Cordie Cheek, Albert Gooden, Jesse Lee Bond and Elbert Williams are the names of four African American men who were found dead by Tennessee authorities.
Yet, they are only four of countless men, women and children who were murdered on Tennessee soil in the past 150 years because of their race. Many of their murders remain unsolved.
Now, steps are being taken by the Tennessee Historical Justice Coalition to research the events surrounding the deaths of African Americans since the Civil War.
“The fact that it hasn’t been done demonstrates that there is a need,” said attorney Alex Little, a member of the coalition.
In 2016, Congress reauthorized the Emmett Till Unsolved Civil Rights Crime Act of 2007, which allows the Department of Justice and the Federal Bureau of Investigations to investigate and prosecute criminal civil rights violations that led to death and occurred before 1980.
This June, Tennessee lawmakers passed HB1306, a new bill that allowed for the implementation of a Special Joint Legislative Committee, which will investigate civil rights crimes and cold cases that took place in the state.
On Sept. 14, the coalition met at Bone McAllester Norton PLLC, a law firm in downtown Nashville, to discuss the approach that the group will take, as they proceed to bring testimonies from a few of the cold cases before the Special Joint Commission of the Tennessee Legislature.
The Tennessee Historical Justice Coalition is comprised of citizens across the state whose aim is to enlighten the public about injustices that have been buried in the annals of Tennessee’s past. These cases include arson and murder.
Countless victims, such as the four men, met an undeserving, injudicious fate of brutal death and while their cases went cold over the past few decades, their memories have yet to decompose.
Cordie Cheek, 17, was accused of raping a young, white girl in 1935. Cheek, who was indicted and released for a lack of evidence, was kidnapped from his uncle’s home, a few streets from Fisk University in Nashville. His body was found in Maury County, riddled with bullets.
Albert Gooden, 35, was lynched in Tipton County in 1937. He was accused of shooting and killing a white deputy. While being held in custody, six unidentified men kidnapped Gooden, hung him from a bridge and riddled his body with bullets.
Jesse Lee Bond, 21, was castrated and dragged by a car in 1939. The incident, which occurred in Shelby County, is believed to have been the result of an argument between Bond and a local store owner.
Elbert Williams, a founder and secretary for the Haywood County chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), was found dead in the Hatchie River in 1940. His wife viewed his body once it was pulled from the river.
“And when she looked at him she identified, yes, that’s him and she identified what appeared to be two bullet holes in his chest,” said coalition member John Ashworth.
Williams was last seen alive in police custody. Ashworth believes that Williams was the first martyr of the NAACP, preceding Florida organizer Harry T. Moore in 1951.
Politicians, attorneys and academics attended the meeting on Thursday, September 14.
The coalition will survey the state for information about cold cases that occurred between 1862 and 2017. The New Data committee, a subgroup that conducts research, reported that there are 392 cases that will be examined. Information regarding cases that identify living perpetrators will be reviewed by former prosecutors and law enforcement officers to determine the possibility of criminal prosecution.
“Hopefully, the General Assembly will be able to take in the scope of what has happened and help us come up with creative ideas to address it,” Little said.
The coalition also seeks to survey cold cases where religious places of worship, such as churches, synagogues and mosques were targeted for arson or vandalism.
The Civil Rights Cold Case Initiative also includes cases involving institutions, such as the Hattie Cotton Elementary school in Nashville, which was bombed in 1957 after there was a mandate to integrate the student population.
One issue of concern at the meeting was safety. One person said that some of the cases being researched might invite an unfriendly response from descendants of the alleged perpetrators, and possibly from people in communities where the crimes occurred.
This new initiative to reconcile the past will also require the involvement of current state officials.
“You had a period of decades of injustices being allowed to occur with complete impunity,” Little said. “There are people today who not only lived through Jim Crow but through murders that were happening with state sanction.”
Representatives from the coalition said that its objective is to survey civil rights cold cases, prosecute those that are viable, and encourage community reconciliation by bringing awareness to the public.
