It is ironic, if not exhausting, that seemingly basic issues, like the right to vote, remain at the forefront of dissension in American life. However, as Coretta Scott King poignantly stated, the struggle for civil rights “is a never-ending process. Freedom is never really won. You earn it and win it in every generation.” When speaking about civil rights, the late Dr. Benjamin L. Hooks would say to young people, “it’s your time now.” The Benjamin L. Hooks Institute for Social Change programming seeks to fulfill the mandate of the civil rights movement and its legacies.
Universities have a profound role in engaging students and communities to encourage rigorous thinking and constructive action to promote racial equality, inclusiveness, and fairness. The Hooks Institute, an interdisciplinary center at the University of Memphis, plays this pivotal role. Our mission is teaching, studying, and promoting civil rights and social change. Our work is vitally important during this critical moment as the nation struggles with race, voting rights, and the increasing marginalization of minorities and the poor. The Institute’s scholarship and community engagement are made possible through the support of the University of Memphis, donors, and grantors. We are grateful for this support.
Held throughout the year, the Hooks Institute lecture series engages local and national thought leaders in the university and greater community to address the legacy of the civil rights movement and its continuing relevance to today. These events are free, open to the public, and available on streaming platforms.
As an outcome of a Policy Paper published by the Institute, the Hooks Institute formed a coalition that included the UofM School of Urban Planning and Policy and community development corporations to assess the impact of rent-to-own purchase agreements. These agreements, often entered by people of color and immigrants, contain draconian terms for renters. In October, working with local real estate attorneys, the Institute and the coalition led training for staff of the City of Memphis, Code Enforcement, on how to identify those in rent-to-purchase agreements, and, if appropriate, refer them for housing counseling. Additionally, in August, the Hooks Institute and UofM faculty trained the staff of a federal agency on the impact of race, poverty, and other disparities on Memphis communities.
The Hooks Institute’s historical narratives on civil rights and social justice include the Fayette County, Tennessee exhibit on voting, a short documentary series on civil rights history in Memphis, titled “Stories to Inspire Change,” and feature-length documentaries, including our upcoming documentary on civil and women’s right activist Ida B. Wells (1862-1931).
Created in 2015, the Hooks African American Male Initiative (HAAMI) focuses on increasing the retention and graduation rates and career readiness of African American males enrolled at the UofM. While the HAAMI programs aid students in achieving personal success, HAAMI also aids Memphis to become a destination for employers seeking a prepared workforce.
Because of the struggle for freedom and civil rights, African Americans, like no other group in American history, have fundamentally changed the nation’s Constitution, its laws, and the trajectory of American history. The beauty that can be found in this struggle is that the gains of the civil rights movement have benefitted all people, making the United States a more just nation.
The future of civil rights remains to be written. We remain optimistic about the future, but this future requires dedication and work from many. At the Hooks Institute, we are focused on ensuring that the struggle for civil rights is never forgotten and that its gains are sustained and nurtured for generations to come.
Daphene R. McFerren
Executive Director of the Benjamin L. Hooks Institute for Social Change
This article was originally posted by the University of Memphis Alumni Association. Read the original article through this link.
November 3, 2020. My family and I were up at 6 in the morning and at the polls by 6:20 A.M. It was about 34 degrees, so we sat outside of Lewisburg High School in lawn chairs with hoodies and coffee. There were at least twelve people in line when we arrived at the school. I remember setting my alarm the night before, feeling worried that the line would be long. We waited for about thirty minutes before they opened the school. We all started filing in and soon the halls were lined with voters. The wait was reasonable, but the lines extended outside and wrapped around the school because we were all standing six feet apart. We did, however, discuss the Mississippi flag and the medical marijuana amendments on the ballot. Filling out my ballot took about as long as it took us to brew our coffee that morning, no more than five minutes.
I decided I would skip the sensationalism and hype and wait until the morning to hear the results. Of course, things did not happen that way.
Being a young voter, I did not vote because of taxes, medical insurance, or salary gaps. I didn’t know the first thing about tax cuts or universal healthcare (until I volunteered with a local campaign). What prompted me to vote was education. Seeing the implicit bias towards black students prompted me to reflect on more than just the current President’s policies. I considered how bias and local elections play a large part in the academic experiences and development of our youth.
