In 1954, that began to change. That’s when the Supreme Court ruled that racially segregated schools violated the U.S. Constitution. The justices said schools in the United States had to be desegregated.
Two years later, 14-year-old Jo Ann and the other teens walked down the hill from their African American
neighborhood in Clinton and entered Clinton High School, the first public high school in the South to be desegregated.
The “Clinton 12,” as they came to be known, were met initially by a few white protesters. By the end of the first week of school, this number had swelled to a mob of thousands.
Boyce and co-author Debbie Levy tell the story of Boyce’s experience during these months of hope, pain and change in “This Promise of Change.”
The power of poetry
The two authors spoke to KidsPost about their book, which has an unusual form: nonfiction poems.
“Poetry has an emotional impact,” which seems in keeping with this powerful story, Levy said.
The poetic form helps capture what Levy called the “musical quality” of young Jo Ann’s voice. And the authors could easily insert details that help bring Jo Ann alive on the page, such as her love of family and passion for music and learning.
The book also includes historic photos, a timeline, newspaper headlines and short quotes from interviews with Jo Ann, her parents, the school principal and other students.
Chilling facts emerge. The Clinton 12 were frequently taunted and shoved. Thugs broke into the school and threatened teachers. A white minister, offering protection, was attacked after he walked Jo Ann and her friends to school.
Many of these brutal acts were committed by people outside Clinton, reveals Jo Ann in the book. They were motivated by the hate speech of a white supremacist named John Kasper.
Across the miles
Grown up and living in Los Angeles, California, Boyce often visited schools and talked about the Clinton 12. She
had strong memories, but her career as a pediatric nurse didn’t leave much time for writing.
In 2015, Levy’s literary agent introduced Boyce and Levy, a well-known children’s author who lives in Potomac, Maryland, and the two decided to create a book together. They emailed and talked on the phone for hours as Levy gathered the information she needed to write the poems. She then shared the poems with Boyce for feedback and changes.
“Getting to know Debbie was my favorite part,” Boyce said.
Levy especially enjoyed their shared research trip to Clinton. They interviewed Gail Ann Epps Upton, Boyce’s best friend from childhood and one of the Clinton 12. They also visited the Green McAdoo Cultural Center, where 12 life-size bronze statues depict the students’ historic walk.
As they speak at schools, Boyce and Levy can tell from the questions that young people are thinking deeply about the issues in the book.
“These issues of social justice are still important today,” Levy said.
Boyce said she hopes the book will “touch hearts.” Readers may even be inspired to help create positive change, as did the heroic Clinton 12.