Jasmine Stansberry is a graduate assistant at the Benjamin L. Hooks Institute for Social Change, currently pursuing a Masters in History at the UofM. Her interests are Twentieth-century African-American history, with an emphasis on the Civil Rights and Black Power movements.
On October 5, 2017, the Hooks Institute released its third edition of its policy papers titled, Bending the Arc Toward Justice: Including the Excluded. This edition focused on the positive impact of immigrants in a small Arkansas town; government policies which create welfare dependency in Oglala Sioux Tribe (South Dakota) and south Memphis, TN; rollback of LGBT gains by the Trump Administration; and the history of Islam and Muslims in America, the distortion of that history, and successful efforts by diverse communities in Memphis, TN to collaborate with the Muslim community. The Hooks Institute hopes that these papers will encourage thoughtful discussion, policy, and action that will sustain and enhance civil and human rights, and social justice for all in our nation. A link to the complete publication is provided at the end of the foreword.
To protect and expand human and civil rights in these perilous times, we must remain vigilant and form alliances with people and organizations across diverse ideological perspectives. On September 5, 2017, as these policy papers were being prepared for publication, the Trump administration ended the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrival (DACA) program created by an executive order from the Obama administration. This program allowed undocumented immigrant children in the United States who had been brought here illegally by others and who had not been convicted of criminal offenses to attend school, work, or serve in the military, and obtain driver licenses without fear of deportation for renewable two-year periods. The reasoning behind DACA was that undocumented immigrant children should not be punished for the actions of others, but rather should be provided opportunities to become contributing members of society.
It is now in the hands of Congress to decide, in what form, if any, DACA continues. While Congress must tackle the complex issue of developing sound and fair immigration legislation for the nation, the manner in which DACA was terminated by the Trump administration evidenced a strong disregard for the welfare of immigrant children who obeyed the laws, pursued educational opportunities, and who have, and are making, significant contributions to the United States.
DACA is only one of many disturbing events in the nation that show racism, if not intolerance, against immigrants, minorities, Jews, and Muslims. This environment has been fueled by the rhetoric and actions of President Trump, white supremacists, and those who know better but remain silent out of fear, or for personal or political gain. We cannot remain silent in the face of these challenges. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. wisely counseled that “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” However, this arc is not going to bend itself. Each of us must work to ensure that justice prevails through our sustained activism and vigilance.
We cannot remain silent in the face of these challenges. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. wisely counseled that “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” However, this arc is not going to bend itself. Each of us must work to ensure that justice prevails through our sustained activism and vigilance.
As we navigate these times, we must also reach across the aisle to engage with people of different political, racial, and ideological views to bridge the great divide that is feeding the growing cancer of mistrust, resentment, racism, and hate in our nation and world. We must work to eliminate racial inequality, bigotry, anti-Semitism, discrimination against immigrants, lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) groups, and to uplift the poor, a group that includes whites, African Americans, and many others. Each of us has a respective sphere of influence that we can activate through educational outreach, community engagement, activism, writing, research, and scholarship or political action.
With this third edition of policy papers, the Benjamin L. Hooks Institute for Social Change at the University of Memphis (UofM) seeks to expand the net of civil and human equality through overviews of complex issues through scholarly research and policy recommendations.
Michael R. Duke (Department of Anthropology, UofM) looks at the challenges and opportunities of immigrants from diverse countries who have settled in the small city of Springdale, Arkansas. These immigrants work in the poultry industry, in jobs that few whites will take. The poultry industry supports this labor force, a bright spot exists for upward mobility of immigrants, and there is greater integration and cultural exchange between immigrants and whites. Springdale, Arkansas represents, to some extent, a success story of immigration in that community.
Peter A. Kindle (Department of Social Work, University of South Dakota) examines how intergenerational poverty and reliance on welfare by the Oglala Sioux Tribe in South Dakota is rooted in historical discrimination and bad government policies. Kindle compares the experiences of these Native Americans with the history of racial, social, and economic oppression of African Americans in the South Memphis. His examination of these two communities shows similarities rooted in historical discrimination and failed government approaches.