A common feeling that most Generation Z Voters in the South share is discouragement from what local and state elections are like in red states. Oftentimes, voters do not realize just how much power local elections hold over their communities, infrastructure, and schools. It is important for young voters to know their resources early on that they can use to research candidates and their policies for local and national elections.
We have to be sure young people have the means and the incentive to vote, such as transportation. During casual discussions among my peers at The University of Memphis about how voting can be more accessible for students, most of my peers said that not having a ride to the polls was a common issue. Another issue was out-of-state students not being able to get home during school to vote. Then there is the matter of incentive to vote. In the time of police killings, young people are starting to question the American criminal justice system. People do not believe that voting has any direct effect on police brutality. In actuality, voting for local offices like District Attorney and Prosecutor is significant when it comes to justice for police-involved killings. Hosting virtual events aimed at educating youth about elections and politics is a great way to engage young voters. Another great way to engage young voters is to give them a platform and show that you value their voice. This can be done with panels, mentorships, and internships.
I got my start in civic engagement and social justice advocacy by launching a petition to implement ethnic hair into the cosmetology curriculum of Shelby County Schools. Voting is important, no doubt, but it is not the only means of civic engagement and social justice that youth can take part in. For instance, I joined Pumps and Politics 901 as Executive Director two years ago. Pumps and Politics is a youth-led, nonpartisan political organization geared towards involving young women in the political process and encouraging civic engagement. This organization was founded by award-winning activist and Memphis native, Marissa Pittman. My work with Pumps and Politics 901 allowed me to connect with other young women of color interested in mostly civic engagement and activism. Generally, most young activists are forced to organize and speak among themselves. While I have never referred to myself as an activist, I try to recognize the work of others while I speak up and advocate for social change and justice. There are certain barriers to youth activism. Sometimes it is hard to dedicate copious amounts of time to something that does not pay, though I do not think this should allow you to lose sight of what is truly important.
Seven million young people voted in this election, that is incredible! However, our work does not end with voting. Young people need to continue organizing and speaking. We need to continue learning and growing into the leaders we have always admired in our communities. If there is a change you see that needs to take place, do not wait until you have a degree or a title. Act now, speak now. Your voice is just as valid as everyone else’s at the table. Whether you bring fresh ideas or carry the torch handed down to you, your work and your courage is necessary.
Over the last two weeks, many people, both black and white, have contacted me expressing their outrage over the murder of George Floyd on May 25, 2020 by the police asking “What can I do? Where do we start to fix this problem?” They, like me, know that police brutality and racism are not just a Black people’s problem; it’s an American problem, which makes it a white people’s problem too.
I commend the protestors who are demanding justice for George Floyd and other African Americans who were murdered at the hands of the police. However, we must prepare to relieve protestors, who can’t stay on the frontlines of street demonstrations indefinitely, with sustained action to transform policing and racist practices in America. What can you do?
Learn with an open mind: Educate yourself and your children about the origins of American racism, focusing on how slavery, the civil war, the civil rights movement and the #BlackLivesMatter movement, among others, have been efforts to perfect the America’s political, legal and social system from the vestiges of slavery and continued racism. There are numerous online resources that provide accurate and accessible information. This education is especially critical in white communities where individuals do not confront racist practices in policing and other areas of daily life.
Grow where you are planted: Start consistent and ongoing conversations with people within your sphere of influence, such as the workplace, church, temple, country club, fraternity or sorority, neighborhood association, golfing group, book club, etc., about what each of you can do to make a positive difference in addressing policing and other community problems that arise because of race. Be courageous enough to hold yourself accountable, speak up, and hold people in your networks and circles accountable for their words, actions, and even silence.
Donate: Many organizations, including the Hooks Institute, work toward a mission to uplift communities of color and the poor. Your donated dollars will support work taking place every day for justice and equality.
Vote: Racism has no place in local, state or national politics. It’s not a liberal, moderate or conservative thing. Racism is a lack of character thing. Character must come before the elected office.
Meet with your elected officials: City, County, and Congressional leaders serve us. Demand an accounting of their efforts to address police reform and systemic racial bias against Black and brown people.
Prepare for a marathon, not a sprint: Although Mr. Floyd was physically killed by the four Minneapolis police officers, the officers’ conduct is connected to an historical backdrop of customs and practices that have injured and suppressed advancement of Black people for centuries. This backdrop makes it a Herculean task to accomplish systemic changes. Movements for racial equality and justice are, therefore, never swift but morally and ethically imperative.
