A Most Tolerant Little Town: The Explosive Beginning of School Desegregation (Hardcover)
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A “masterful” (Taylor Branch) and “striking” (The New Yorker) portrait of a small town living through tumultuous times, this propulsive piece of forgotten civil rights history—about the first school to attempt court-ordered desegregation in the wake of Brown v. Board—will forever change how you think of the end of racial segregation in America.
In graduate school, Rachel Martin was sent to a small town in the foothills of the Appalachians, where locals wanted to build a museum to commemorate the events of September 1956, when Clinton High School became the first school in the former Confederacy to attempt court mandated desegregation.
But not everyone wanted to talk. As one founder of the Tennessee White Youth told her, “Honey, there was a lot of ugliness down at the school that year; best we just move on and forget it.”
For years, Martin wondered what it was some white residents of Clinton didn’t want remembered. So, she went back, eventually interviewing over sixty townsfolk—including nearly a dozen of the first students to desegregate Clinton High—to piece together what happened back in 1956: the death threats and beatings, picket lines and cross burnings, neighbors turned on neighbors and preachers for the first time at a loss for words. The National Guard rushed to town, along with national journalists like Edward R. Morrow and even evangelist Billy Graham. But that wasn’t the most explosive secret Martin learned...
In A Most Tolerant Little Town, Rachel Martin weaves together over a dozen perspectives in an intimate, kaleidoscopic portrait of a small town living through a turbulent turning point for America. The result is at once a “gripping” (The Atlanta Journal-Constitution) mystery and a moving piece of forgotten civil rights history, rendered “with precision, lucidity and, most of all, a heart inured to false hope” (The New York Times).
You may never before have heard of Clinton, Tennessee—but you won’t be forgetting the town anytime soon.
About the Author
Rachel Louise Martin, PhD, is a historian and writer whose work has appeared in The Atlantic and Oxford American, among other publications. The author of Hot, Hot Chicken, a cultural history of Nashville hot chicken, and A Most Tolerant Little Town, the forgotten story of the first school to attempt court-mandated desegregation in the wake of Brown v. Board, she is especially interested by the politics of memory and the power of stories to illuminate why injustice persists in America today. She lives in Nashville, Tennessee.
“Rachel Louise Martin’s masterful narrative will stir and break your heart.”
—Taylor Branch, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of America in the King Years
“Striking. Martin is a good storyteller… and Clinton is a good story.”
—The New Yorker (A Best Book We've Read in 2023 So Far)
“Martin’s book provided the disturbing, destabilizing experience of being thrust back into a period of intense racial hatred as if it were happening in real time.... A historian who began researching the Clinton events in 2005, Martin renders them with precision, lucidity and, most of all, a heart inured to false hope.”
—The New York Times (Editor's Choice)
—The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
“With painstaking attention to detail and a careful reading of archives both written and oral, Rachel Louise Martin has resurrected a history that explains the triumph and loss connected to American school desegregation. A Most Tolerant Town uncovers a not so distant forgotten past and forces readers to confront the intractability of race and American education.”
—Erica Armstrong Dunbar, author of Never Caught
“[Martin] lets people speak for themselves, and their voices come through on the page, giving the narrative an emotional veracity…. Thanks to the author’s descriptive storytelling, skillful pacing, and respect for her subject, A Most Tolerant Little Town offers a vivid portrayal Clinton High School’s long-ago desegregation and the lingering consequences of racism… across the nation.”
—Washington Independent Review of Books
“Martin’s deep research and sparkling narrative tear away the protective gauze of selective memory to uncover the personal cost of our nation’s long battles over racial equality. A timely reminder of the importance of honestly wrestling with the hard and heartbreaking parts of our history.”
—Elaine Weiss, author of The Woman's Hour
“One of the most intriguing aspects of Martin’s book is the way she shows how white views differed and evolved over time…. For all its nuanced exploration of a time that seems both remote and sadly familiar, A Most Tolerant Little Town pulls no punches.”
“Rachel Louise Martin has rescued this essential story in an illuminating and surprising account.”
—James S. Hirsch, author of Riot and Remembrance
“A compassionate and nuanced portrait… [Martin] strikes an expert balance between the big picture and intimate profiles of the families involved. The result is a vivid snapshot of the civil rights–era South.”