Valley Public Radio - Live Audio

New Memoir By Bakersfield's Doug Davis Recalls Turbulent Desegregation Battle

Dec 4, 2012

Most people know Bakersfield's Doug Davis as one of the San Joaquin Valley's top jazz musicians and educators. And while he's written music ranging from jazz to classical, his latest project takes him away from the keyboard of his grand piano, and instead to a keyboard of a different sort. 

His new memoir "Gifts Given" recounts his memories of growing up in the south, and his eyewitness account of one of most significant events of the 1950's, the forced desegregation of Clinton High School, in rural Tennessee. And his family played a central role in the case, and also faced consequences for their support of integration, such as this one autumn evening. 

"My parents get a phone telling them they must get home because there's a cross burning in their front yard."

The year was 1956. And though Davis was just eight at the time, he remembers the sight of angry segregationists  trying to intimidate his family for assisting 12 African-American students in attending class at the otherwise all-white school.

"I was home alone with my two older brothers when this happened. I remember just wondering, 'well, are we going to call the fire department of the police, what do we do?' And we weren't real sure about just who was in the front yard," says Davis. 

Legendary CBS newsman Edward R. Murrow captured the scene in Clinton on his program See It Now. 

"There have been mobs in the square before the courthouse, and riots that had to be broken up by the National Guard. And a white Baptist minister was beaten up on Broad Street. The violence in Clinton was news all over America and much of the rest of the world."

"And the reason my parents were central characters, not only was my mother was a teacher, my father was a lawyer in the original case. And when things got really quite extreme in our community, he escorted the children, the African-American children to school, really though kind of a gauntlet of people gathered to protest against integration," says Davis.

Just two years earlier, in 1954, the Supreme Court's landmark decision in the case of Brown vs.Board of Education effectively ended the principle of separate but equal schools. But when it came to implementing the law, and ending segregation, Clinton's school board resisted. And young Doug Davis and his parents, Eleanor and Sidney were caught in the middle of the controversy. 

"My father was appointed the county attorney for Anderson County, Tennessee, and that was the time when this lawsuit came up, when five [African-American] students had been denied entrance to the high school. At that time, separate but equal education was the law of the land in many states in America, I think 17 states," says Davis.

And while Sidney Davis would soon become one of the white community leaders instrumental in supporting integration, at this point, he found himself on the other side of the issue. 

"My father basically was representing the Anderson County School Board, and on the other side was Thurgood Marshall, who was the legal counsel for the NAACP, and who of course will become a Supreme Court justice, later in the 1960's," says Davis.

"So when Thurgood Marshall won the 1954 case, within ten days an appeal was made on the Clinton Tennessee case. It [the lower court ruling supporting segregation] was overturned,  and finally the judge [ruled]  in August 1956 when they would start the integration," says Davis.

Soon though, the elder Davis would help to enforce the very concept of integration that he had been arguing against in the courtroom. And on August 27, 1956, as Davis puts it, integration moved from the courtroom to the classroom. He remembers the events of that late summer well. 

"By the end of the first week of that school integration, and this was the first in the country, representatives from 'white citizens councils' from all over had arrived, and they would gather in the center of town," says Davis. 

The white supremacists pledged to disobey the Supreme Court's decision, and called for violence. Edward R. Murrow captured one of their speeches during his visit to Clinton. 

"We in the white citizens councils say now, yesterday, today and forever, as long as there is one living white man, the United States Supreme Court is not the law of the land. That decision is not the law of the land now, and it never will be."

"There was a kind of 'lightning bolt' [moment] that happens. After this first week, actually the National Guard is sent in to get control of the town. And everything got quiet, you know you have 600 guardsmen there with tanks in your town, and of course I was only eight years old, so you always remember tanks rolling down the street," says Davis.

Today, Doug Davis is a music instructor at CSU Bakersfield
Credit Doug Davis

"But once they had left, some of the strategy of those against integration changed. They wanted to run a pro-segregation slate of candidates in the municipal election, and they organized some of the young people inside the high school to be disruptive. And that moment once again got the national news, it happens about two and a half months after the initial opening," says Davis.

It was those turbulent events that caused Davis's father to take personal action. Something that was a real risk in a community in the south at the time, a full year before the more widely known Little Rock school desegregation. 

"It became so bad that the parents of those African-American students really said 'I can't send my children to school.' That was a moment where the white baptist minister and my dad and one other person went to those families and just said could they help by escorting those children back to school," says Davis.

"And on that day, it was election day, they got safely into the school, but that baptist minister was beaten up on his way back to church. And some people broke into the school, from the people who had gathered and they had to close the school. And that brought the Edward R. Murrow CBS News team to our town. [He] had an hour documentary called See It Now, and he was in the community for about three weeks, and they aired it as "Clinton and the Law," says Davis.

"At that moment I think that Clinton was on the national map, and certainly I do think  by simply showing this kind of blatant bigotry and racism, it helped the whole country to say 'we're not about that.' And it helped us begin to evolve forward and transform the society," says Davis.

For a while things in small town calmed down, and the Clinton 12 as they were known were allowed to attend school. But within two years, things once again turned to violence.

"But then in 1958, there was a dynamiting of the high school. 100 sticks of dynamite kind of leveled sections of the school, and of course, that once again brings us into the national attention. That also just ended any division in the community. This [violence] could not be tolerated," says Davis.

Davis says he began the memoir as part of a series of letters to a childhood friend and to his children, as part of an effort to explain his family's role in such a troubled part of American history.

"I kept coming back to that integration story over and over. I think about 14 of the 56 letters are touching upon the issue. Which was really an issue of conscience. It's a very big American story," says Davis. 

And while much of the book is focused on the normal stories of family and community, the issues of race and equality remain central to his story and his understanding of that era.

"And I didn't think about it, when we would go to the movies, and didn't really notice that actually the African-Americans are sitting in the balcony, and we were downstairs. That was reserved for them. That seems odd. But that division was kind of built into that culture, ," says Davis.

"And I think we all have learned the lessons of love and tolerance, I mean we hear them preached. But you begin to suspect a little hypocrisy, even as a kid, in the midst of this. And I think the fact that my parents were really kind of players in this transition for our community, had to make us more aware," says Davis. 

And while he was only eight years old at the time, Davis says even at that age he could tell society was not entirely just. 

"I think I understood something was wrong. And of course if you look out your window and you see a cross burning in your front yard, you know that forgiveness is going to enter the picture if you're lucky and if you're up to the task. But by the same token, you're aware that your neighbors probably [are] not wanting to get connected to being in support, because then they become a target," says Davis.

And it's in that climate, that Davis says that we should view his father's actions, a man who once defended one of the nation's most deeply offensive laws, only to later  help lead the way in seeking peace and tolerance in Clinton.

"What I would say is that my father really believed in the law. And the principle of law. The way our system works is that there are two sides. And each side is to present its case, as best it can, in a courtroom. And when there's a decision made, that's the law. And we trust as a society, that as best we can, we're going to make a just decision. It just so happened that the law at that time was really a law of division," says Davis.

Today Doug Davis is a successful educator, founder of the Bakersfield Jazz Festival and a PhD graduate from Harvard. But it's those lessons from 1956 that stay with him to this day.

Doug's book, "Gifts Given: Family, Community, and Integration's Move from the Courtroom to the Schoolyard" is available at Russo's Books in Bakersfield, and also at and Barnes and Noble.