Soul City: Race, Equality, and the Lost Dream of an American Utopia by Thomas Healey

By Kat Robinson
Hooks Institute Graduate Assistant

This post is part of a series on teh 2021 Hooks National Book Award Finalists.

Thomas Healey, Professor at Seton Hall Law School, brings us Soul City: Race, Equality, and the Lost Dream of an American Utopia, a 2021 Hooks National Book Award finalist

Soul City chronicles the leaders of a local civil rights organization looking to establish a predominantly Black city in rural North Carolina during the 1970s. The goal was to move poor Blacks out of the South, in the hopes of fleeing poverty in search of prosperity in the North.

The core of Healey’s book demonstrates the “aspirations for self-determination, and economic autonomy, and equality among Civil Rights activists and leaders” from the late 1960s through the 1970s. Healey shows us how, after Martin Luther King, Jr.’s death, activists continued to strive towards justice and civil rights into the 1970s, fighting to ameliorate economic inequality, although, ultimately, their plan failed. In 1969, an emerging Soul City received financial support from the Nixon administration and North Carolina’s state government. Alas, even with the financial backing of both governing bodies, the project would prove unsuccessful some ten years into its existence. Healey delves into the various political and social obstacles that Soul City faced throughout its ten-year span and how these same obstacles exist today, impeding the Black population’s capacity for true economic autonomy and equality.

Healey remarks “[W]e’re still dealing with the issues of inequality today that we were in 1969…” He notes that unemployment rates are double the percentage of Blacks than Whites, similar to the 1960s. While the median wealth of Black families amounts to less than 15% of median white families (Bhutta, 2020); a stark reminder that the problems of the past are still apparent today.

Soul City revives a lesser-known story of the Civil Rights Movement; the journey towards economic autonomy and equality was not an uncommon goal, but Floyd McKissick strove for something more remarkable than imaginable. Healey details how a group of activists, led by McKissick, strove to end economic inequality and what obstacles they faced in their pursuits, and why they didn’t succeed, with the hope to develop a better understanding of the forces today standing in our way of economic equality.

 Healey refers to Dr. King’s book Where Do We Go from Here?, King’s last book before his assassination in 1968. In it, King asks readers where the Civil Rights Movement is to go next, hoping for economic prosperity and rights in education and housing. Floyd McKissick also believed the next step was full economic equality, and that Soul City was the solution to the inequities Black Americans faced. While many histories of the Civil Rights Movement end at King’s death, Healey argues that the end had yet come – King’s dream had yet to be realized. Although many recount King’s period as the golden years of the movement, Healey posits that McKissick’s plans cemented the call for economic equality.

Floyd McKissick was a famed Civil Rights leader and lawyer in the 1960s who headed the Congress of Racial Equality. He was born in Asheville, NC, and was the first Black student to attend the North Carolina Law School via a lawsuit brought by Thurgood Marshall. He participated in the first Freedom Rides of the 1950s in connection with the Journey for Reconciliation. After King’s assassination, he left his position as the leader of the Congress for Racial Equality to move home to NC to build Soul City, where he remained until his death in 1991.

Sources

Bhutta, N. A. (2020). Disparities in Wealth by Race and Ethnicity in the 2019 Survey of Consumer Finances. Washington: Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System.

 

Until I Am Free: Fannie Lou Hamer’s Enduring Message to America – Hooks Blog Post From Author

By Keisha N. Blain

This blog post is part of our series on the 2021 Hooks National Book Award Finalists. For more visit memphis.edu/hooksblog.

Fannie Lou Hamer’s story captures the contributions of a Black woman sharecropper with limited formal education and limited material resources—but an all-consuming passion for social justice. Born in Mississippi on October 6, 1917, Hamer was the youngest of twenty children. The granddaughter of enslaved people, Hamer worked as a sharecropper for much of her life. At the age of twelve, she concluded her studies at a local schoolhouse so she could help her family meet their growing financial pressures. Still, they remained trapped in poverty—the result of the exploitative nature of the sharecropping system and the violence used to maintain it. The difficulties of Hamer’s childhood extended well into adulthood. Despite her limited material resources and the various challenges she endured as a Black woman living in poverty in Mississippi, Hamer committed herself to make a difference in the lives of others.

Her life changed dramatically in 1962. On August 27, 1962, Hamer attended a local church service in Ruleville, Mississippi. At this meeting organized by activists in the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), Hamer learned of her constitutional right to vote as a citizen of the United States. She recognized that access to the ballot would help overturn unjust laws, replace corrupt elected officials, and shape local, state, and national politics. That night she began her political journey—relying on her radical honesty, boundless compassion, and unwavering resistance to racism and white supremacy.

