Busing Worked For Me

In the Democratic presidential debate on June 27, 2019 the issue of busing, for school integration, was raised. The morning following the debate, Good Morning America reported that during the debate, there was a spike in tweets about busing. There were, likely, tweets both in favor of and against busing. I had a personal reaction to the issue because I, too, was a little girl who was bused to school for the purpose of integration.

As a first grader in September of 1967, I was among the third class of students to participate in the Urban-Suburban Interdistrict Transfer Program in Rochester, New York. In 1963, The New York State Commissioner of Education asked school districts statewide to report on racial imbalance in their schools and to develop a plan to reduce the imbalance. While most districts reported that racial imbalance was not a problem in their schools, the West Irondequoit School District, which had very few minority students, decided it wanted to give its students opportunities for cross-cultural interactions. In February of 1965, the West Irondequoit School District Board unanimously passed a resolution to voluntarily welcome minority students from the Rochester Public School System. The New York State Department of Education provided program funding for the first 24 first grade students to enroll in West Irondequoit schools in September of 1965. My sister was among that first group. Thus, began the first voluntary busing program in the United States.

Irondequoit High School, National Honor Society, Class of 1979. Rochester, NY
Irondequoit High School, National Honor Society, Class of 1979, Rochester, NY.
Rorie Trammel, second row, third from the right.

The Urban-Suburban program was voluntary on two fronts: school districts voluntarily voted to participate, and Rochester City Schools parents voluntarily chose to participate in the program. All was not perfect when those first students arrived on buses in West Irondequoit. While the school board was committed to the value of intercultural interactions, there were, not surprisingly, some residents who were not as welcoming. The Urban-Suburban parents were prepared, however. Mothers took time off work to ride the buses with their children. Disturbances such as rock throwing at the buses soon disappeared and the educational experiment was underway.

The Urban-Suburban program implemented several special strategies to help make our time as “educational residents” of Irondequoit a positive experience. Mothers of resident students were asked to volunteer to be room mothers for those of us who were bused to the school. I recall that most of my Irondequoit friends’ mothers were stay-at-home mothers, while the mothers of those of us who were bused worked outside of the home. That meant that if something happened to us during the school day, it wasn’t easy for them to come to the school That’s where the room mothers stepped in. From first grade through fourth grade, my room mother was Mrs. Maley, the mother of my new friend, Linda Maley. I loved Mrs. Maley and the Maley family. In fact, after I discovered that if I forgot my lunch, I would get to walk home with Linda to have a freshly prepared lunch made and set out lovingly by Mrs. Maley, I started to “forget” my lunch on purpose! In elementary school, when we wanted to participate in after school activities such as Brownies and Girl Scouts, there were friends who welcomed us into their homes until our parents could pick us up after work. Mary Lynne Barker, to whom I assigned the nickname “Favorite”, in first grade was that friend for me. In high school, the Urban-Suburban program provided an early bus and late bus that enable us to participate in activities such as band and sports teams. We had sleepovers and attended birthday parties at our Irondequoit friends’ homes. Many of my Irondequoit friends ventured “into the city” to attend my 9th birthday party.

In the teen years, however, there were some socialization limitations. White teens and African American teens had different interests, listened to different music, and had different thoughts about social issues of the times. I had my white “school friends” and my African American “neighborhood friends”. In school I felt some isolation when, because of the small number of African American students in each cohort, I was usually the only African American in each of my classes and in activities like band and the National Honor Society. I looked forward to lunch time when I would get to interact with other African American students.

Even as a child, I knew that being in Urban-Suburban was a great opportunity. When I was in middle school, I was asked to participate in a group of African American and white students created by the Urban-Suburban program to speak to school districts who had not yet joined the program. We discussed how our friendships and experiences in Urban-Suburban gave us opportunities for cross-cultural learning and understanding. Irondequoit resident parents and parents of bused students were included in the discussion as the Urban-Suburban program evolved. Today, a parent advisory council still exists.

Participating in the Urban-Suburban program fostered in me a strong willingness and ability to have positive relationships with people of diverse ethnicities, nationalities and backgrounds. Having the experience of friendships with children of other races gave me a natural desire to respect and develop an understanding of differences. I recall being very excited when, in high school, we had an exchange program with, predominantly, Hispanic students from a city high school. As a student at the University of Memphis, I naturally, became friends with white students and international students. While I joined organizations that were comprised of, primarily, African American students, once again, I also found myself one of only a few African American students in organizations in which most of students were white. Because of my Urban-Suburban experience, I continue to embrace the value of friendships and experiences with a diverse spectrum of people. I also embrace the opportunity to talk about issues of race, whether it’s with friends, in the workplace, in public forums, etc. As associate director of the Benjamin L. Hooks Institute for Social Change, I spend each day fulfilling the Institute’s mission of teaching, studying and promoting civil rights and social change.

