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This Promise of Change: One Girl's Story in the Fight for School Equality

Book review by
Lucinda Dyer, Common Sense Media
This Promise of Change: One Girl's Story in the Fight for School Equality Book Poster Image
Compelling, inspiring memoir of integrating Southern school.

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A lot or a little?

The parents' guide to what's in this book.

Educational Value

Daily life in Clinton during segregation, the "genteel chains we're forced to wear." A time of Whites Only at the local restaurants, town's swimming pool, rec center, public library. Chapter entitled "Rules for Life" lists some unwritten rules African Americans were expected to follow: Wait to enter a grocery aisle until white customer leaves. Work as janitors, maids, or dishwashers but not at good jobs at hosiery mill or local shops. Buy things at local drugstore but don't sit at the lunch counter. African American women trying on hats have to first put scarves on their head. Mention of books Jo Ann loves to read (Swiss Family Robinson, Black Beauty, The Robe). Back matter includes archival photos, a timeline of school segregation and civil rights, quotation sources, a bibliography, and a list of books for further reading.

Positive Messages

Strong messages about standing up for what's right, working together to fight injustice, persevering in face of adversity and threats. "We crossed a line, we twelve, and reached a goal. Knocked down, pushed back, abused, yet still we stood as proof that, joined together, we are a whole."

Positive Role Models & Representations

In addition to courage and determination, Jo Ann's optimism shines through. Despite culture of bigotry, racism that surrounds her, Jo Ann still wants to believe people will do the right thing, that her fellow students will see her "not just as the Negro girl." Although this optimism is beaten and battered by her time at Clinton High School, she regains it during the family's move to California. She tells a a Los Angeles newspaper reporter, "The kids could work things out for themselves. If grown-ups would teach them to love instead of hate, we'd get along just wonderfully."

Violence

Integrating Clinton High School sets off wave of protests, violence. Students are met by crowds yelling "Go back to Africa"; protesters chase, attack some of the African American boys. Mobs gather in town square. National Guard (with tanks) is called in to restore order after "nights of wild rabble." After Guard leaves, Ku Klux Klan arrives, sets off a bomb to terrorize African American community. Local white minister is attacked, beaten for his support of the Clinton 12. A mob beats an African American sailor home on leave. Students shove Jo Ann in the halls, trip her, throw spitballs at her.

Sex
Language

A few uses of the "N" word and "coon."

Consumerism

What parents need to know

Parents need to know that This Promise of Change: One Girl's Story in the Fight for School Equality is a memoir in free verse by Jo Ann Allen Boyce and Debbie Levy. In August 1956, all-white Clinton High School in East Tennessee became one of the first public high schools in the American South to be integrated. Jo Ann Allen was one of the Clinton 12, courageous and determined African American teens who would face months of threats, taunts, and physical assaults, simply because they wanted the opportunity for an equal education. Integration of the high school would tear off Clinton's mask of being a small town where everyone seemed to get along (unless you were an African American who didn't know his or her place) and lay bare its deep-seated racism. As the school year begins, violence and the threat of violence become a constant in Clinton. Mobs become so unruly that the National Guard is called in to restore order. Men and boys are attacked and beaten, and white-robed Ku Klux Klansmen arrive and set off a bomb. A compelling and elegantly written must-read addition to the stories of teen heroes of the civil rights movement.

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What's the story?

THIS PROMISE OF CHANGE begins in the fall of 1955, as Jo Ann Allen is attending high school 20 miles from her hometown of Clinton, Tennessee. The high school in Clinton is whites only, and the local residents have no intention of changing that policy. But the Supreme Court ruling in Brown v. Board of Education has made separate schools for black and white students unconstitutional, and a judge orders that Clinton High School become integrated when the school year begins in 1956. Jo Ann, one of the 12 African American teens who will be attending the school, is hopeful. "Blacks and whites in Clinton mostly get along well enough, I think. We are civilized to one another. It's not like Biloxi, down in Mississippi, where we hear that Negroes have to step off the sidewalk when the white people walk by. Imagine that." That hope seems well placed as school begins in August 1956, and Jo Ann is elected vice president of her homeroom. But by the third day, taunting protesters appear outside the school, and the crowds grow larger as the days go by. Mobs are gathering in the town square, and in early September, the National Guard is called in to restore order. When the Guard leaves, Jo Ann wonders, "Will our neighbor's hearts be revealed?" Then the Klan arrives with a burning cross and a bomb that terrorizes Jo Ann's neighborhood. Jo Ann finds herself "surrounded by a hard shell of silence" in school and is often shoved and tripped as she makes her way to class. But amid all the hate, there are rays of hope for Jo Ann: a white classmate who befriends her, a kind teacher, a white pastor who walks with the students to school, and a local election that sees all the white supremacists on the ballot defeated. But Clinton has become a fearful place for Jo Ann and her family, particularly as Jo Ann has become a spokesperson for the group, even being interviewed by famous journalist Edward R. Murrow on national television. Will the family stick it out or move to a more integrated city?

Is it any good?

This is a powerful memoir of a hate-filled and turbulent time, seen through the eyes of a teen clinging to her belief that, in the end, people will do the right thing. This Promise of Change offers readers not only a superbly written and inspiring story, but also a wealth of information and resources. The back of the book includes an epilogue that updates readers on Jo Ann and the other members of the Clinton 12, and a scrapbook of archival photos lets readers put a face to students and protesters. There's a timeline of school segregation and civil rights landmarks, quotation sources, a selected bibliography, and a list of books for further reading.

 

Talk to your kids about ...

  • Families can talk about the daily humiliations African Americans face in This Promise of Change: One Girl's Story in the Fight for School Equality. Why do you think many of the white residents of Clinton believe it's acceptable to discriminate  against African Americans? Are there places in your community where minorities are not welcome or are treated differently?

  • Throughout the book, Jo Ann tries to remain hopeful that people in her town and students in her school will do the right thing. Did you admire her for this, or do you think she was being naive?

  • What do you think gave Jo Ann and the other Clinton 12 the courage to walk through mobs of angry protesters each day? What would you have done?

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