The horrific murder of George Floyd is a call to action by each of us to end police brutality and racism. Only in this way, can African Americans and other brown people enjoy life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness – a promised made to each us in the Declaration of Independence and by the U.S. Constitution. We the People have work to do. Please get started. Now.
Daphene R. McFerren is the executive director of the Benjamin L. Hooks Institute for Social Change at the University of Memphis.
To support the Hooks Institute’s mission of teaching, studying and promoting civil rights and social change visit memphis.edu/benhooks/donate.
By Rebekkah Yisrael Mulholland PhD Candidate, History Department. University of Memphis
Recently, while going through some stuff in my closet, I came across a note a friend wrote for me back in 2010 as we wrapped up our study abroad trip in South Africa. She wrote many humbling and beautiful things in this note. One of the things that stood out to me was her referring to me as a strong (black) woman. As I read that line, I wondered what led to her defining me in such a way. I read that note, particularly that line, repeatedly. As I did so, I thought back to where I was mentally. The year 2010 started out on a strong note. I was accepted into graduate school to obtain a Master’s in Humanities with a concentration in African and African American Studies. In February of that year, I decided to study abroad in South Africa. In June, we began preparing for our July departure. One Friday night in June, I almost passed out in the shower, which caused to me freak out. I thought I was dying. My head was spinning, my heart racing, and my body became too heavy to hold up.
The following Monday morning, I went to Student Health Services on campus to see what was up. I had very low blood counts. As it turned out, I was severely anemic. This not knowing what was going on with my body, led to the next two and a half years of anxiety and panic attacks. During this time, I had daily anxiety and/or panic attacks. I found myself staying in my apartment out of fear that I would have an attack in public. I limited my outside travels to going to class, work, and occasional outings with friends. If it had not been for school, I may have suffered a lot more than I did. Graduate school was a great experience for me. On the outside, I was cool as a cucumber, on the inside, I was suffering. At home, I was suffering by myself and in silence. I remember telling my mother a little bit of the things I was going through. Late one night, I called her because I was having shooting pains in my right arm. I knew it was not a heart attack, but the pain was enough to scare me. Therefore, she drove from her home in Cincinnati to Dayton where I was living and attending school to take me to the ER. While waiting to be seen, my mother handed me an article and said to me, “Here read this. This sounds like you.” The first line of the article read, “I feel like I am dying.” This did sound like me. At the time, I felt and even said this line at least twice a day. The article was about Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD). I was suffering from GAD. Really, just from almost passing out in my shower late one night about roughly four months before reading this article? This experience goes against the image and definition of the strong black woman or does it?
In a BuzzFeed article, “It’s Time to Say Goodbye to TV’s Strong Black Woman” by Nichole Perkins, this archetype is defined as a woman “who can take on the world with no thought of their own needs, without emotion, and without complaint.” This image of black womanhood puzzles me. While this superhero image of black womanhood is supposed to be a compliment, why do we have to suppress our emotions, neglect our needs, and suck up how we feel in order to not appear weak? In order to be what we need to be for others, how does neglecting ourselves help? This archetype is supposed to re-imagine and re-define black womanhood in the place of the negative stereotypes that have been the perceptions of black womanhood. While this model of black womanhood is supposed to be a compliment, it is dangerous as it causes black women to suffer in silence as we are thought to be superwomen.
What I mean by this archetype being dangerous for black women are the psychological affects it has on us. Within the black community, mental health is not a topic that is discussed, and therapy is not an option for many for various reasons. Within the community, mental health tends to be stigmatized and most would say that going to church would solve all problems. Among black women, depression is one of those unspoken dangers. When it comes to the mental health of adolescent girls, no one talks about the black girls who suffer from eating disorders, cutting, and depression. Being a historian, I do trace these behaviors back to slavery when our many great grandmothers were supposed to suppress their feelings. They were physically and mentally brutalized and forced to keep such incidents to themselves and keep moving along. While the times may have changed, people’s attitudes about how we are to handle our mental (in)stabilities are often handled the same way, “keep it to yourself,” “don’t tell nobody,” “just don’t think about it,” and “you’re too strong to let that get you down.” These sayings are dangerous and detrimental to our health. We should not and do not have to suffer in silence.