Until I Am Free: Fannie Lou Hamer’s Enduring Message to America centers on Hamer’s ideas and political philosophies to demonstrate how they speak to our current moment. It posits that Hamer’s insights and political strategies during the 1960s and ’70s provide a blueprint for tackling a range of contemporary social issues. I had begun to write a book on Hamer in 2019 and thought I would finish it much later. However, the uprisings of 2020 as well as the global pandemic brought on a new sense of urgency for me to finish the book. During those difficult days, I found inspiration in Hamer’s words. The more I read Hamer’s words, the more clarity I found. Her vision for the world and her commitment to improving conditions for all people gave me a renewed sense of hope and purpose. I wanted to share that gift with others—and I firmly believe this is the opportune moment to share her story in a new way.

Until I Am Free is organized into six thematic chapters that explore Hamer’s perspective on faith, state-sanctioned violence, leadership, women’s rights, Black internationalism, poverty, and more. Together, these chapters grapple with one significant question: What might we learn, and how might our society change if we simply listened to Fannie Lou Hamer? One of her core messages—and the inspiration for the book’s title—that she delivered to audiences was, “Until I am free, you are not either.” Hamer recognized that no one could truly experience freedom if others were constrained. I use this framework as a starting point to remind readers that while the work of democracy is incomplete, the fight is certainly not over. As Hamer reiterated time and time again, we still have the power to make this inclusive vision a reality.

Walk with Me: A Biography of Fannie Lou Hamer – Hooks Book Award Finalist

By Kat Robinson, Hooks Institute Graduate Assistant

This post is part four of our series on the 2021 Hooks National Book Award finalists.

A cradle-to-grave biography, Walk with Me: A Biography of Fannie Lou Hamer explores the transformative life of Fannie Lou Hamer, from her early life picking cotton alongside her parents in Montgomery County, Mississippi through her later years as a voting rights activist until her death in 1977. Hamer used her experiences from sharecropping at 12 years old to revolutionize voting rights across the South; witnessing first-hand the discrimination and racism that Black people faced in the South, Hamer sought out like-minded individuals interested in justice and equity. With only a 6th-grade education, Hamer was a unique figure among her contemporaries like Dr. Martin L. King or Russell B. Sugarmon — and used her uniqueness to lead the voting rights movement into a direction it needed to go, against tremendous odds.

Historical and previously unavailable archives about Hamer were finally released, which Larson took advantage of when writing her biography. Hamer was the 20th child of Mississippi sharecroppers, born in 1917. She grew up in extreme poverty, experiencing malnutrition and limited access to healthcare and housing, and most horrendously she dealt with the impacts of white supremacy. These accumulated hardships led to 7 of her siblings dying before she was born. Out of this great loss was born a tight-knit family that Hamer would work to support throughout her youth.

Frustrated by lifelong crises, Hamer sought out a movement called the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) – an organization centered around nonviolent protests for civil rights. In 1961, the SNCC traveled to Mississippi to ask Black Mississippians what rights they felt they were missing as Americans – that answer was the right to vote. In the 1960s, only 5% of the Black Mississippian population was registered to vote because the violence faced when attempting to register was brutal. Hamer’s own experience of being fired for registering to vote further pursued her toward her mission. That mission was to travel throughout the South; illuminating the adversities and violence Blacks faced when attempting to register and leading voter registration initiatives. Not only in Mississippi but all over the United States.

Larson’s biography differs from others because it includes those recently released documents that have only resurfaced in the last 20 years, since the last biography about Hamer was released. Larson employs a feminist lens that places Hamer at the center of her life’s story: Hamer’s story not only differs from others due to being a woman in leadership within the civil rights movement but as a woman who had significantly less education than her male counterparts. Although Hamer was prevented from continuing her formal education, she possessed literacies and languages that her male counterparts did not. As a sharecropper and Black woman living in the South, Hamer experienced various gendered and racial harassment that informed her stance on equality and human rights. Unlike other activists and leaders, Hamer used her upbringing to inform her work.

Larson believes today’s reemerging threats on voting rights would deeply affect Hamer. Larson remarks on the current issues facing voting rights: “Today, her [Hamer] legacy stands strong. There are many lessons in her life that we can look to… to continue the fight for equality and justice here.”

