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.

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

Memphis and the Movement

By Aram Goudsouzian, Ph.D.

The 1968 Sanitation Strike and assassination of Martin Luther King are defining events in the history of Memphis. Across the city, we are grappling with how to tell the story of those events, and how to understand their connections to our present circumstances. This fall I joined two professors from the Department of Journalism on one of those efforts, a project called Once More at the River: From MLK to BLM.

Sanitation Workers Strike. 1968. C/o Preservation and Special Collections Department, University Libraries, the University of Memphis.

Roxane Coche is the driving force behind it. She conceived of the idea, recruiting me to teach a Fall 2017 course on the history of the civil rights movement in Memphis. In the spring of 2018, Joe Hayden will teach a course in which those same students interview activists in Memphis. Finally, Roxane and Joe will enlist student help and co-produce a documentary film that explores social justice movements in Memphis.

Roxane spearheaded our successful application for a Discovery and Development Grant from the University of Memphis and reached out to the National Civil Rights Museum, which offered to make contacts and house the video archive of interviews. We have since attracted more funding for the documentary project, including from the Benjamin L. Hooks Institute for Social Change.

This fall, I taught “Memphis and the Movement.” In my thirteen years at the University of Memphis, this was one of my most rewarding experiences. We were a mixed bunch: History majors and Journalism majors, undergraduates and MA candidates, men and women, young and old, black and white. We had four senior auditors and another senior citizen enrolled; they shared firsthand experiences in Memphis that stretched back to the 1960s. “Dr. Joe” was a frequent visitor in the back corner chair, while “Dr. C” hustled over whenever possible.

The students were ALL IN. They dove into the assigned readings, asked questions, drifted off on tangents, and argued with me and each other. Sometimes the material was raw, as we read about instances of grotesque violence or racist maneuvers. And because it was local, it was personal – we were talking about our city, our neighbors, our lives. At times, some students got angry, and others got uncomfortable. But those emotions were necessary and important.

The course was divided into three units. We started in the nineteenth century, as cotton and slavery transformed Memphis, and discussed the repression of African Americans during Reconstruction and Jim Crow. We then explored the city’s unique political landscape during the long reign of E.H. “Boss” Crump. Among our readings were excerpts from Stephen Ash’s A Massacre in Memphis, Elizabeth Gritter’s River of Hope, and Laurie Green’s Battling the Plantation Mentality.

The second unit centered around the civil rights era in Memphis, especially the sanitation strike. We read Michael Honey’s masterwork Going Down Jericho Road, giving the class an intimate, detailed, and comprehensive look at this watershed moment, which illustrated the promise of a movement that fused racial and economic justice, as well as the tragedy of failed city institutions, resulting in the circumstances that led to Martin Luther King’s assassination.

The final unit took us from 1968 to the present. We read historians, journalists, political scientists, and sociologists as we explored the ways that African Americans in Memphis staked claims to political power and cultural space, yet suffered from enduring, racialized issues of prejudice and poverty.

We took a class visit to the National Civil Rights Museum, where we got a first-class tour from Ryan Jones, and we visited Special Collections at McWherter Library, where Gerald Chaudron familiarized us with the Memphis Search for Meaning Committee records, an incredible archive on the sanitation strike. For their final project, the students selected and analyzed oral histories from this collection.

The best parts, we all agreed, were our special guests. I exploited as much local expertise as I could! My colleague in History, Beverly Bond, talked about black women in slavery and freedom. Daniel Kiel came over from the Law School and screened his film The Memphis 13, about the first graders who integrated Memphis City Schools. Before leaving for his new job at Colorado College, Anthony Siracusa taught us about nonviolent direct action and Rev. James Lawson. Journalist Emily Yellin presented her ongoing project of interviewing sanitation workers and their families. Steve Ross visited from Communication to show his film about the strike, At the River I Stand. Rhodes College professor Charles Hughes discussed Memphis music and his great book Country Soul, while Otis Sanford, the Hardin Chair of Journalism, recalled the election of Willie Herenton, as told in his new book From Boss Crump to King Willie. Finally, the crusading Wendi Thomas showcased her important project, “MLK50: Justice through Journalism.”