One of the most important things black women can do for themselves is learn self-care techniques. For me, the most important is therapy. The importance of having someone to talk to without a sermon or judgment cannot be stressed enough. It is my hope that as students make the decision to attend the University of Memphis that they are made aware of the Counseling Center and the Relaxation Zone on campus. Taking on the responsibility of balancing adulthood, coursework, and social lives makes a healthy mental state crucial to overall health and academic success. The center is a place for everyone. It is a safe space.
Rebekkah Mulholland is a Doctoral Candidate, currently pursuing a PhD in History at the U of M. Her interests are 19th and 20th century African-American history with an emphasis on black transgender women and gender nonconforming women of color within the Civil Rights, Black Power, and Trans Liberation Movements as well as in the era of mass incarceration. Rebekkah was the president of the Graduate Association for African-American History (GAAAH) at the UofM. She is assisting the Hooks Institute on several projects such as the Benjamin Hooks Papers Digitization Project and the 2019 National Book Award.
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.
In the Democratic presidential debate on June 27, 2019 the issue of busing, for school integration, was raised. The morning following the debate, Good Morning America reported that during the debate, there was a spike in tweets about busing. There were, likely, tweets both in favor of and against busing. I had a personal reaction to the issue because I, too, was a little girl who was bused to school for the purpose of integration.
As a first grader in September of 1967, I was among the third class of students to participate in the Urban-Suburban Interdistrict Transfer Program in Rochester, New York. In 1963, The New York State Commissioner of Education asked school districts statewide to report on racial imbalance in their schools and to develop a plan to reduce the imbalance. While most districts reported that racial imbalance was not a problem in their schools, the West Irondequoit School District, which had very few minority students, decided it wanted to give its students opportunities for cross-cultural interactions. In February of 1965, the West Irondequoit School District Board unanimously passed a resolution to voluntarily welcome minority students from the Rochester Public School System. The New York State Department of Education provided program funding for the first 24 first grade students to enroll in West Irondequoit schools in September of 1965. My sister was among that first group. Thus, began the first voluntary busing program in the United States.
The Urban-Suburban program was voluntary on two fronts: school districts voluntarily voted to participate, and Rochester City Schools parents voluntarily chose to participate in the program. All was not perfect when those first students arrived on buses in West Irondequoit. While the school board was committed to the value of intercultural interactions, there were, not surprisingly, some residents who were not as welcoming. The Urban-Suburban parents were prepared, however. Mothers took time off work to ride the buses with their children. Disturbances such as rock throwing at the buses soon disappeared and the educational experiment was underway.
The Urban-Suburban program implemented several special strategies to help make our time as “educational residents” of Irondequoit a positive experience. Mothers of resident students were asked to volunteer to be room mothers for those of us who were bused to the school. I recall that most of my Irondequoit friends’ mothers were stay-at-home mothers, while the mothers of those of us who were bused worked outside of the home. That meant that if something happened to us during the school day, it wasn’t easy for them to come to the school That’s where the room mothers stepped in. From first grade through fourth grade, my room mother was Mrs. Maley, the mother of my new friend, Linda Maley. I loved Mrs. Maley and the Maley family. In fact, after I discovered that if I forgot my lunch, I would get to walk home with Linda to have a freshly prepared lunch made and set out lovingly by Mrs. Maley, I started to “forget” my lunch on purpose! In elementary school, when we wanted to participate in after school activities such as Brownies and Girl Scouts, there were friends who welcomed us into their homes until our parents could pick us up after work. Mary Lynne Barker, to whom I assigned the nickname “Favorite”, in first grade was that friend for me. In high school, the Urban-Suburban program provided an early bus and late bus that enable us to participate in activities such as band and sports teams. We had sleepovers and attended birthday parties at our Irondequoit friends’ homes. Many of my Irondequoit friends ventured “into the city” to attend my 9th birthday party.
In the teen years, however, there were some socialization limitations. White teens and African American teens had different interests, listened to different music, and had different thoughts about social issues of the times. I had my white “school friends” and my African American “neighborhood friends”. In school I felt some isolation when, because of the small number of African American students in each cohort, I was usually the only African American in each of my classes and in activities like band and the National Honor Society. I looked forward to lunch time when I would get to interact with other African American students.