This biography showcases the power behind “every day, ordinary people” who impact our nation’s society in positive ways. Hamer is a role model to show that the ‘average’ person can create great change. Larson says, “Across our country there are emerging leaders like Fannie Lou Hamer… They need support. That’s why her story is so important, because we need to be reminded that it happened before and we can do it again, and we can do better this time.”

Walk Don’t Sink: Journey through the Storms of Our Now

By Tony Coleman, associate pastor at First Congregational Church of Memphis

This blog was presented as a sermon at First Congregational Church of Memphis on June 26, 2022

As a child, I wasn’t afraid of many things. I loved the dark; Halloween was one of my favorite holidays; scary shows and movies for kids were some of my favorites. There was one thing that terrified me, though, one thing that would make my pulse jump and my face feel flush with anxiety: the Presidential Fitness Test. For those of you who may not be familiar with it, the Presidential Fitness Test was an annual event that took place in public schools across the country in which middle and high-school children would be forced to do pull-ups, sit-ups, push-ups, and more all under the eye of a gym teacher who would meticulously keep count of how many and how well the children did, in other words, torture. For a, as we graciously say in the South, big-bone-ded child like me, this whole measuring my fitness against what a “normal” child could do was terrible.

I stood in line and watched my classmates grabbed hold of the pull-up bar and easily do 4, 5, 10 reps. I watched them, seething with jealousy and dreading the moment that I would have to climb up and let everybody watch as I struggled to hang there and just barely bend my elbows, failing the test altogether.

Even worse than the pull-up bar, though, was the 10-minute mile test. Standing there on the starting line, next to kids whose little biceps were flexed and ready, having just completed 18 pull-ups with Terminator precision only minutes before, I could feel my heart beating, thumping with fear. The whistle blew. We ran, and I got lapped, again and again, as my classmates finished their 4 laps around the field before I was even halfway done with mine.

This went on for years.

Finally, in seventh grade, I decided that I would go up to Coach Williams, our gym teacher, to try and persuade him to let me sit out. To be honest, though, I was almost as nervous about talking to Coach Williams as I was about the Fitness Test. He was a tall man with thinning, grey hair who always wore a 90’s era track suit and a red whistle around his neck. He often seemed angry, for no reason, I thought. He would bark orders at us during warm-ups – “Get those hands up higher, Coleman, you call that a jumping jack?” Why yes, Coach Williams, yes I do, in fact – I wanted to say but didn’t.

When I told him that I wanted to skip the Presidential Fitness Test, that I was scared and embarrassed, that I’d be perfectly happy sanitizing basketballs or buffing out scuffs on the gym floor during that week, anything, he responded with, “You call that effort, Coleman? You think that’s good enough” Yes, yes, I do, Coach Williams – I wanted to say but didn’t.

“What you need to do, Coleman, is get angry. Get mad at that pull-up bar,” he told me. “Get aggressive. Get angry at that track out there – that’s how you’ll finish. I guarantee it.”

A part of me thought that maybe Coach Williams was on to something; maybe I did need to angry. Then, another part of me wondered what other kind of advice I could have gotten from a man I had once seen literally punch a basketball because it refused to go in the hoop. Getting angry was the way you get the job done, for Coach Williams. Feeling afraid? Feeling like you’ve failed? Get angry.

Of course, Coach Williams isn’t alone in holding that mindset, is he? Certainly, when it comes to fitness, we’re told that we can push our bodies further, we can tap into reservoirs of energy, we can exceed even our own expectations if we would only, “Be aggressive! Be, be aggressive!” Anger is the way to access unforeseen ability.

That’s true beyond the world of fitness and athletics, though, too. We see it in the way we describe so many tasks in our lives. We’re fighting COVID. We battle cancer. We fight for our rights. We battle our way through divorce. We fight our own desires for things we think we should not have. And so, in this way, the sum of our lives can be tallied up in all the little skirmishes we’ve won and lost.

Anger, then, is always in the background. In the fear we may feel when we get that diagnosis or start that journey towards weight loss or receive news of the latest devastating blow the Supreme Court has dealt, in the face of the fear we encounter, so often we’re told to get angry. Righteous outrage is the answer. Channel your fear into anger and your anger into energy so that you can keep on, push through, and claim victory in the end. Don’t give up; get angry!

It’s in that spirit that we might be tempted to read what happened with Peter and Jesus today. Jesus is there immersed in a miracle, standing on water. Peter sees this, is shocked and frightened, and says, if that’s really you, Jesus, tell me to come out there and join you. Jesus does, then Peter does. Peter actually walks on water. He sets aside his fear about the storm and his fear about seeing a man walking atop crashing waves, and he takes a step into a miracle.