Wendi’s visit was the perfect transition to Joe’s spring course, Reporting Social Justice. Hopefully, we provided the students with the historical background and critical approach to enrich their interviews and articles. Look for Joe’s post on the Hooks blog later this spring!


Dr. Aram Goudzousian

Aram Goudsouzian is the Chair of the Department of History at the University of Memphis. He is the author of Down to the Crossroads: Civil Rights, Black Power, and the Meredith March Against Fear and the co-editor, with Charles McKinney, of An Unseen Light: Black Struggles for Freedom in Memphis, Tennessee.

Tennesseans Seek Justice, Reconciliation Through Civil Rights Cold Case Initiative

By Jasmine P. Stansberry

Oct. 24, 2017

Flag, announcing lynching, flown from the window of the NAACP headquarters on 69 Fifth Ave., New York City. 1936

Cordie Cheek, Albert Gooden, Jesse Lee Bond and Elbert Williams are the names of four African American men who were found dead by Tennessee authorities.

Yet, they are only four of countless men, women and children who were murdered on Tennessee soil in the past 150 years because of their race. Many of their murders remain unsolved.

Now, steps are being taken by the Tennessee Historical Justice Coalition to research the events surrounding the deaths of African Americans since the Civil War.

“The fact that it hasn’t been done demonstrates that there is a need,” said attorney Alex Little, a member of the coalition.

In 2016, Congress reauthorized the Emmett Till Unsolved Civil Rights Crime Act of 2007, which allows the Department of Justice and the Federal Bureau of Investigations to investigate and prosecute criminal civil rights violations that led to death and occurred before 1980.

This June, Tennessee lawmakers passed HB1306, a new bill that allowed for the implementation of a Special Joint Legislative Committee, which will investigate civil rights crimes and cold cases that took place in the state.

On Sept. 14, the coalition met at Bone McAllester Norton PLLC, a law firm in downtown Nashville, to discuss the approach that the group will take, as they proceed to bring testimonies from a few of the cold cases before the Special Joint Commission of the Tennessee Legislature.

The Tennessee Historical Justice Coalition is comprised of citizens across the state whose aim is to enlighten the public about injustices that have been buried in the annals of Tennessee’s past. These cases include arson and murder.

Countless victims, such as the four men, met an undeserving, injudicious fate of brutal death and while their cases went cold over the past few decades, their memories have yet to decompose.

Cordie Cheek, 17, was accused of raping a young, white girl in 1935. Cheek, who was indicted and released for a lack of evidence, was kidnapped from his uncle’s home, a few streets from Fisk University in Nashville. His body was found in Maury County, riddled with bullets.

Albert Gooden, 35, was lynched in Tipton County in 1937. He was accused of shooting and killing a white deputy.  While being held in custody, six unidentified men kidnapped Gooden, hung him from a bridge and riddled his body with bullets.

Jesse Lee Bond, 21, was castrated and dragged by a car in 1939. The incident, which occurred in Shelby County, is believed to have been the result of an argument between Bond and a local store owner.

Elbert Williams, a founder and secretary for the Haywood County chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), was found dead in the Hatchie River in 1940. His wife viewed his body once it was pulled from the river.

“And when she looked at him she identified, yes, that’s him and she identified what appeared to be two bullet holes in his chest,” said coalition member John Ashworth.

Williams was last seen alive in police custody. Ashworth believes that Williams was the first martyr of the NAACP, preceding Florida organizer Harry T. Moore in 1951.

Politicians, attorneys and academics attended the meeting on Thursday, September 14.

