On a cool December morning in 1956, the Rev. Paul Turner, a white Southern Baptist minister, escorted 12 black students to integrate Clinton High School in Tennessee. The integration plan started with the beginning of school in September, but protest and riots led the African-American students to boycott the school.
Turner met with the students and convinced them to return to school, and they set the date for Dec. 4. The group of students, known as the Clinton Twelve, led by Turner and three other clergymen, made it safely to Clinton High School.
However, an angry mob had gathered and began following Turner as he made his way from the school to his office at the First Baptist Church. The local law enforcement didn’t offer to escort him to church, and once out of sight the mob attacked Turner.
Sadly, Turner suffered a broken nose and his face was bloodied before two policemen showed up and reluctantly stopped the attack. Turner remained alert and was able to identify the men who had attacked him.
The following Sunday, Turner was back in the pulpit with a swollen and broken nose. The national CBS news crew was filming as he spoke to his 650 member congregation. In his sermon, Turner mentioned, “There is no color line at the cross of Jesus.”
Turner would remain at First Baptist Clinton for another two years. The aftermath of the event left him without support of many of those who encouraged him to make his stand. Turner then accepted the call to a large Baptist church in Nashville, Tennessee. While serving there he remained active in the civil rights movement and escorted two more black children to school.
The Rev. Paul Turner later served as a professor at the Golden Gate Theological Seminary. In 1980, he was a victim of internal politics, and lost his job. The stress and frustration of his ministry finally took its toll. On Dec. 18, 1980, his wife found him on the floor of their living room, dead of a self-inflicted gunshot wound. He was 57 years old.
After his death, a close friend mentioned, “His spirit was broken. The fire that had carried him through Clinton was just a candle glow … gone was the trust in God to protect him in doing what was right even when it was hard and dangerous.”
On May 17, 1957, Robert Cain Jr., one of the Clinton Twelve, graduated from Clinton High School. He became the first African-American student to graduate from a formerly segregated high school in the South.
There’s very little, if any, mentioned in the history books about the Rev. Paul Turner or the Clinton Twelve. The integration of Clinton High School preceded the historic Little Rock Central High School integration by nine months. Turner took the brave first step, and then was left alone to face his fears and problems. The Rev. Paul Turner is a civil rights icon.