From my experience, and that of my three sisters, all of whom participated in Urban-Suburban, the busing experiment worked. We received an exceptional education attending West Irondequoit schools from first grade through twelfth grade. We had close friendships with white students who were with us through high school graduation, several of whom I’m still in touch with. The key was the program’s voluntary foundation, the support of the New York State Department of Education and the extra efforts made by the program, the school district and teachers and staff in the schools. They were committed to Urban-Suburban being a positive experience for everyone. The expansion of the program, to include additional suburban districts since 1965, hasn’t been without detractors. Even in the last ten years, some suburban residents have resisted their school districts approving participation in the program. Nevertheless, I am pleased that the Urban-Suburban program is still thriving as a voluntary busing program, committed to educational equity.


Rorie Trammel is the associate director of the Benjamin L. Hooks Institute for Social Change. Trammel plays an integral role in the activities of the Hooks Institute including administrative and operations duties, fundraising and donor relations, and coordination of the Institute’s National Book Award. Trammel, also, oversees strategic planning and implementation of the Hooks African American Male Initiative (HAAMI). She earned her bachelor’s and master’s degrees from the University of Memphis (UofM). She is also a former UofM employee, having worked in the Office of Development for fourteen years. Rorie worked for the YMCA of Memphis & the Mid-South for fourteen and a half years, first as executive director of urban programming and later as vice president for advancement. For many years, Rorie could be heard as a volunteer radio reader for WYPL, the radio station at the Benjamin L. Hooks Central Library. She is a member of the New Memphis Institute and, previously, served on the boards of directors for Partners in Public Education (PIPE), the Association of Fundraising Professionals, Le Bonheur Center for Children and Parents, and the Shelby Farms Park Conservancy.

A Day in the Life of A Court Watcher: The Power of Presence

Innocent until proven guilty. Does this well-known statement ring true within Memphis and Shelby County? Are people involved in the criminal legal system treated humanely and respectfully? A program for everyday people to observe happenings in the courtroom, Court Watch uncovers both justice and injustice. It is in place to promote transparency and accountability with elected officials; participate as members of the community; collect narratives; and uncover gender, racial, and other demographic disparities within the court system.

A day in the life of a Court Watcher in Memphis. Ascend 201 Poplar through the court side. Join the public line to enter the building. Some people may be showing up for their court dates, others may be lawyers, others may even be Court Watchers. Don’t forget to take out your phone and keys before going through the metal detector. Descend down the vast, open staircase to the dungeon of courts. Wonder how people with disabilities enter the building. Observe surroundings and see hundreds of Black and Brown bodies sitting, talking, thinking. Wonder why most White folks are dressed in formal attire—oh, they must be the lawyers. Wave hello to your group of Court Watchers with apparent white “Just City Court Watch” buttons. It’s time to go in.

Enter the courtroom. We are told that some judges dislike our presence in the courtroom while some don’t mind us being there. Our placement in the courtroom oftentimes depends on this. “Can you hear what the judge/defendant/lawyers are saying?” Court Watchers ask one another. We try to grasp as much information we can about the cases: appearance of race and gender, charge, can/cannot make bail, any loved ones present, behavior of legal staff, and other notes we may find apparent.  Then we reconvene after watching to talk about important things we noticed or things that caught our eye. This reconvening is one of my favorite parts of Court Watch because we hear other perspectives and see the courtroom through another’s eyes.

As Court Watchers, it is our role to take notes on what we see in the courtroom—the good and the bad. Court Watchers are taught—through training and observing—about the processes of court from arraignment to trial and about the importance of this work. Run by Just City, a nonprofit in Memphis that does work to create a smaller, fairer, more humane criminal justice system, this program is based on similar programs across the United States where people build accountability, foster community participation, and collect narratives within the court system. Not only does this program allow the public to be involved in the everyday happenings of the court, but it also provides a way to learn more about how the system of crime and courts works in the Memphis and Shelby County area. Having up close encounters with defendants, public defenders, prosecutors, private attorneys, judges, public officials, and defendants’ loved ones, this opportunity has yielded an immense amount of growth in learning about the ins and outs of our criminal legal system.

Oftentimes one of the most forgotten about and marginalized groups of society are those involved with the criminal legal system. As community members, we can show that we care and that we have not forgotten about this population by using our power vocally, visually, and presently. Just by being in the courtroom, it shows that the community cares about what happens behind closed doors—whether they be doors of a jail cell or doors of a courtroom. Using our power of presence, we can show that we are listening, we want to end criminalization of poverty, and we want to see transparency and accountability in our criminal legal system.