The coalition will survey the state for information about cold cases that occurred between 1862 and 2017. The New Data committee, a subgroup that conducts research, reported that there are 392 cases that will be examined. Information regarding cases that identify living perpetrators will be reviewed by former prosecutors and law enforcement officers to determine the possibility of criminal prosecution.

“Hopefully, the General Assembly will be able to take in the scope of what has happened and help us come up with creative ideas to address it,” Little said.

The coalition also seeks to survey cold cases where religious places of worship, such as churches, synagogues and mosques were targeted for arson or vandalism.

The Civil Rights Cold Case Initiative also includes cases involving institutions, such as the Hattie Cotton Elementary school in Nashville, which was bombed in 1957 after there was a mandate to integrate the student population.

One issue of concern at the meeting was safety. One person said that some of the cases being researched might invite an unfriendly response from descendants of the alleged perpetrators, and possibly from people in communities where the crimes occurred.

This new initiative to reconcile the past will also require the involvement of current state officials.

“You had a period of decades of injustices being allowed to occur with complete impunity,” Little said. “There are people today who not only lived through Jim Crow but through murders that were happening with state sanction.”

Representatives from the coalition said that its objective is to survey civil rights cold cases, prosecute those that are viable, and encourage community reconciliation by bringing awareness to the public.


Jasmine Stansberry is a graduate assistant at the Benjamin L. Hooks Institute for Social Change, currently pursuing a Masters in History at the UofM. Her interests are Twentieth-century African-American history, with an emphasis on the Civil Rights and Black Power movements.

Bending the Arc Toward Justice: Including the Excluded

On October 5, 2017, the Hooks Institute released its third edition of its policy papers titled, Bending the Arc Toward Justice: Including the Excluded. This edition focused on the positive impact of immigrants in a small Arkansas town; government policies which create welfare dependency in Oglala Sioux Tribe (South Dakota) and south Memphis, TN; rollback of LGBT gains by the Trump Administration; and the history of Islam and Muslims in America, the distortion of that history, and successful efforts by diverse communities in Memphis, TN to collaborate with the Muslim community. The Hooks Institute hopes that these papers will encourage thoughtful discussion, policy, and action that will sustain and enhance civil and human rights, and social justice for all in our nation. A link to the complete publication is provided at the end of the foreword.

To protect and expand human and civil rights in these perilous times, we must remain vigilant and form alliances with people and organizations across diverse ideological perspectives. On September 5, 2017, as these policy papers were being prepared for publication, the Trump administration ended the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrival (DACA) program created by an executive order from the Obama administration. This program allowed undocumented immigrant children in the United States who had been brought here illegally by others and who had not been convicted of criminal offenses to attend school, work, or serve in the military, and obtain driver licenses without fear of deportation for renewable two-year periods. The reasoning behind DACA was that undocumented immigrant children should not be punished for the actions of others, but rather should be provided opportunities to become contributing members of society.

It is now in the hands of Congress to decide, in what form, if any, DACA continues. While Congress must tackle the complex issue of developing sound and fair immigration legislation for the nation, the manner in which DACA was terminated by the Trump administration evidenced a strong disregard for the welfare of immigrant children who obeyed the laws, pursued educational opportunities, and who have, and are making, significant contributions to the United States.

DACA is only one of many disturbing events in the nation that show racism, if not intolerance, against immigrants, minorities, Jews, and Muslims. This environment has been fueled by the rhetoric and actions of President Trump, white supremacists, and those who know better but remain silent out of fear, or for personal or political gain. We cannot remain silent in the face of these challenges. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. wisely counseled that “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” However, this arc is not going to bend itself. Each of us must work to ensure that justice prevails through our sustained activism and vigilance.

We cannot remain silent in the face of these challenges. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. wisely counseled that “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” However, this arc is not going to bend itself. Each of us must work to ensure that justice prevails through our sustained activism and vigilance.