Even as a child, I knew that being in Urban-Suburban was a great opportunity. When I was in middle school, I was asked to participate in a group of African American and white students created by the Urban-Suburban program to speak to school districts who had not yet joined the program. We discussed how our friendships and experiences in Urban-Suburban gave us opportunities for cross-cultural learning and understanding. Irondequoit resident parents and parents of bused students were included in the discussion as the Urban-Suburban program evolved. Today, a parent advisory council still exists.
Participating in the Urban-Suburban program fostered in me a strong willingness and ability to have positive relationships with people of diverse ethnicities, nationalities and backgrounds. Having the experience of friendships with children of other races gave me a natural desire to respect and develop an understanding of differences. I recall being very excited when, in high school, we had an exchange program with, predominantly, Hispanic students from a city high school. As a student at the University of Memphis, I naturally, became friends with white students and international students. While I joined organizations that were comprised of, primarily, African American students, once again, I also found myself one of only a few African American students in organizations in which most of students were white. Because of my Urban-Suburban experience, I continue to embrace the value of friendships and experiences with a diverse spectrum of people. I also embrace the opportunity to talk about issues of race, whether it’s with friends, in the workplace, in public forums, etc. As associate director of the Benjamin L. Hooks Institute for Social Change, I spend each day fulfilling the Institute’s mission of teaching, studying and promoting civil rights and social change.
From my experience, and that of my three sisters, all of whom participated in Urban-Suburban, the busing experiment worked. We received an exceptional education attending West Irondequoit schools from first grade through twelfth grade. We had close friendships with white students who were with us through high school graduation, several of whom I’m still in touch with. The key was the program’s voluntary foundation, the support of the New York State Department of Education and the extra efforts made by the program, the school district and teachers and staff in the schools. They were committed to Urban-Suburban being a positive experience for everyone. The expansion of the program, to include additional suburban districts since 1965, hasn’t been without detractors. Even in the last ten years, some suburban residents have resisted their school districts approving participation in the program. Nevertheless, I am pleased that the Urban-Suburban program is still thriving as a voluntary busing program, committed to educational equity.
Rorie Trammel is the associate director of the Benjamin L. Hooks Institute for Social Change. Trammel plays an integral role in the activities of the Hooks Institute including administrative and operations duties, fundraising and donor relations, and coordination of the Institute’s National Book Award. Trammel, also, oversees strategic planning and implementation of the Hooks African American Male Initiative (HAAMI). She earned her bachelor’s and master’s degrees from the University of Memphis (UofM). She is also a former UofM employee, having worked in the Office of Development for fourteen years. Rorie worked for the YMCA of Memphis & the Mid-South for fourteen and a half years, first as executive director of urban programming and later as vice president for advancement. For many years, Rorie could be heard as a volunteer radio reader for WYPL, the radio station at the Benjamin L. Hooks Central Library. She is a member of the New Memphis Institute and, previously, served on the boards of directors for Partners in Public Education (PIPE), the Association of Fundraising Professionals, Le Bonheur Center for Children and Parents, and the Shelby Farms Park Conservancy.
Innocent until proven guilty. Does this well-known statement ring true within Memphis and Shelby County? Are people involved in the criminal legal system treated humanely and respectfully? A program for everyday people to observe happenings in the courtroom, Court Watch uncovers both justice and injustice. It is in place to promote transparency and accountability with elected officials; participate as members of the community; collect narratives; and uncover gender, racial, and other demographic disparities within the court system.
A day in the life of a Court Watcher in Memphis. Ascend 201 Poplar through the court side. Join the public line to enter the building. Some people may be showing up for their court dates, others may be lawyers, others may even be Court Watchers. Don’t forget to take out your phone and keys before going through the metal detector. Descend down the vast, open staircase to the dungeon of courts. Wonder how people with disabilities enter the building. Observe surroundings and see hundreds of Black and Brown bodies sitting, talking, thinking. Wonder why most White folks are dressed in formal attire—oh, they must be the lawyers. Wave hello to your group of Court Watchers with apparent white “Just City Court Watch” buttons. It’s time to go in.