After every Court Watch shift, we as Court Watchers are able to walk freely out of that dungeon while many folks in there do not have the same luxury. Court Watch raises this awareness and opens the legal system up to those who may not otherwise know the inner workings of the system, instead of leaving it up to the marginalized, arrested, convicted, and legal professionals. Building community around this is crucial to gaining widespread awareness of justice and injustice and creating a more equitable and efficient system. In hopes to alter the criminal legal system on a path to justice and equity, Just City will publish their Court Watch blog and propose strategies to state government and lawmakers. Using our power as Court Watchers and community members, this awareness can lead to questioning of the status quo in hopes to change the future of what the criminal justice system may look like.

Interested in becoming a Just City Court Watcher? Go to courtwatch.justcity.org/.


Lulu Abdun is a volunteer at the Benjamin L. Hooks Institute for Social Change and a recent graduate of Miami University (Ohio) where she earned a Bachelor of Arts in Psychology and Black World Studies with a minor in Linguistics. Born and raised in Memphis, TN, she returned home post-grad and has been involved in community-based projects—mostly with local nonprofits—and a computer programming course. A lifelong learner, she enjoys traveling; reading; and learning about social justice/reform, human rights, the criminal legal system, and interfaith work.


The Hooks Institute’s blog is intended to create a space for discussions on contemporary and historical civil rights issues. The opinions expressed by Hooks Institute contributors are the opinions of the contributors themselves, and they do not necessarily reflect the position of the Benjamin L. Hooks Institute for Social Change or The University of Memphis.

Exhibiting Impact: What I Learned from the Fayette County Civil Rights Movement

By Amy Ruggaber

It is my philosophy as an artist that EVERYONE HAS A STORY TO TELL AND A STORY TO HEAR.  Working on the Uplift the Vote exhibit and telling the story of Fayette County and Tent City was an education and a privilege.  Rarely do artists get to see the continued impact of their work, and yet, in this case, I did.

Amy Ruggaber, Curator Uplift the Vote Exhibit

I had to do maintenance on the exhibit weekly, so I would work quietly to one side while also being able to watch the interaction of the public with the tent. Occasionally I would see students stop and scan the panels on the exhibit, often while listening to their earbuds. Slowly the buds would come off, and the music would be stopped as the students were drawn farther into the narrative. Often the phone shifted purpose from music to camera, and the students would take pictures of the panels or specific images.  A few times I even witnessed a student pulling their friends into the exhibit, excitedly pointing out a person in a photo: “I know her!” I would hear. Either way, in that moment, history had become REAL. Tangible. Familiar.  This was and is where history and contemporary issues meet.

Uplift the Vote Exhibit Displayed in the Rotunda of the Ned McWherter Library. Fall 2018.

We need to know the value of our vote and the costs associated with it.  We cannot take it for granted.  That is why I am so thrilled that the Uplift the Vote exhibit is currently being hosted by the Fayette County Public Schools.  On display in one of the local schools, the children and grandchildren of these activists and those who opposed them will be able to study the movement and see documentation of the historic impact of the actions of their elders.  The community at large will be able to come and reflect on the challenges of their past and how it relates to the issues of present day.  As for me, I am looking forward to once again being a witness to the impact of the work.


Exhibit, “Uplift the Vote: Everybody Should Have A Voting Story”

Fayette County Public Schools Central Administration Building,10425 Hwy 76 S. Somerville, TN 38068

February 7 – March 7, 2019, Monday through Friday from 12 pm to 4 pm. The exhibit will be open on the following Saturdays: February 9, and 16, and March 2, 2019, 10 am to 2 pm.

The Benjamin L. Hooks Institute for Social Change at the University of Memphis and Fayette County Public Schools, Somerville, Tennessee invites you to experience “Uplift the Vote: Everyone Should Have a Voting Story,” a dual exhibit on the importance of our most basic civil right – the right to vote. Explore through photographs, documents and reflections, how African Americans’ demand for the right to vote in Fayette County, Tenn., in 1959 changed the lives of activists, the community and the nation through the exhibit. Then, prepare yourself for your own civic participation and learn how to register to vote in Tennessee. This exhibit is intended to educate and encourage citizens to exercise the right to vote, hard-won by African Americans and others.

Once More at the River: From MLK to BLM

By Roxane Coche, PhD

“Memphis had African Americans who refused to be silent although their lives might have been threatened. […] There was always this sense of strength and empowerment, um, in the lives and on the minds of African Americans here in Memphis.” 

Beverly Robertson, Greater Memphis Chamber interim CEO

“Something is happening in Memphis. Something is happening in our world.” Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s words have continued to echo throughout Memphis since 1968. Activism is still alive in Memphis and has gone from picket signs to hashtags.

In Once More at the River: From MLK to BLM, about 20 local activists and officials reflect on the past fifty years in Memphis, discussing the impact of both activism and the city’s history on the lives of African Americans today.

The one-hour film will premiere on Tuesday, January 22, 2019, 6:30 p.m., in the theatre of the University Center.