As we navigate these times, we must also reach across the aisle to engage with people of different political, racial, and ideological views to bridge the great divide that is feeding the growing cancer of mistrust, resentment, racism, and hate in our nation and world. We must work to eliminate racial inequality, bigotry, anti-Semitism, discrimination against immigrants, lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) groups, and to uplift the poor, a group that includes whites, African Americans, and many others. Each of us has a respective sphere of influence that we can activate through educational outreach, community engagement, activism, writing, research, and scholarship or political action.

With this third edition of policy papers, the Benjamin L. Hooks Institute for Social Change at the University of Memphis (UofM) seeks to expand the net of civil and human equality through overviews of complex issues through scholarly research and policy recommendations.

Michael R. Duke (Department of Anthropology, UofM) looks at the challenges and opportunities of immigrants from diverse countries who have settled in the small city of Springdale, Arkansas. These immigrants work in the poultry industry, in jobs that few whites will take. The poultry industry supports this labor force, a bright spot exists for upward mobility of immigrants, and there is greater integration and cultural exchange between immigrants and whites. Springdale, Arkansas represents, to some extent, a success story of immigration in that community.

Peter A. Kindle (Department of Social Work, University of South Dakota) examines how intergenerational poverty and reliance on welfare by the Oglala Sioux Tribe in South Dakota is rooted in historical discrimination and bad government policies. Kindle compares the experiences of these Native Americans with the history of racial, social, and economic oppression of African Americans in the South Memphis. His examination of these two communities shows similarities rooted in historical discrimination and failed government approaches.

Idia B. Thurston (Department of Psychology, UofM) examines both the legal, social, and policy advancements made by the LGBT community, the aggressive challenges underway to undermine these gains, and she proposes initiatives to sustain and support this community.

Finally, Nabil A. Bayakly (Department of World Language and Literature, UofM) provides an in-depth overview of Islam, which embraces peace and love of one’s neighbor. He explores how Islam has been distorted both by terrorist acts and by a lack of understanding in many communities about Islam and the Muslims.

The Hooks Institute hopes that the information provided in these policy papers will encourage community members, activists, individuals, businesses and legislators to examine the issues presented here and to engage in action that is intended to uplift their communities. There is much work to be done, in this nation and abroad, on human and civil rights. As we work to root out injustices, we must, in the words of our namesake, the late Benjamin L. Hooks, “face the future unafraid.”

Daphene R. McFerren, JD
Executive Director Benjamin L. Hooks Institute for Social Change

Elena Delavega, PhD
Associate Director, Benjamin L. Hooks Institute for Social Change
Associate Professor, Department of Social Work

Click here to access the 2017 Hooks Institute Policy Papers online.

Photograph credit: 2017.03.07 #MuslimBan 2.0 Protest, Washington, DC USA 00805. Photo by Ted Eytan. Creative Commons Attribution ShareAlike 4.0 International(CC BY-SA 4.0). flickr.com/photos/taedc/33164970202/

Extraordinary, Ordinary Leadership: A Meditation on the Fayette County, TN Archives and the Duty of Everyday Activism

By Errol Rivers

Beginning in 2015, I have worked as a graduate assistant at the Benjamin L. Hooks Institute for Social Change. I have primarily worked as an editor and proofreader on an archival project referred to as the Civil Rights Movement of Fayette County, Tennessee (1959–mid-1970s). This collection of documents, stories, photographs, and correspondences chronicles the challenges African Americans in Fayette County faced while fighting for the right to vote and other basic civil rights. Activist efforts included organizing to access their right to vote in elections, developing strategies to acquire shelter and necessities after white landowners forced African-American sharecroppers out of their homes to live in tents, and advocating for the desegregation of schools in Fayette County, among other things. Together, the various printed and electronic features of this collection capture specific characteristics of grassroots activism in the South during a time of intense racial and socioeconomic strife.

Family living in one of several “tent cities” founded to house those who were evicted after registering to vote. Circa 1960. Photograph: Preservation and Special Collections Department, University Library, University of Memphis.