Enter the courtroom. We are told that some judges dislike our presence in the courtroom while some don’t mind us being there. Our placement in the courtroom oftentimes depends on this. “Can you hear what the judge/defendant/lawyers are saying?” Court Watchers ask one another. We try to grasp as much information we can about the cases: appearance of race and gender, charge, can/cannot make bail, any loved ones present, behavior of legal staff, and other notes we may find apparent. Then we reconvene after watching to talk about important things we noticed or things that caught our eye. This reconvening is one of my favorite parts of Court Watch because we hear other perspectives and see the courtroom through another’s eyes.
As Court Watchers, it is our role to take notes on what we see in the courtroom—the good and the bad. Court Watchers are taught—through training and observing—about the processes of court from arraignment to trial and about the importance of this work. Run by Just City, a nonprofit in Memphis that does work to create a smaller, fairer, more humane criminal justice system, this program is based on similar programs across the United States where people build accountability, foster community participation, and collect narratives within the court system. Not only does this program allow the public to be involved in the everyday happenings of the court, but it also provides a way to learn more about how the system of crime and courts works in the Memphis and Shelby County area. Having up close encounters with defendants, public defenders, prosecutors, private attorneys, judges, public officials, and defendants’ loved ones, this opportunity has yielded an immense amount of growth in learning about the ins and outs of our criminal legal system.
Oftentimes one of the most forgotten about and marginalized groups of society are those involved with the criminal legal system. As community members, we can show that we care and that we have not forgotten about this population by using our power vocally, visually, and presently. Just by being in the courtroom, it shows that the community cares about what happens behind closed doors—whether they be doors of a jail cell or doors of a courtroom. Using our power of presence, we can show that we are listening, we want to end criminalization of poverty, and we want to see transparency and accountability in our criminal legal system.
After every Court Watch shift, we as Court Watchers are able to walk freely out of that dungeon while many folks in there do not have the same luxury. Court Watch raises this awareness and opens the legal system up to those who may not otherwise know the inner workings of the system, instead of leaving it up to the marginalized, arrested, convicted, and legal professionals. Building community around this is crucial to gaining widespread awareness of justice and injustice and creating a more equitable and efficient system. In hopes to alter the criminal legal system on a path to justice and equity, Just City will publish their Court Watch blog and propose strategies to state government and lawmakers. Using our power as Court Watchers and community members, this awareness can lead to questioning of the status quo in hopes to change the future of what the criminal justice system may look like.
Lulu Abdun is a volunteer at the Benjamin L. Hooks Institute for Social Change and a recent graduate of Miami University (Ohio) where she earned a Bachelor of Arts in Psychology and Black World Studies with a minor in Linguistics. Born and raised in Memphis, TN, she returned home post-grad and has been involved in community-based projects—mostly with local nonprofits—and a computer programming course. A lifelong learner, she enjoys traveling; reading; and learning about social justice/reform, human rights, the criminal legal system, and interfaith work.
The Hooks Institute’s blog is intended to create a space for discussions on contemporary and historical civil rights issues. The opinions expressed by Hooks Institute contributors are the opinions of the contributors themselves, and they do not necessarily reflect the position of the Benjamin L. Hooks Institute for Social Change or The University of Memphis.
It is my philosophy as an artist that EVERYONE HAS A STORY TO TELL AND A STORY TO HEAR. Working on the Uplift the Vote exhibit and telling the story of Fayette County and Tent City was an education and a privilege. Rarely do artists get to see the continued impact of their work, and yet, in this case, I did.
I had to do maintenance on the exhibit weekly, so I would work quietly to one side while also being able to watch the interaction of the public with the tent. Occasionally I would see students stop and scan the panels on the exhibit, often while listening to their earbuds. Slowly the buds would come off, and the music would be stopped as the students were drawn farther into the narrative. Often the phone shifted purpose from music to camera, and the students would take pictures of the panels or specific images. A few times I even witnessed a student pulling their friends into the exhibit, excitedly pointing out a person in a photo: “I know her!” I would hear. Either way, in that moment, history had become REAL. Tangible. Familiar. This was and is where history and contemporary issues meet.
We need to know the value of our vote and the costs associated with it. We cannot take it for granted. That is why I am so thrilled that the Uplift the Vote exhibit is currently being hosted by the Fayette County Public Schools. On display in one of the local schools, the children and grandchildren of these activists and those who opposed them will be able to study the movement and see documentation of the historic impact of the actions of their elders. The community at large will be able to come and reflect on the challenges of their past and how it relates to the issues of present day. As for me, I am looking forward to once again being a witness to the impact of the work.