One unique aspect of the documentary is that it was completed thanks to the involvement of University of Memphis students. They conducted the majority of the oral history interviews featured in the film, and a few of them have also been involved with the production of the documentary itself.

The production of the film started as the city celebrated the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. for the 50th anniversary of his assassination. Our students took two special-topics courses, in different disciplines, to explore how the local movements for civil rights and social justice have evolved since the 1960s. A history class in Fall 2017, Memphis and the Movement, provided students with the deep context to ask the right questions and find the best answers, and the Spring 2018 journalism course, Reporting Social Justice, provided training in oral history interviewing techniques.

Our students interviewed about a dozen local activists in Spring 2018. Thanks to a grant from the University of Memphis, we were able to fund student worker and graduate assistant positions for Summer and Fall 2018, which allowed us to conduct even more interviews. Overall, we interviewed about 30 local activists of all ages about their personal experience in the civil rights and social justice movements that have shaped our city.

With more than 25 hours of interview material, selecting the quotes that would make the final cut of a one-hour documentary was no easy feat. Some valued activists and many excellent comments had to be left out for us to reach a concise storyline. In the film, our interviewees explain activism in the city from Dr. King’s assassination to MLK50, the 50th anniversary of his assassination, how activism in Memphis compares to the rest of the US, and what work remains to be done.

A grant from Humanities Tennessee and further support from the Hooks Institute have allowed us to use some professional footage in the documentary, but we have also relied on social media videos, which, as Hooks Institute Executive Director Daphene McFerren says in the film, help “highlight issues, highlight discrimination, address discrimination” in our society.

We are excited to premiere the film at the University of Memphis the day after Martin Luther King Jr. Day, but the film Once More at the River: From MLK to BLM is only one step of an ongoing story. All of our oral history interviews will soon be archived in the National Civil Rights Museum and in the Special Collections Department of the McWherter Library on the University of Memphis campus, and our website includes a discussion board to allow you to make comments, share stories, ask questions, and otherwise participate. We hope to hear from you soon!

For This Reason, I Vote

By Kevyanna L. Rawls
President, University fo Memphis Student Government Association

From 2011 to 2015, I spent approximately 7.5 hours of my day of every weekday at Little Rock Central High School. Known for its’ role in the Civil Rights Movement, Little Rock Central High School was the first high school to be integrated in Arkansas and captured national attention as local government officials tried to keep the nine Black teenagers, who would be referred to as the Little Rock Nine, out of the all-white high school. As the Black teenagers attempted to integrate the high school, they were met by protestors who spit on them, threw miscellaneous items at them, and were not allowed to enter the school causing the National Guard to step in. Our professors and administrators made it their duty to ensure that all students were knowledgeable on the situation that occurred at our school, the processes and steps that had to occur for integration to happen, and the barriers that stood between the nine Black students and the then all-White Central High School.

Kevyanna L. Rawls President, University of Memphis Student Government Association.

Although, I assume, this information was taught to us to remind students of how embarrassing of a time this was for the entire city and state, professors also used this as an opportunity to emphasize the importance of civic engagement in the democratic process. We would be naïve to believe that all individuals, despite race, in the south wanted integration to occur; however we can see the ways in which the anger and frustration citizens endured at the time was in part because of the power of the government at a state and national level. One could also argue that the individuals at the time did not hold the same values as they did, and is primarily responsible for the events that occurred in Little Rock, Arkansas during the 1960s.

For this reason, I vote.

As a Black woman, I believe that it is especially important for me to vote because of the intersectionality of my identities. In America we have seen the various waves of feminism that included gaining the right to vote for White women and the Civil Rights Movement that in part advocated for the right of Black men to vote, but of those two movements I fail to completely identify with either. As white women and Black men gained access to the ballot, women like Fannie Lou Hamer still needed to advocate for the Black woman’s vote at the cost of her own physical well-being and sanity. It is with this in mind that I am reminded of why it is important for me to be registered to vote and exercise my rights to do so. If voting was not important, why would individuals spend hundreds of years denying minority groups the right to do so? Why would barriers be set in place to disenfranchise minority populations, if voting had no impact on the society we live in? Although the issues are different, the necessity to vote and the consequences of not voting have remained the same.

By actively deciding not to register to vote,  one makes the decision to allow the rest of society to tell them what is best for them and decide what issues to focus on for the allotted time period. The decision to not participate in democracy is a decision to silence your own voice when everyone else is speaking for what they believe in. As I entered my first year of college, I vividly recall being excited to register to vote. With my birthday being in early September, I did not have the opportunity to participate in the elections the year before, but knew that voting was one of the most exciting things about turning 18. Registering to vote was something you could do when getting a new license after you turned 18, so I did it on the spot. I felt so empowered and remember the excitement that I felt when I was officially considered a registered voter.