Before long, though, he gets distracted by those crashing waves. He gets frightened all over again by the storm raging around him, and he begins to sink. Flailing around in the waves breaking beside, behind, and in front of him, he reaches out for Jesus’s hand, and Jesus catches him. “You of little faith,” Jesus then says to him, “why did you doubt?”

Now, at first glance, I’m inclined to hear Jesus saying a version of what an angry gym teacher might say to his chubby student: “You call that effort, Peter? You need to push your faith. You need to try harder. You need to get angry at doubt.” Maybe.

But, if we take a step back, if we really look at what’s happening here, if we let ourselves get absorbed into the miracle taking place, we see that this isn’t just about pushing through. This is about seeing differently. Jesus was inviting Peter into something bigger than sheer force of will, something bigger than even just walking on water. Jesus was inviting Peter into a whole other vision of the world, a world that shatters expectations and explodes logic, a world that is governed by something bigger than scary storms and angry effort, a world in which we reach our goals not by force alone but with faith in God.

Peter started sinking, then, because even though Jesus was showing him what the world could be, all Peter could focus on was what he thought the world was. Jesus was calling Peter into a reality that defied gravity and shamed his shallow expectations, but, before too long, Peter got lost in his own sense of what was possible, in his own sense that all he could do, when it came to raging storms, was sink.

Jesus was not saying face your fears in the midst of that storm and get angry. Jesus was saying, in the face of your fears, you can step into my vision for what’s possible, and you can discover in that miraculous potential.

Friends, there are some journeys whose ends we will never reach if all we have fueling us is anger. To be sure, anger has its uses. Anger can give us energy. Anger can make our voices strong when they may otherwise be weak. Anger can lead us to take action when we might otherwise be still. Anger can help us sprint. But, anger can’t get us through 6 months of chemo. Anger can’t help us figure out what’s best for our kids when a relationship falls apart. Anger can’t make a 200 pound 12-year-old run a mile in under 10 minutes. Anger can’t sustain a movement. Anger can’t help us travel from the boat into the miracle. Anger can help us sprint, but it can’t help us run a marathon.

“The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” Chances are, if you run in any kind of progressive circles, you’ve heard or read this quote. It’s on t-shirts. It’s said in political speeches. It serves as the little taglines for emails. It’s tweeted and instagramed and Facebooked. It’s almost everywhere nowadays, and, because of that, we may lose sense of what these words were actually doing when Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. said them.

You see, these were not words for a short run. This was not the sentiment of a person just trying to push through. These were the words of a man and a movement who knew the reality of setbacks and the seemingly impossible task before them. It’s a set of words that reach beyond policy that dig underneath ideology that take hold of a truth that is bigger than the latest failure.

MLK’s words said that while the forces of white supremacy and oppression may win this battle and the next one or even the one after that; while I may even lose my life in pursuit of the goal of justice, at the end of the day, when it’s all said and done, I know that we are going with the flow of the universe, rather than against it. These words show that the people in this movement carried a confidence that the very shape of existence, the very fabric of reality, the plain ol truth of the way things are, was caught up in the very same thing that they were – justice, healing, and love. Their vision of the world was one that defied expectations and lent them a confidence that achieving their goal was, in a very real way, inevitable.

Dr. King was reiterating the same core point that Jesus was sharing with Peter – in order to make the distance, in order to walk rather than sink into fear or anger, in order to do the work of living with intention and dignity in the face of the incredible storms that rage all around us, in order to do that, we have to see that the world is so much bigger than fear might lead us to think. We have to see that while battles can be won or lost, faith operates according to an entirely different logic.

With faith that the world bends toward justice, with faith that God will reach out and grab us when we’re starting to sink, with faith that we can stand on top of the waves rather than get swallowed up in them, that is the only thing that will take us through. That kind of faith is bigger than a person. It’s bigger than a court. It’s bigger than a treatment plan or a solution, bigger than a politician or an idol. That kind of faith is about stepping into a world that loves us, that holds us, that carries us in our walk, no matter what stumbling blocks we may encounter along the way. That kind of faith says to a chubby pre-teen: there is a vision of the world that loves you even if it takes you 22 minutes to run a mile rather than just 10; there is a vision of the world in which sickness and death are not things you battle but realities you learn how to hold. There is a vision of the world, in which you don’t have to get angry and try to do it all on your own.