Exhibit, “Uplift the Vote: Everybody Should Have A Voting Story”
Fayette County Public Schools Central Administration Building,10425 Hwy 76 S. Somerville, TN 38068
February 7 – March 7, 2019, Monday through Friday from 12 pm to 4 pm. The exhibit will be open on the following Saturdays: February 9, and 16, and March 2, 2019, 10 am to 2 pm.
The Benjamin L. Hooks Institute for Social Change at the University of Memphis and Fayette County Public Schools, Somerville, Tennessee invites you to experience “Uplift the Vote: Everyone Should Have a Voting Story,” a dual exhibit on the importance of our most basic civil right – the right to vote. Explore through photographs, documents and reflections, how African Americans’ demand for the right to vote in Fayette County, Tenn., in 1959 changed the lives of activists, the community and the nation through the exhibit. Then, prepare yourself for your own civic participation and learn how to register to vote in Tennessee. This exhibit is intended to educate and encourage citizens to exercise the right to vote, hard-won by African Americans and others.
“Memphis had African Americans who refused to be silent although their lives might have been threatened. […] There was always this sense of strength and empowerment, um, in the lives and on the minds of African Americans here in Memphis.”
Beverly Robertson, Greater Memphis Chamber interim CEO
“Something is happening in Memphis. Something is happening in our world.” Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s words have continued to echo throughout Memphis since 1968. Activism is still alive in Memphis and has gone from picket signs to hashtags.
In Once More at the River: From MLK to BLM, about 20 local activists and officials reflect on the past fifty years in Memphis, discussing the impact of both activism and the city’s history on the lives of African Americans today.
The one-hour film will premiere on Tuesday, January 22, 2019, 6:30 p.m., in the theatre of the University Center.
One unique aspect of the documentary is that it was completed thanks to the involvement of University of Memphis students. They conducted the majority of the oral history interviews featured in the film, and a few of them have also been involved with the production of the documentary itself.
The production of the film started as the city celebrated the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. for the 50th anniversary of his assassination. Our students took two special-topics courses, in different disciplines, to explore how the local movements for civil rights and social justice have evolved since the 1960s. A history class in Fall 2017, Memphis and the Movement, provided students with the deep context to ask the right questions and find the best answers, and the Spring 2018 journalism course, Reporting Social Justice, provided training in oral history interviewing techniques.
Our students interviewed about a dozen local activists in Spring 2018. Thanks to a grant from the University of Memphis, we were able to fund student worker and graduate assistant positions for Summer and Fall 2018, which allowed us to conduct even more interviews. Overall, we interviewed about 30 local activists of all ages about their personal experience in the civil rights and social justice movements that have shaped our city.
With more than 25 hours of interview material, selecting the quotes that would make the final cut of a one-hour documentary was no easy feat. Some valued activists and many excellent comments had to be left out for us to reach a concise storyline. In the film, our interviewees explain activism in the city from Dr. King’s assassination to MLK50, the 50th anniversary of his assassination, how activism in Memphis compares to the rest of the US, and what work remains to be done.
A grant from Humanities Tennessee and further support from the Hooks Institute have allowed us to use some professional footage in the documentary, but we have also relied on social media videos, which, as Hooks Institute Executive Director Daphene McFerren says in the film, help “highlight issues, highlight discrimination, address discrimination” in our society.
We are excited to premiere the film at the University of Memphis the day after Martin Luther King Jr. Day, but the film Once More at the River: From MLK to BLM is only one step of an ongoing story. All of our oral history interviews will soon be archived in the National Civil Rights Museum and in the Special Collections Department of the McWherter Library on the University of Memphis campus, and our website includes a discussion board to allow you to make comments, share stories, ask questions, and otherwise participate. We hope to hear from you soon!
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.
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.
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.
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. 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. 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. 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. 
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.
 hooks, bell. 1982. Ain’t I a Woman: Black Women and Feminism. London: Pluto.
 Morrison, Toni. 1970. The Bluest Eye. Holt, Rinehart and Winston.
 Morrison, Toni. 1970. The Bluest Eye. Holt, Rinehart and Winston.
 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