Idia B. Thurston (Department of Psychology, UofM) examines both the legal, social, and policy advancements made by the LGBT community, the aggressive challenges underway to undermine these gains, and she proposes initiatives to sustain and support this community.
Finally, Nabil A. Bayakly (Department of World Language and Literature, UofM) provides an in-depth overview of Islam, which embraces peace and love of one’s neighbor. He explores how Islam has been distorted both by terrorist acts and by a lack of understanding in many communities about Islam and the Muslims.
The Hooks Institute hopes that the information provided in these policy papers will encourage community members, activists, individuals, businesses and legislators to examine the issues presented here and to engage in action that is intended to uplift their communities. There is much work to be done, in this nation and abroad, on human and civil rights. As we work to root out injustices, we must, in the words of our namesake, the late Benjamin L. Hooks, “face the future unafraid.”
Daphene R. McFerren, JD
Executive Director Benjamin L. Hooks Institute for Social Change
Elena Delavega, PhD
Associate Director, Benjamin L. Hooks Institute for Social Change
Associate Professor, Department of Social Work
Beginning in 2015, I have worked as a graduate assistant at the Benjamin L. Hooks Institute for Social Change. I have primarily worked as an editor and proofreader on an archival project referred to as the Civil Rights Movement of Fayette County, Tennessee (1959–mid-1970s). This collection of documents, stories, photographs, and correspondences chronicles the challenges African Americans in Fayette County faced while fighting for the right to vote and other basic civil rights. Activist efforts included organizing to access their right to vote in elections, developing strategies to acquire shelter and necessities after white landowners forced African-American sharecroppers out of their homes to live in tents, and advocating for the desegregation of schools in Fayette County, among other things. Together, the various printed and electronic features of this collection capture specific characteristics of grassroots activism in the South during a time of intense racial and socioeconomic strife.
My work with the Hooks Institute began at a critical juncture in my life. In 2015, social media and the news were rife with examples of police brutality and other injustices against marginalized groups. I had become overwhelmed with a sense of powerlessness in response to the wide circulation of audio and video footage depicting graphic violations of civil rights—especially that involving deadly interactions that occurred between law enforcement and black women, men, and children. Beyond my personal stakes in the welfare of minority groups, I, along with many of various backgrounds, seemed to be growing both anxious by and weary of hearing about the emotionally charged topic of injustice. Having been raised several decades after the Civil Rights Movement, I expected the distanced experience I had always enjoyed when studying past civil rights history would, unfortunately, feel far more immersive in such a socially turbulent time for minority groups. As I spoke with family and friends about the work I would soon begin, they, too, were concerned about my emersion into history about past abuses African Americans suffered in Fayette County when I needed to look no further than recent news for current instances of oppression. However, as I began my work at the Hooks Institute, this fear of sinking further into hopelessness was replaced by a passionate commitment to the change I might help to create. This change in perspective was thanks to the inspirational story of the Civil Rights Movement of Fayette County.
It would be easy to reduce my time learning about the movement in Fayette County to a lesson in dates, Martin Luther King Jr’s impact, and the unjust yet historic nature of the time—this narrative is certainly a familiar focus of many educational materials on the 1960s. However, what I found to be powerful, unique, and transformative about the collection was its emphasis on the lived experiences of those who stood up, against the odds, to demand respect for themselves and their constitutional rights. The collection was also unique because it allowed the viewer, through first-hand accounts of the activists, to experience past events in “real time,” to examine how activists felt as events took place. This collection allowed me to go beyond written facts to the “spirit” of ordinary people, who became extraordinary activists in pursuit of equality.
Particularly moving is the collection’s tangible expansion of what defines a true leader. When I learned about the American Civil Rights Movement as a child, civil rights heroes appeared so powerfully eloquent, strategically well dressed, and justifiably revered. Their colossal images shrunk my belief that I could ever do or change anything like they did. What the collection offered me was the insightful perspective that leaders take many forms: leaders include the faces, voices, and bodies of the poor, rural South.
