five years talking about these events to young people in schools and churches. And frequently at these presentations, what people said was: “You should write a book.” It had always been a dream of mine, yet no matter how many attempts I made, that task seemed far too daunting for me. 

Then in February 2015 my daughter-in-law, Libby Boyce, posted something about me and the Clinton 12 on Facebook. Libby wrote: “In honor of Black History Month, I want to share my mother-in-law’s and 11 other children’s experience as young students in Clinton, Tennessee, who desegregated the first high school in the South. This story has somehow not risen to the level of other similar stories, but it should! Respect to all of those who paved the road for our children!” A friend of Libby’s saw the post. This friend said something like, “This would make a great children’s book…” 

 

DL: …and the friend was Caryn Wiseman, my literary agent, and now yours, too. I didn’t see the post, since I didn’t know Libby at the time, but Caryn got in touch with me and several other clients who write nonfiction. 

 

JAAB: Libby told Caryn that I’d always wanted to write a children’s book about my experience, and I was open to working with one of her clients. I looked at some of Debbie’s books and thought, “This is who I’d like to work with.” And then we talked on the phone, and there was no question. 

 

DL: And I also thought: this is who I’d like to work with! From the phone call, because I knew that this could be not only a book collaboration but also a friendship for life. But also from what I was able to see of the Jo Ann of six decades ago back in Clinton. 

Because the Clinton desegregation crisis received so much attention in 1956 and 1957, I could really get to see the teenage Jo Ann. There she was, speaking on Edward R. Murrow’s show with both frustration and equanimity about the struggle. There she was, not letting anyone off the hook for the ugliness she and her friends faced but also, amazingly to me, neither hopeless nor bitter. There she was, her voice musical, as befitting someone who loved to sing and whose parents were both accomplished church singers. Yes, I wanted to work with this person! 

It took a while to figure out the best format for this book. But I kept coming back to Jo Ann’s voice, and her background as a jazz singer — in between being a pediatric nurse, a mother, and a grandmother — and her love of poetry. And it wasn’t only that poetry fit Jo Ann; it also fit the story. Poetry excels at conveying emotion and urgency, and this is that type of story. 

 

JAAB: When Debbie proposed telling the story through chapters written in verse, I was thrilled. I loved her book The Year of Goodbyes, also nonfiction written in poetry, about her mother’s childhood in Nazi Germany facing hatred and violence just because she was Jewish — experiences that resonated with what we faced just because of the color of our skin. 

 

DL: I got additional glimpses of teenage Jo Ann when I read the interviews she gave during the Clinton crisis. Her comments to the Afro-American newspaper in January 1957 were typical. The reporter asks Jo Ann to describe her experience in Clinton. The experience was horrific! Yet she responds: “Let me tell you the good things first.” No wonder the headline of that story read, “Jo Ann Allen, heroine of Clinton school fight.” Jo Ann, I know you’re not entirely comfortable with this hero stuff. But I also know you’re not going to fight with me here during our big awards moment! So I’ll ask you a final question: What do you want readers to take away from our book? 

 

JAAB: I would like them to think about hatred and to be moved to resist it. Hatred is a disease of the heart. It is not a disease a person is born with; instead, it is one that is taught. It is brought about through those who teach it to their children. They learned it from their parents and grandparents, who learned it from their parents and grandparents, and on and on. How absurd and insidious to infect one’s children with this vicious disease! How vicious to teach them to inflict it on others. Hatred leaves holes in the heart, a scarred mind, and a wasted brain — and I’m speaking of its effects on those who hold this disease in their hearts and inflict it on others. 

When I was growing up in Clinton, my white neighbors and I got along perfectly fine. We played together, ate from one another’s tables, and shared food when the need arose. So what, pray tell, would cause those neighbors to turn against us during the desegregation of Clinton High School? I believe it was long-held beliefs of white supremacy, beliefs passed on to them by their ancestors, beliefs that went underground while we played and ate and shared — but that never really went away. I’d add fear to the mix too — fear of the possibility that we would learn as much as, or more than, they; fear that we might get better jobs, have more opportunities, gain more power. 

Of course, our intent in desegregating was simply to continue our education in our own hometown. We weren’t doing something against anybody. We were doing something to better our lives and, presumably, to improve our community. 

The problem of hate is so deeply disturbing. Its existence and tragic persistence have led me, year after year, to tell this story—and now to create this book. I’d like young people to ask themselves — and I know that you’ve posed these questions to students, too, Debbie — What would you do if you witnessed the type of cruelty we endured in Clinton High School? Would you reach out to someone who was excluded or persecuted? Do you think you could change the mind of the person who was engaged in the hateful speech or action? And if you were the one being ostracized and persecuted — who and what could you turn to? There are no easy answers, but I hope to encourage the young people of the United States to help rid ourselves of a heart disease that need not exist at all.

From the January/February 2020 issue of The Horn Book Magazine. For more on the 2019 Boston Globe–Horn Book Awards, click on the tag BGHB19.

Jo Ann Allen Boyce and Debbie Levy

Jo Ann Allen Boyce and Debbie Levy are coauthors of the 2019 Boston Globe-Horn Book Nonfiction Award winner This Promise of Change: One Girl's Story in the Fight for School Equality (Bloomsbury).

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