We’ve got a long journey ahead of us, friends. We’ve got problems, personal and global. Problems with our country, problems with our bodies, problems with our building. Problems that are so big and so deep, we may not know what to do or even where to begin. We may feel scared and yes, we may feel rage. But, the truth is, neither fear nor anger are going to sustain us for this journey. This journey’s too long; the road is too hilly; the storms are too fierce. What’s going to help us keep going, what’s going to help us get out of the boat and step into uncertainty, what’s going to help us travel the distance of the universe’s long moral arc, what’s going to help us in our fear and our grief and our anxiety, what’s going to help us make it—is a vision. What’s going to help us is a vision of the world, rooted in faith and repeated throughout history, that has enabled human beings to do incredible things. It’s a vision that defies expectations and makes room for miracles. It’s a vision that focuses on the path rather than the storm. It’s a vision that will help us to walk rather than sink.

Let us be together, friends, and let us envision with hope, courage, and faith.

Amen.


Tony Coleman is an associate pastor at First Congregational Church of Memphis (aka First Congo). He grew up in a bi-racial, working-class family that called several Memphis neighborhoods home. After high school, however, he moved to the Northeast for college and graduate school. Tony is passionate about writing, art, and creativity – and how all of these can facilitate and sustain social change. He has been published in the Christian Century and various online magazines including Conversation X. In addition to matters of faith and the spirit, Tony writes and thinks about food, particularly baking and eating it.

The Young Crusaders: The Untold Story Of The Children And Teenagers Who Galvanized The Civil Rights Movement

By B.P. Franklin

Book published by Beacon Press, Boston, MA, Winter 2021

This post is part of our series on the 2021 Hooks National Book Award Finalists.

Some of the most iconic images of the Civil Rights Movement are those of young people engaged in social activism: The Little Rock Nine being escorted into Central High School in 1957 by soldiers—or children and teenagers being attacked in 1963 by police in Birmingham with dogs and water hoses. While the contributions of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., the NAACP, and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee have been well chronicled, the crucial roles of children and teens are now placed at the forefront in The Young Crusaders.

V.P. Franklin delivers a thorough reexamination of the efforts of children and teenagers to challenge legal segregation, employment discrimination, educational inequality, and racialized violence beginning in the 1930s. His groundbreaking narratives draw on examples in nearly fifty cities and fifteen states, from Alabama to Wisconsin. Franklin details the student activism behind the successful civil rights campaigns that brought about the end of Jim Crow practices throughout the nation.

For instance, the largest civil rights demonstration in US history was not the famous “March on Washington” in August 1963, but the system-wide school boycott in New York City on February 3, 1964, when over 360,000 elementary and secondary school students went on strike and thousands attended Freedom Schools.  Multiracial community groups organized the school boycotts in New York, Chicago, Cleveland, and other cities, and African American, Puerto Rican, and white students participated, calling for the desegregation of public and private education and public accommodations. In addition, children and teenagers mounted their own walkouts, marches, and civil rights demonstrations demanding “Freedom Now.”

This account of the courageous actions of these unheralded young people fundamentally transforms how we understand the Civil Rights and Black Power Movements and serves as a playbook for youth-oriented protest movements such as The Climate Strike, March For Our Lives, and Black Lives Matter, reigniting in the twenty-first century the next wave of social and political activism.


About the Author
V. P. Franklin is Distinguished Professor Emeritus of History and Education at the University of California, Riverside. Between 2001 and 2018 he served as the Editor of the award-winning Journal of African American History and is the author or co-editor of many books including Living Our Stories, Telling Our Truths: Autobiography and the Making of the African American Intellectual Tradition, and Sisters in the Struggle: African American Women in the Civil Rights-Black Power Movement.

The Citizenship Education Program and Black Women’s Political Culture | Hooks National Book Award Finalist

This post is part of our series on the 2021 Hooks National Book Award finalists, written by the authors.

By Deanna M. Gillespie

The Citizenship Education Program and Black Women’s Political Culture retells the story of the civil rights movement to foreground southern Black women’s formal and informal networks.  From 1957 to 1972, the CEP empowered thousands of Black women to teach their friends and neighbors to read and write.  This was subversive work in the Jim Crow South.  Literacy skills shifted the balance of power because literate Black people gathered information, registered formal complaints, demanded equal treatment, signed their names, and they stood in front of white county clerks and took the literacy test required for voter registration.  Across the South, Black women organized CEP classes in church halls, community centers, living rooms, and beauty salons. These makeshift classrooms were incubators for collective action.  Gathering twice a week for three months, local people organized to address long-standing inequities in social welfare and community well-being, affordable and accessible health care, equality and justice, education, and criminal justice reform.