The riveting personal stories and specific details depicted in the collection’s photographs, video clips, and written correspondences offer a unique and boldly honest depiction of Southern activism, as told by various Fayette Countians and Northern allies. Rich, emotionally-complex stories of persistence, sacrifice, and conflicted morality are found in the accounts of those of local leaders, like John McFerren and Harpman Jameson, World War II veterans who provided the early leadership to voter registration efforts; Maggie Mae Horton, an “aggressive” activist who worked to create solidarity among African Americans in her voting district; and Northern civil rights workers who volunteered their time, resources, and like local activists, risked their safety to demand civil rights for African Americans. These and similarly interesting stories demonstrate why the Fayette County movement is so inspirational. In this way, the collection adds to a necessary space in recorded history for black, rural Southerners of the time, whose stories have too often gone untold to the extents that they deserve.
As the civil rights issues described in my work unavoidably infiltrated all parts of my personal life during the campaigning season of the 2016 presidential election, I, like many Americans, felt compelled to reevaluate my understandings of civic duty, leadership, and the self. This would be necessary as I decided how I might orient myself within such a divisive moment in United States history. For guidance, I looked to the courageous individuals who came before me, and they exemplified one thing about change: silence was—and is—no option when in the face of injustice. Journalist and civil and women’s rights activist Ida B. Wells once said, “The way to right wrongs is to turn the light of truth upon them.” Author Zora Neale Hurston warned, “If you are silent about your pain, they’ll kill you and say you enjoyed it.” Wells and Hurston demanded personal responsibility to fight injustices.
While many might believe they can surrender their voice and political agency to a single more charismatic, visible, or wealthy “leader,” the events that unfolded in Fayette County show that ordinary people of all backgrounds can, and have taken, courageous and strategic action to resist discrimination. Of course, we each have limits to our ability and reach, but activism, monumental and small, is the burden and the privilege that everyday people can carry to help ensure the welfare of others.
How, though, do we carry this burden and honor the opportunities our rights afford us? In Fayette County, local African American leaders created the Original Fayette County Welfare League to empower African Americans by helping them to register to vote and creating literacy schools, among other things. In our current cultural moment and everyday lives, everyday activism may look like engaging in difficult conversations about privilege, learning about and attending a protest, diversifying the required readings on a syllabus for an upcoming course, or working to challenge our own biases through committed education. However we define our activist efforts, I have come to believe that committing to personal growth and using our platforms and privileges to create positive change is how our roles as citizens, leaders, and everyday people intersect in the achievable ideal.
Throughout history, the promise of change seemed to flow from an (im)perfect storm of social and economic upheaval. Through these unique moments in time, our greatest progress in furthering civil rights and social justice have taken place. Since I began working with the Hooks Institute, the turbulent social and political landscape of which I was previously afraid has only intensified as we have struggled to engage with one another to discuss issues, such as race relations, gender equality, immigration, gender identity, environmental justice, and many more. Despite this, I—and I hope many in the nation—believe it is imperative to work actively towards a renewed, spirited and tenacious sense of unity to effect meaningful, positive change for each and every one of us. My exploration of the civil rights movement in Fayette County allowed me to situate myself and today’s social and institutional struggles within a legacy of unified and effective resistance to injustice in our nation. This could only occur because, through the collection, it was easy to see, if not myself or a loved one in the faces and stories portrayed, the universal humanity in the textured voices and strong familial ties featured in the collection.
Although I lack answers as to how I, you, or we might do so, the accomplishments of the Civil Rights Movement of Fayette County make it undoubtedly clear that an ability to persist through adversity exists in each of us. As such, I have come to believe that, through our thoughtful, everyday acts of activism, we work to cultivate a world that, rather than drains, invigorates us to want to persist for the call of social justice, regardless of the circumstances thrust upon us.