#GoVoteGoTigers Pin

The first time I was able to vote was in the 2016 election and I was extremely nervous. At the time I had no car and knew that my parents would not be able to drive to Memphis to take me to vote, so I took a chance and requested an absentee ballot. The joy I had when I received the absentee ballot is indescribable. I simply recall going to my room and googling every candidate, searching for information about every bill on the ballot, and being able to genuinely take my time to learn more about the values of the individuals seeking to gain my vote. I assume this feeling is incomparable to going to an actual polling station to vote, but it reminded me of how I could make a contribution to my community in a positive way.

As the president of the University of Memphis Student Government Association, I believe that my position on campus is evidence of the significance of voting. As an elected representative of the student body, I was elected because I was entrusted with being able to represent students the way they would like to be represented and this is the hope we all have for our local, state, and national representatives. We expect them to have our best interest in mind when making decision. We expect them to be honest and transparent with us. We expect that they honor their commitment to their position and seek to enhance the quality of life for us through their decision. For this reason, I encourage YOU to vote. It is not about whose side you are on or who you have heard the most conversation about, it is about who can represent you and make the impact in your community that you would like to see despite their personal opinions. Allow them to be your voice by showing up at the polls on November 6th.


About the Author

Kevyanna Rawls is a senior English and African American Studies double major with double minors in Spanish and Sociology. Currently, Kevyanna serves the SGA President for the 69th general assembly. As an advocate for equity and justice, Kevyanna uses her platform to advocate for underrepresented populations and address student concerns on the campus of the University of Memphis. Kevyanna’s involvement with advocacy and social justice have motivated her to pursue an education in law and the ways in which laws may enhance the experience of individuals in America while negatively impacting the lives of others. Kevyanna intends to attend law school in Fall 2020 and later become a civil rights’ attorney.

On Black Womanhood at the Intersection of Black Existentialism and Black Feminism

By: Reina Henderson

The criticism and vitriol swarming around Serena Williams after her  passionate reaction to the umpire of the finals match between her and Naomi Osaka is nothing new for black women. Right or wrong in her assertions and regardless of wherever one may lean on one side of the debate or the other, there nevertheless remains the familiar traces of specifically-worded critiques all too common when it comes to black women. Whether intended or not, the caricature image, a satire of the event for the Australian newspaper The Herald Sun, employs racial stereotypes in order to make fun of her. Exaggerated full lips, the exploitation of her anger (utilizing the image of the ABW or “Angry Black Woman”), even the whitewashing of Naomi, a biracial half-Haitian, half-Japanese woman, into someone blonde and white (emphasizing her complexion’s proximity to whiteness) demonstrates a subtle minstrel in all but name.

Black womanhood resides at the intersection of black existentialism and black feminism, and a key element of struggle that black women contend with is white standards of beauty and image. The experiences of black women in particular bear special note due to the understanding that black women are born with two strikes against them, their race and their gender, if living in much of the Western world. bell hooks and Toni Morrison explore this concept in-depth. bell hooks explores this in her book Ain’t I a Woman: Black Women and Feminism where she discusses problems of racism, sexism, and the diminishing of black womanhood from white women in the feminist movement, from black men in the racial equality movement, and from Western society respectively.[1] Repudiation from black men and white women toward black women in these spaces exacerbates the fight of black women who already must contend with a white patriarchal world.

Black women, therefore, have also experienced oppression from white women and black men relegating them outside of the movements claiming to challenge the society with which they already contend. Without proper support being in such a unique position, hooks’ solution is to form a sisterhood of black women to take on the mantle of the fight. Not through self-segregation, but to become aware of the struggle and position and seek first fellow black women to relate to and promote each other. If none will wholly, or only marginally, take up the cause of advocating for equality with black women, then it is up to black women themselves to do so even if it must be alone.

Toni Morrison delves even deeper into the issue including when it comes to black female image and beauty. Although her novel The Bluest Eye is fictional, it is based on truths and experiences of black women in conflict with white standards of beauty.[2] Pecola, the main character, is a dark-skinned, full-lipped, and coarse-haired young woman. Throughout the novel, she is often teased and called “ugly” making her wish to have bright blue eyes like the white dolls with which she grew up playing. Eventually in the novel, after giving birth to a premature baby sired by her own father through rape, she develops a psychosis for which people around her take pity on her. However, due to her psychosis, she thinks her newfound attention is because she has finally obtained the blue eyes she always wanted.