My work with the Hooks Institute began at a critical juncture in my life. In 2015, social media and the news were rife with examples of police brutality and other injustices against marginalized groups.  I had become overwhelmed with a sense of powerlessness in response to the wide circulation of audio and video footage depicting graphic violations of civil rights—especially that involving deadly interactions that occurred between law enforcement and black women, men, and children. Beyond my personal stakes in the welfare of minority groups, I, along with many of various backgrounds, seemed to be growing both anxious by and weary of hearing about the emotionally charged topic of injustice. Having been raised several decades after the Civil Rights Movement, I expected the distanced experience I had always enjoyed when studying past civil rights history would, unfortunately, feel far more immersive in such a socially turbulent time for minority groups. As I spoke with family and friends about the work I would soon begin, they, too, were concerned about my emersion into history about past abuses African Americans suffered in Fayette County when I needed to look no further than recent news for current instances of oppression. However, as I began my work at the Hooks Institute, this fear of sinking further into hopelessness was replaced by a passionate commitment to the change I might help to create. This change in perspective was thanks to the inspirational story of the Civil Rights Movement of Fayette County.

NYC action in solidarity with Ferguson. Mo, encouraging a boycott of Black Friday Consumerism. 28 November 2014, C/o The All-Night Images

It would be easy to reduce my time learning about the movement in Fayette County to a lesson in dates, Martin Luther King Jr’s impact, and the unjust yet historic nature of the time—this narrative is certainly a familiar focus of many educational materials on the 1960s. However, what I found to be powerful, unique, and transformative about the collection was its emphasis on the lived experiences of those who stood up, against the odds, to demand respect for themselves and their constitutional rights. The collection was also unique because it allowed the viewer, through first-hand accounts of the activists, to experience past events in “real time,” to examine how activists felt as events took place. This collection allowed me to go beyond written facts to the “spirit” of ordinary people, who became extraordinary activists in pursuit of equality.

Particularly moving is the collection’s tangible expansion of what defines a true leader. When I learned about the American Civil Rights Movement as a child, civil rights heroes appeared so powerfully eloquent, strategically well dressed, and justifiably revered. Their colossal images shrunk my belief that I could ever do or change anything like they did. What the collection offered me was the insightful perspective that leaders take many forms: leaders include the faces, voices, and bodies of the poor, rural South.

African American citizens of Fayette County, TN line up at the county courthouse to register to vote. Photograph: Preservation and Special Collections Department, University Library, University of Memphis.

The riveting personal stories and specific details depicted in the collection’s photographs, video clips, and written correspondences offer a unique and boldly honest depiction of Southern activism, as told by various Fayette Countians and Northern allies. Rich, emotionally-complex stories of persistence, sacrifice, and conflicted morality are found in the accounts of those of local leaders, like John McFerren and Harpman Jameson, World War II veterans who provided the early leadership to voter registration efforts; Maggie Mae Horton, an “aggressive” activist who worked to create solidarity among African Americans in her voting district; and Northern civil rights workers who volunteered their time, resources, and like local activists, risked their safety to demand civil rights for African Americans. These and similarly interesting stories demonstrate why the Fayette County movement is so inspirational. In this way, the collection adds to a necessary space in recorded history for black, rural Southerners of the time, whose stories have too often gone untold to the extents that they deserve.

One of the Fayette County, TN’s Tent cities. Photograph: Preservation and Special Collections Department, University Library, University of Memphis.

As the civil rights issues described in my work unavoidably infiltrated all parts of my personal life during the campaigning season of the 2016 presidential election, I, like many Americans, felt compelled to reevaluate my understandings of civic duty, leadership, and the self. This would be necessary as I decided how I might orient myself within such a divisive moment in United States history. For guidance, I looked to the courageous individuals who came before me, and they exemplified one thing about change: silence was—and is—no option when in the face of injustice. Journalist and civil and women’s rights activist Ida B. Wells once said, “The way to right wrongs is to turn the light of truth upon them.” Author Zora Neale Hurston warned, “If you are silent about your pain, they’ll kill you and say you enjoyed it.” Wells and Hurston demanded personal responsibility to fight injustices.