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Black women taught CEP classes because it was familiar work.  It was “women’s work.”  In segregated all-Black schools designed to teach racial inferiority, Black teachers told and retold stories of resistance and achievement.  In local communities, mothers, grandmothers, aunts, and neighbors guided children safely through Jim Crow’s unforgiving rules.  They taught the Bible on Sunday mornings and carried the message through the week.  Theirs was – and is – a political culture built on family and community, constant struggle, and the unshakable belief in human dignity and a just and better day.

Organized into four case studies, the book traces the CEP’s evolution from its beginnings on the South Carolina Sea Islands, to expansion into Savannah and southeastern Georgia, out to Mississippi, and back to Selma and Alabama’s Black Belt.  In the final chapter, I examine the program’s decline after 1965, a reminder of how quickly pieces can scatter when political winds shift.  By the time the CEP ended in 1972, the program had trained over two thousand local leaders who organized 7280 classes, reaching over 26,000 people. As teachers and students fanned out, they influenced an estimated 95,000 people to register and to vote.

The CEP tapped into a deeply-rooted gendered political culture and recent elections provide evidence of its enduring nature.  In Fall 2020, the United States held a presidential election during a global pandemic.  Across the country, voter participation soared through expanded use of mail-in ballots, drop-boxes, and early voting periods.  Grass-roots organizing and mobilization turned reliably-“red” Georgia “blue” for the first time in a generation.  News coverage shined a bright spotlight on Black women’s clubs, organizations, and local leadership.  Likewise, inDecember 2017, headlines announced Democrat Doug Jones’s victory for Alabama’s contested U.S. Senate seat.  Within hours, #BlackWomen trended on social media.  In post-election interviews, these women cited concerns about the future of social welfare programs, health care, education, and criminal justice reform as motivation for political action – the same issues that enlivened CEP classes a generation before.

Flatez Dyson: Success through HAAMI

By Anjali Gahlaut

Headshot Flatez Dyson
Flatez Dyson

The Hooks Institute’s “Where Are They Now?” series explores how the institute has shaped the lives and careers of former alumni. The series uncovers valuable experiences, skills, and lessons that former alumni acquired during their time at Hooks.

Flatez Dyson is an alumnus of the Hooks African American Male Initiative (HAAMI) at the Benjamin L. Hooks Institute for Social Change. HAAMI seeks to enrich the collegiate experience for its members as well as improve graduation rates for African American male undergraduate students at the University of Memphis. Dyson first got involved with HAAMI in 2015 and was a member of the program’s first cohort. He states, “I thought it was a great opportunity to get involved with a program that was greater than myself and be involved with other like-minded individuals.”

During his time with HAAMI, Dyson attended multiple special events where he was able to speak and network with people of various professions. Public speaking is a skill Dyson has integrated into his professional life as a supply chain analyst at Monogram Foods. “Those experiences through HAAMI built up my confidence level in public speaking to where I could speak to individuals at different levels within an organization. At my current job, I report directly to the Chief of Supply Chain, so I have daily conversations with upper management. It [HAAMI] has definitely benefited me and my career in being able to speak boldly and proudly about the things I stand by.”

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In 2016, the Hooks Institute’s annual “Join Hands for Change” gala honored the accomplishments of University of Memphis alumnus Marvin Ellison, who was CEO of JCPenny at the time. As a member of HAAMI, Dyson was able to speak at the gala and have one-on-one conversations with Ellison. Ellison was impressed by HAAMI and invited its members to Dallas, Texas, where they were able to participate in workshops and tour JCPenny’s headquarters. Dyson states, “For me, that trip had a lot of firsts in my career: it was my first time going to Dallas, it was my first time being on a plane, and it was the first time I met someone in a professional role of his caliber that looked like me. That was a very inspirational moment for me.”

HAAMI supports its students towards graduation through academic achievement, career development, and personal development. “HAAMI is a great organization to be a part of if you’re looking to be a part of an organization that really believes in its students, that puts its students first, and really pushes its students to thrive. I feel like it’s very family oriented. The staff and faculty members give you a nudge whenever you need that nudge, but they also give you career advice and parental advice and teach you life lessons. It’s a wonderful program to be a part of.”

About the Author

Anjali Claire Gahlaut graduated from White Station High School in Memphis, Tennessee and is now a rising sophomore and prospective History major at Vassar College in Poughkeepsie, New York. Anjali spent the summer of 2022 as an intern at Hooks and joined the team to gain a deeper understanding of Memphis’ history and its impact on marginalized groups.