Morrison’s fictionalized account exposes black women’s experiences of being constantly told that black womanhood and beauty is inferior to white women.[3] The farther one is from that white female standard of beauty of being blonde, thin, pale, and blue-eyed, the uglier she is considered to be. This affects both the psyche and the appearance as many black women have attempted in various ways to conform to the white female standard of beauty believing themselves inferior in reality. Although not explicitly stated, the implied solution from Morrison is for black women to love and embrace their natural features, and bond with other black women sharing the pain like Claudia and Frieda, Pecola’s friends, do for her. In other words, a black woman is beautiful with all her natural features. [4]

When an image like The Herald Sun’s satire begins to circulate, it is indicative of this underlying perception of black women. Serena is molded into the ABW while Naomi can be stripped of her black features and portrayed as the “proper” white contrast to Serena. This piece is in no way intended to make a statement on the racial beliefs of the artist who has denied, since publication of the image, any racial basis for his cartoon. Nevertheless, intended or not, the image is infused, perhaps absent-mindedly, with these stereotypes and aids in their perpetuation. Thus, it makes an understanding of the consequences of such portrayals all the more necessary.

About Reina Henderson

Reina was born and raised in Chattanooga, TN. She attended high school at Boyd-Buchanan School in Chattanooga, a co-educational private Christian School, from which she graduated in 2012. She studied a year at Salem College in Winston-Salem, North Carolina before transferring to East Tennessee State University in Johnson City, TN. Here, she double majored in History and Philosophy, and graduated in 2017 earning a Bachelor of Arts degree in each major. In 2015, she became a member of Zeta Phi Beta Sorority, Incorporated, and while in her undergraduate chapter she served terms as both president and secretary. She currently attends the University of Memphis as a graduate student studying for her Master of Arts in History, and is a graduate assistant at the Benjamin L. Hooks Institute for Social Change. Upon graduation, she intends to pursue her PhD in History and eventually become a professor.


[1] hooks, bell. 1982. Ain’t I a Woman: Black Women and Feminism. London: Pluto.

[2] Morrison, Toni. 1970. The Bluest Eye. Holt, Rinehart and Winston.

[3] Morrison, Toni. 1970. The Bluest Eye. Holt, Rinehart and Winston.

[4] Henderson, Reina. 2017. To Empower and Uplift the Race: A Historiography of Black Existentialism. Unpublished paper, The University of Memphis.

Photograph 1:Williams S. RG18 (17). 1 June 2018. Author: si.robi. https://flickr.com/photos/16732597@N07/41168711240

Photograph 2: Toni Morrison speaking at “A Tribute to Chinua Achebe – 50 Years Anniversary of ‘Things Fall Apart'”. The Town Hall, New York City, February 26th, 2008. Date 18 December 2008, 20:44 (UTC) Author Angela Radulescu

Locking Up Our Own: A Word From the Hooks National Book Award Committee Chair

For the past three January’s, I have found myself confronted by an intimidating, but exciting sight.  As chair of the Hooks Institute’s National Book Award committee, I have the task of selecting five finalists from a pool of two to three dozen books focused on the history of the Civil Rights Movement and its legacy.  The nominees are diverse in subject matter and style, from biographies to critical studies of art, literature, or music, from studies rooted in history to works connecting history to the unfolding movements of our own time.  My task is to whittle the nominees down for the other members of the committee – this year, those colleagues were Beverly Cross (College of Education), Ernest Gibson (Rhodes College), Aram Goudsouzian (Dept.of History), and Terrence Tucker (Dept. of English).

And then the hard work begins.  Every year, the quality of the finalists makes the committee’s decision very difficult.  This year’s group of finalists really stretched us because these five books spanned the civil rights struggle from its early period to its contemporary legacies.  Plus, they were each excellent.  This year’s finalists were:

  • We Were Eight Years in Power, by Ta-Nahesi Coates
  • Locking Up Our Own, by James Forman, Jr.
  • Harambee City, by Nishani Frazier
  • My Life, My Love, My Legacy, by Coretta Scott King and Barbara Ann Reynolds
  • The Making of Black Lives Matter, by Christopher Lebron

This year’s winner stood out among this outstanding group.  The winner of the 2017 Hooks Institute National Book Award, Locking Up Our Own by James Forman, Jr.’s, is a tremendous contribution to today’s vibrant discussions about mass incarceration and the criminal justice systems that continue to devastate black communities.  It provides a layer of complexity to those discussions by investigating local decisions that gave rise to mass incarceration, decisions that were often endorsed by black leaders.  With a compelling personal touch, Forman frames the problem as a series of smaller decisions rather than as a massive conspiracy, providing a sense of hope that there is an opportunity to incrementally confront an incrementally-constructed system.  This book is a worthy winner of the Hooks Institute’s National Book Award as it illuminates readers on a central civil rights struggle of our time.

It has been a privilege to serve on and chair the book award committee.  Not only do I get to see a vast array of work being done by brilliant writers from a variety of fields, but I also get to serve with colleagues who share the Hooks Institute’s vision to apply the lessons of the past to impact the present.  As I pass the task of chairing the committee on for next year’s award, a part of me will miss that giant stack of books staring at me next January.

By Daniel Kiel, Professor of Law, Cecil C. Humphreys School of Law. Chair, Hooks National Book Award Committee.