While many might believe they can surrender their voice and political agency to a single more charismatic, visible, or wealthy “leader,” the events that unfolded in Fayette County show that ordinary people of all backgrounds can, and have taken, courageous and strategic action to resist discrimination. Of course, we each have limits to our ability and reach, but activism, monumental and small, is the burden and the privilege that everyday people can carry to help ensure the welfare of others.

African Americans in Fayette County, TN register to vote. Circa 1960. Photograph: Preservation and Special Collections Department, University Library, University of Memphis.

How, though, do we carry this burden and honor the opportunities our rights afford us? In Fayette County, local African American leaders created the Original Fayette County Welfare League to empower African Americans by helping them to register to vote and creating literacy schools, among other things. In our current cultural moment and everyday lives, everyday activism may look like engaging in difficult conversations about privilege, learning about and attending a protest, diversifying the required readings on a syllabus for an upcoming course, or working to challenge our own biases through committed education. However we define our activist efforts, I have come to believe that committing to personal growth and using our platforms and privileges to create positive change is how our roles as citizens, leaders, and everyday people intersect in the achievable ideal.

Evicted sharecroppers at one of Fayette County, TN’s “Tent Cities”. Circa 1960. Photograph: Preservation and Special Collections Department, University Library, University of Memphis.

Throughout history, the promise of change seemed to flow from an (im)perfect storm of social and economic upheaval.  Through these unique moments in time, our greatest progress in furthering civil rights and social justice have taken place. Since I began working with the Hooks Institute, the turbulent social and political landscape of which I was previously afraid has only intensified as we have struggled to engage with one another to discuss issues, such as race relations, gender equality, immigration, gender identity, environmental justice, and many more. Despite this, I—and I hope many in the nation—believe it is imperative to work actively towards a renewed, spirited and tenacious sense of unity to effect meaningful, positive change for each and every one of us. My exploration of the civil rights movement in Fayette County allowed me to situate myself and today’s social and institutional struggles within a legacy of unified and effective resistance to injustice in our nation. This could only occur because, through the collection, it was easy to see, if not myself or a loved one in the faces and stories portrayed, the universal humanity in the textured voices and strong familial ties featured in the collection.

Although I lack answers as to how I, you, or we might do so, the accomplishments of the Civil Rights Movement of Fayette County make it undoubtedly clear that an ability to persist through adversity exists in each of us. As such, I have come to believe that, through our thoughtful, everyday acts of activism, we work to cultivate a world that, rather than drains, invigorates us to want to persist for the call of social justice, regardless of the circumstances thrust upon us.

The Civil Rights Movement of Fayette County collection is in no small part a creation of a passionate and dedicated collaboration. Several Benjamin L. Hooks Institute for Social Change staff members, University of Memphis instructors, staff members of the Preservation and Special Collections Department at the University of Memphis, external scholars, and graduate assistants have devoted a significant amount of time and effort to ensuring the procurement, creation, maintenance, and dissemination of various elements of the project. Additionally, while respectfully crafted and weaved together by Hooks Institute staff and University faculty to present a cohesive narrative, little to none of the collection would exist without the tremendous support of the people of Fayette County who volunteered their time to help tell their stories. This extraordinary example of collaborative writing, community engagement, and committed scholarship stands as a shining example of the Hooks Institute’s mission of “teaching, studying, and promoting civil rights and social change.”

Errol Rivers is a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of English at the University of Memphis. He has served as a graduate assistant at the Benjamin L. Hooks Institute of Social Change from fall 2015 to fall 2017. Rivers is particularly interested in the roles professional and technical writing plays in health-related fields. Other research interests include classical sociological theory, identity studies, implications of pop culture on social politics, and relationships forged between the body and the self.