Sasha Riedisser: 2022 Young Pro Bono Attorney of the Year

By Anjali Gahlaut

Sasha Riedisser
Sasha Riedisser

The Hooks Institute’s “Where Are They Now?” series explores how the institute has shaped the lives and careers of former alumni. The series uncovers valuable experiences, skills, and lessons that former alumni acquired during their time at Hooks.  

Sasha Riedisser is a Litigation Associate at the Bryan Cave Leighton Paisner (BCLP) law firm in St. Louis, Missouri. In 2022, she was awarded the Hon. John R. Essner Young Lawyer of the Year Award from Legal Services of Eastern Missouri for her pro bono and community engagement work. Riedisser joined the Benjamin L. Hooks Institute for Social Change team when she was assigned as a graduate assistant by the University of Memphis’ English department in 2013. Riedisser states, “When I started, I didn’t know what I was going to be doing or working on. It ended up being a really good fit and a really great project, so I definitely got lucky.”

During her time as a graduate assistant, Riedisser primarily worked on Hooks’ “Tent City” project. Riedisser built the website that outlines the struggles and victories of a grassroots movement in Fayette County, Tennessee. The website also covers multiple civil rights events that took place in Fayette County between 1959 and 1970.

Through Riedisser’s research on Tent City, she learned the importance of listening rather than assuming when identifying the needs of those seeking help. “The people who needed help [in Tent City] were directing the movement, saying ‘these are the resources we need, these are the services we need, and these are the rights we need,’ so I think it’s really important as a lawyer to stop and say, ‘what is the need?’. I learned to ask the people who have the need what they need, and to not assume that I know.” Fayette County is often overlooked when addressing civil rights in the United States. Therefore, the majority of research conducted by Riedisser required extracting information directly from the source through primary documents. “I really needed to dive deep into source material like reading newspapers or going through old letters. It was an experience that I’d never had before—going through a large amount of documents and analyzing them and figuring out what the story is and what happened,” Riedisser explains. As a lawyer, analyzing and piecing together large quantities of documents is a practical skill for Riedisser. “A lot of litigation is getting a large set of documents on your client and figuring out what the story is and what happened. It’s been really helpful to have that background of going back to the source and building your narrative.”

Hear from Sasha Riedisser

Riedisser’s experience at Hooks and working on the Tent City project has expanded her view of not only the Civil Rights Movement, but the world as a whole. She explains, “…as a person of privilege, it’s my job to seek out and figure out what other people go through and what other people’s experiences are. I think that working at Hooks and the experience I had working with the Fayette County project really helped me realize faults in my own thinking and see the world through in a more accurate light”.

About the Author

Anjali Claire Gahlaut graduated from White Station High School in Memphis, Tennessee and is now a rising sophomore and prospective History major at Vassar College in Poughkeepsie, New York. Anjali spent the summer of 2022 as an intern at Hooks and joined the team to gain a deeper understanding of Memphis’ history and its impact on marginalized groups.

Dr. Rebekkah Mulholland: Bridging the Gap

Dr. Rebekkah Mulholland

By Anjali Gahlaut

The Hooks Institute’s “Where Are They Now?” series explores how the institute has shaped the lives and careers of former alumni. The series uncovers valuable experiences, skills, and lessons that former alumni acquired during their time at Hooks.

Dr. Rebekkah Mulholland is a former graduate assistant at the Benjamin L. Hooks Institute for Social Change. Currently, Mulholland is an Assistant Professor of History at California State University at Sacramento, where Mullholland makes a conscious effort to incorporate Memphis history into their curriculum. Muholland states, “Memphis is a part of our conversation when we should talk about the Civil Rights Movement or any aspect of American history because it’s one of those urban cultural centers that’s often overlooked.”

Mulholland first connected with the Hooks Institute while serving as president of the University of Memphis’ Graduate Association for African American History (GAAAH) in 2015.The student organization was searching for financial supporters for their annual international conference. Mulholland states, “My conversation with the Hooks Institute was really good, and they were really interested in the conference we were putting on that year and they were big supporters. So, from that moment on, every year Hooks would be one of our financial supporters and they would come out and attend our panels.” Mulholland continued working with Hooks exclusively through GAAAH until they were made aware of an opportunity to become a graduate assistant. In deciding whether to apply, Mulholland explains, “it was a no-brainer that I wanted to continue that relationship in a different capacity. In 2019, I became the graduate assistant there where I continued to build our relationship”.