Hooks National Book Award Presentation and Lecture Featuring James Forman, Jr.

Thursday, January 31, 2019 | Reception 5:30 p.m. | Lecture 6 p.m.
University Center Theatre University of Memphis

Presenting Sponsor: Just City

Locking Up Our Own: Crime and Punishment in Black America by James Forman Jr. was selected as the winner for the 2017 National Book Award. In his book, Forman argues that America’s draconian sentences for drug crimes were created not only by whites but also inadvertently by exasperated African American leaders whose communities were facing an unprecedented drug epidemic starting in the late 1960s. Forman encourages a candid examination of this history to tackle criminal justice reform.

Sponsored by these University of Memphis entities: African and African American Studies, Black Law Students Association, Cecil C. Humphreys School of Law, Department of Anthropology, Department of History, Marcus W. Orr Center for the Humanities and Department of Criminology and Criminal Justice; and by Burke’s Book Store and The Wharton Law Firm.

All events are free and open to the public unless otherwise noted.

The University of Memphis, 499 University St., Memphis, TN 38152. Convenient parking is located at the public parking garage on Zach Curlin.

Reporting Social Justice

“The most dangerous place to be a journalist in America is at a protest.” That was the conclusion of the watchdog organization U.S. Press Freedom Tracker, as well as of two writers for the Columbia Journalism Review, in 2017. The hazards are not new, however. Covering political activism has always involved considerable personal risk, and no one knew that better than the men and women who reported on and wrote about the civil rights movement in the 1950s and 1960s, when they faced regular harassment, intimidation, and violence. L. Alex Wilson, editor of the Tri-State Defender, was viciously attacked at Little Rock Central High School in 1957 and died three years later. Paul Guihard, of Agence France Press, was murdered while covering the 1962 riot at the University of Mississippi.

Yet, like activism itself, journalists who pay attention to such issues have always been in the minority, blinded by majority obliviousness or callousness, cowed by conservative voices in the newsroom, or pressured by antsy advertisers. That was the impetus for creating a course to directly address the need for information about injustice and inequality.

Journalist Wendi Thomas visits the Reporting Social Justice class as a guest instructor.

All ten students who took Reporting Social Justice in the spring of 2018 had completed Dr. Aram Goudsouzian’s Memphis and the Movement class the previous semester, so they were already steeped in the history of the city’s race relations. Our curriculum was not just confined to racial justice, though. I brought in speakers to talk about poverty, educational inequity, environmental discrimination, gender and sexuality bias. We took a field trip to OutMemphis, and one of our textbooks was Randy Shilts’ bestselling classic And the Band Played On, about the AIDS epidemic. Students’ first projects accordingly spanned the gamut of social justice issues—from economic burdens and the wealth gap to criminal justice disparities.

But the special focus of the course was journalism about the movement for racial justice in Memphis. The first book we read as a class was Gene Roberts and Hank Klibanoff’s Pulitzer Prize-winning book, The Race Beat: The Press, the Civil Rights Struggle, and the Awakening of a Nation. Local MLK50 columnist Wendi Thomas co-taught the course twice, focusing on discrepancies in news coverage about African-Americans in Memphis, especially poor people of color.

Students of the Reporting Social Justice Course celebrate the end of the semester.

The course’s capstone project was interviews with activists from different decades—from people who marched with King to those who fought to remove Confederate statues in 2017. Students were paired up in teams to interview more than a dozen activists. We chose to do the interviews in an oral-history style, meaning they were longer (about an hour), less often interrupted, and more free-form than is typically the case with a journalistic interview. Our main goal was to get these individuals to talk at length, to share their memories, to remember what they could. Together with the interviews we conducted during the summer, these in-depth video sources will be given to and archived at both the McWherter Library’s special collections and at the National Civil Rights Museum, where historians and other scholars looking to understand race relations in the city of Memphis will have a permanent multimedia resource they draw on for years.

The other purpose for the interviews is to use excerpts in a documentary and on a website we will be creating this fall. The latter will be interactive, allowing residents to make comments, share stories, ask questions, and otherwise participate in this endeavor. We see this as an ongoing story with different audiences. So all three outlets—the archive, the film, the website—are a means to show to and share with the community a unique and important story: activism for racial justice in Memphis, Tennessee.

By Joseph Hayden, PhD, Department of Journalism and Strategic Media, The University of Memphis

The Hooks Institute’s blog is intended to create a space for discussions on contemporary and historical civil rights issues. The opinions expressed by Hooks Institute contributors are the opinions of the contributors themselves, and they do not necessarily reflect the position of the Benjamin L. Hooks Institute for Social Change or The University of Memphis.

Where Has the Racism Gone?

