As Labor Day's approach sends students across the U.S. heading back to class, they and their parents naturally hope that this back-to-school season will be smooth and happy. But just a few decades ago, that return to the classroom was in many places dominated by a serious struggle — the fight over the right to equality in education.
Though the most famous photographs of the conflict over school integration would be taken the following year in Little Rock, Ark., in 1956 school integration was, as LIFE put it in a story that September, already "the greatest unresolved national issue." The Supreme Court had ruled on the matter in Brown v. Board of Education two years before, but the implementation of that order was still being met with violence in places like Clinton, Tenn., as seen in the photos above by Howard Sochurek and Robert W. Kelley.
LIFE reported that the desegregation process in Clinton (a town that had been involved in court battles on the subject for years by that point) had seemed to be moving relatively peacefully until a white supremacist named John Kasper came to town from New Jersey. He helped instigate citizens to rebel against the law that required the town's white high school to serve citizens of all races starting in the new fall term that year. Though Kasper was sentenced to a year in jail by a federal judge in Knoxville, his influence had already contributed to mob violence that peaked that Labor Day weekend.
Things were bad enough to lead town leaders to ask for state help, leading the governor to call in the state police and the National Guard to help a local band of newly recruited deputies make sure the order for integration was followed. Even though many of the officials involved had previously acted to support segregation, they recognized that this law had to be obeyed.
The week of violence ended with a dozen African-American high-schoolers in class at the integrated high school. Though problems in the area would continue for months — and de facto school segregation remains a serious problem in many places in the United States today — that September the presence of those 12 students was a victory to be celebrated.
"In spite of agitation, in spite of zealots and the misgivings of the majority, the pattern was changing," LIFE noted. "This fall 45,000 Negro students were free to attend integrated schools for the first time. It was a slow, small, painful change but it began to look inevitable."