During their time as a graduate assistant, one project Mulholland worked on was Hooks’ “Stories to Inspire Change” series on YouTube. Through this series, Muholland got to write and produce short videos detailing various historical figures whose efforts created a more just society. The format of Hooks’ “Stories to Inspire Change” series serves as a blueprint for Mulholland’s students, whose upcoming project is to make a similar short film on a Civil Rights Movement topic. “I mean, they grew up in the age of social media, so any time they can turn the cameras on themselves and put it up on Tik Tok is amazing…I’m going to send their films to our Sacramento History Museum because they want to build their social media presence.” Emphasizing social media and taking the time to build a platform also provides easy access to family, friends, and other community members. Mulholland emphasizes the importance of bridging the gap between the curriculum and the community—something they learned from their time at Hooks.

“One thing I love about Hooks is that they never say they’re giving a voice to the voiceless. They actually go to the community, or they bring the community to the campus, and they listen to them. That’s so important and I think it’s just a wonderful thing to be a part of. I’m so happy I got that opportunity.” Mulholland continues this in California by continuously working on projects in the community as well as bringing community members to campus and introducing them tot he campus’ community. Mulholland elaborates, “I also make sure that we’re taking our students out to the communities— a lot of which they’ve grown up in. They learn that they grew up around a lot of these stories and that these stories are in their families too. That’s one thing Hooks really taught me and one thing that I’ve taken away and I truly appreciate.”

About the Author

Anjali Claire Gahlaut graduated from White Station High School in Memphis, Tennessee and is now a rising sophomore and prospective History major at Vassar College in Poughkeepsie, New York. Anjali spent the summer 2022 as an intern at Hooks and joined the team to gain a deeper understanding of Memphis’ history and its impact on marginalized groups.

Nathaniel Ball: From History Student to Star Filmmaker – Where Are They Now?

By Anjali Gahlaut

Nathaniel Collins Ball

The Hooks Institute’s “Where Are They Now?” series explores how the institute has shaped the lives and careers of former alumni. The series uncovers valuable experiences, skills, and lessons that former alumni acquired during their time at Hooks.

A familiar face at the Benjamin L. Hooks Institute for Social Change, Nathaniel Ball’s involvement as a graduate student landed him a full-time job with Hooks as Media Initiatives and Program Support (2015) before being promoted to Assistant Director (2021).

In 2013, Ball began working at the Hooks Institute as a graduate student pursuing a master’s degree in History. Ball initially applied to Hooks after receiving an email from the University of Memphis regarding opportunities on campus. “Hooks looked very promising,” Ball explains. “Especially the aspect of creating films, because my undergraduate work was in Film. History and film have always been my two loves.” The Hooks Institute allows their graduate assistants to participate in self-directed projects—specifically within the domains of civil rights and social change. This aspect was especially appealing to Ball, who co-produced a short documentary film titled “The Civil Rights Movement: A Cultural Revolution” as a graduate assistant.

According to Ball, the structure of the Hooks Institute is a beneficial environment for graduate students. “My job [at Hooks] was really the first professional type job that I had. I think the Hooks Institute, as opposed to other graduate internships on campus, is very close to a corporate or an organizational nonprofit structure.” The Hooks Institute teaches its graduate students how to teach, create, and network professionally. Ball states, “I learned how to be a professional. I learned how to network well and how to talk to people. As a graduate student, it was really great to have this environment where I could create and learn outside of my work. I’m very thankful for that.”

Ball accredits his success to both his work at Hooks as well as his mentor, Executive Director Daphene McFerren: “The Hooks Institute has helped me grow as a professional, filmmaker, and creative. In my personal life, it has helped me grow confidence and has helped me see that I can create things that I am proud of. Also, I think Daphene has been a great mentor for me professionally and personally. That sort of mentorship is just invaluable.”

Hear from Nathaniel Ball

The Benjamin L. Hooks Institute for Social Change continues to uplift the Memphis community by funding student success programs such as the Hooks’ African American Male Initiative (HAAMI) and A Seat at the Table (ASAT) and continuing to preserve the history of civil rights. “I really believe that these programs are helping build a better Memphis through education and the attainment of college degrees,” Ball explains, “I believe those who want to see Memphis grow should get involved at Hooks.”

About the Author

Anjali Claire Gahlaut graduated from White Station High School in Memphis, Tennessee and is now a rising sophomore and prospective History major at Vassar College in Poughkeepsie, New York. Anjali spent summer 2022 as an intern at Hooks and joined the team to gain a deeper understanding of Memphis’ history and its impact on marginalized groups.