By Elena Delavega, PhD, Hooks Institute Associate Director

 

Elena Delavega, Ph.D., Associate Director, The Benjamin L. Hooks Institute for Social Change

When I first arrived in Memphis, I was awe-struck by the racism. I everywhere, and it was visible. I could feel it. I could smell it. It was so thick, one could cut it with scissors. At first, I could not put my finger on it, but by paying attention, I was able to observe that people’s position in society seemed to be determined by their race. I also paid attention to how well the city took care of white areas, and how poorly it took care of African American areas. By carefully paying attention, it became clear to me that oppression and exclusion were a feature of the community.

Fast forward seven years, and the racism does not feel so awful in Memphis. This is incredibly dangerous and it is the lull that leads us to accept the racism as a natural part of life. It does not “feel” so awful anymore because I have become used to it and inured to it. It is still there. It is the same racism and the same oppression that existed seven years ago, that has not changed. I have to conclude that what has changed is my perception.

Humans have a great ability to adapt and to accept new environments. It is this ability is not accidental, but necessary for survival. However, that which is adaptive in an environment and would have allowed our ancestors to survive changing conditions can have horrible and maladaptive consequences in other places and times.

That is what has happened here. Our ability to adapt to circumstances has led me to accept racism as a natural part of the community and to not even see it anymore.

I fight against this. I recognize the awfulness of the still existing deep and noxious racism in Memphis and in the State of Tennessee, but I wonder how many people, otherwise good and decent people have become so well adapted to Memphis that they have stopped feeling and seeing the awful racism that pervades everything here?

This is a call to examination and to critical consciousness. We need to become careful observers of our environment and to recognize the need for awareness and for attention. Racism has not gone away. Just our ability to see it has. If you open your eyes with honesty, you will see it. It is there and it must be fought, lest it takes over and destroys our souls.

The Hooks Institute’s blog is intended to create a space for discussions on contemporary and historical civil rights issues. The opinions expressed by Hooks Institute contributors are the opinions of the contributors themselves, and they do not necessarily reflect the position of the Benjamin L. Hooks Institute for Social Change or The University of Memphis.

Stopping Pharaoh: The Moral Urgency of Opposing the Separation of Immigrant Children from Their Parents

Human right and civil rights organizations, liberals, conservatives, Democrats, Republicans, and corporations must unite to end the Trump Administration’s “zero tolerance” policy of separating immigrant children from parents who arrive at the border of the United States without proper documentation for admission. There is a moral urgency to act now to dismantle it. This zero tolerance policy denies basic human rights to immigrants and is immoral.

WWJD or “what would Jesus do?” has appeared in articles arguing that the Trump Administration’s policy to separate immigrant children from their parents is contrary to the very scripture quoted by Attorney General Jeff Sessions.  The bible teaches us to “love thy neighbor as thyself.”  If we are true to this biblical edict, our nation could not torment immigrant children and their parents by separating them.

The Bible, however, also gives us Pharaoh and Moses. We could learn from them too.  The Old Testament, or watching Charlton Heston play Moses in the Paramount Classic, The Ten Commandants, shows that Pharaoh lacked a moral compass which fed his ambition, ego, and prejudices against the Hebrews. Fortified by godly intervention, Moses persuaded Pharaoh to let his people go. Perhaps this story is more fitting for this crisis.   Whether one’s grounding is in moral and ethical teachings or religion, we must urgently work to end the “zero tolerance” of separating immigrant children from their parents.

Forcibly removing children from their parents has never boded well for any society.  Slavery owners did not recognize the rights of African American parents to raise their children and sold the children of slaves off as easily as one would sell a loaf of bread. A well-documented practice of the Nazis was to separate children from parents upon arrival at German concentration camps. For decades starting in the late 19th century, Native American children were forcibly removed from their parents and shipped off to boarding schools where they were intentionally stripped of their culture.  All of these examples show depraved indifference to others humanity because of their race, ethnicity, or differences. This conduct frays the fabric of society and comes with negative consequences, both those who were discriminated and the society itself, for decades and centuries to come.

With respect to the “zero tolerance” policy, there will be no happy ending unless the citizens of this nation put an end to it. Civil rights organizations must oppose this policy.  Medical and other professionals must speak out.  The American Academy of Pediatrics has already taken the position that separation of immigrant children from their parents will cause the children irreparable harm. Some conservatives have opposed this policy.  Public figures are speaking out against this policy, including former First Lady Laura Bush.  American corporations also need to take a stand. Corporate speech is well funded, powerful, and shapes legislative and policy outcomes.  Here, corporations can act for the better good by opposing this policy.

Moses ended Pharaoh’s cruel practices against the Hebrews. “Our neighbors,” here immigrant children and their parents need our help in ending the “zero tolerance” policy of that separates immigrant children from their parents.  The moral authority of our nation hangs in the balance.

By Daphene R. McFerren, Executive Director, The Benjamin L. Hooks Institute