The Civil Rights Movement of Fayette County collection is in no small part a creation of a passionate and dedicated collaboration. Several Benjamin L. Hooks Institute for Social Change staff members, University of Memphis instructors, staff members of the Preservation and Special Collections Department at the University of Memphis, external scholars, and graduate assistants have devoted a significant amount of time and effort to ensuring the procurement, creation, maintenance, and dissemination of various elements of the project. Additionally, while respectfully crafted and weaved together by Hooks Institute staff and University faculty to present a cohesive narrative, little to none of the collection would exist without the tremendous support of the people of Fayette County who volunteered their time to help tell their stories. This extraordinary example of collaborative writing, community engagement, and committed scholarship stands as a shining example of the Hooks Institute’s mission of “teaching, studying, and promoting civil rights and social change.”
Errol Rivers is a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of English at the University of Memphis. He has served as a graduate assistant at the Benjamin L. Hooks Institute of Social Change from fall 2015 to fall 2017. Rivers is particularly interested in the roles professional and technical writing plays in health-related fields. Other research interests include classical sociological theory, identity studies, implications of pop culture on social politics, and relationships forged between the body and the self.
Race, Representation, and Photography in 19th Century Memphis: from Slavery to Jim Crow, is an in-depth study of African American visual culture and history. Using Victorian era photographs, pictorial illustrations, and engravings from local and national archives, I examine intersections of race and image within the context of early African American community building. The city of Memphis serves as the case study, wherein black agency and photographic images intersect to reveal the hidden history of racialized experiences in the urban south during slavery and freedom following the Civil War. My interdisciplinary research links the social history of photography with the fields of art history, visual culture, critical race studies, gender, and southern studies.
I was inspired by Frederick Douglas, black abolitionist, and pioneering intellectual of the nineteenth-century. Douglas, as the most photographed celebrity of the era, understood the influence of the new visual media to impact people’s thinking. At the height of the Civil War Douglas began to write and lecture about the potential of photography to transform society. He argued that the new technology offered former slaves the power they sought to represent themselves the way they wanted to be seen; with dignity and control over their own lives as free human beings.
The book begins with the story of the slave trade, urban slavery, and the Civil War, telling stories from the perspectives of the enslaved in Memphis. Rare photographs of Catherine Hunt, enslaved as a nursemaid in the Driver-Hunt Phelan antebellum mansion located on Beale Street, enabled the author to focus on the experiences of black women. A tintype of a young teenager named ‘Harry,” owned by one of the largest slave-owners in the region, John Trigg, allowed me to tell the story of freedom through his eyes. A picture of women, men, and children in an area contraband camp helped to tell the story of the thousands who escaped slavery on rural plantations to seek refuge in Union occupied Memphis. By the end of the war the black population in Memphis had swelled to over 16,000.
During Reconstruction freed people in Memphis organized benevolent societies, and shared resources in order to establish churches, schools, businesses, and cemeteries to bury their dead. They secured jobs as “clergyman; brick-molder; farmer; build cisterns; mattress-maker; lumberyard; physician; drayman; grocery keeper; teamster; laborer; fireman; painter; carpenter; coachman; lamp lighter; machinist; steamboat foreman; brickmason; saloon keeper; cotton planter; stock driver; picks cotton; bartender; whitewasher; gardener; foundry molder; hatter; cooper; waiter; cupola-man’ stonecutter; brakeman; sailor; broom maker; and mail gatherer.”
Sacred institutions like ‘Mother Beale,’ Collins Chapel, and Avery Chapel, were among the first churches freed people constructed. They survive to this day. The freedmen school first established as Lincoln Chapel in Camp Shiloh grew into LeMoyne Normal Institute, and finally LeMoyne Owen College. And in 1877 Zion Cemetery was established as a beautiful, park like resting place of fifteen acres along South Parkway in the suburbs of Memphis.
By the 1880s Memphis was a thriving black community with social, educational, and commercial opportunities associated with the excitement of urban living. Although the specter of Jim Crow was looming and political rights eroding, African American leaders held on to political offices through the 1880s. Lymus Wallace served on the city council between 1885 and 1891; Josiah T. Settle became the first assistant attorney general in 1885, and Ed Shaw was wharf master during the early 1880s. Isaac F. Norris and Thomas Cassells were elected to the Tennessee state legislature in 1881. Entrepreneur Robert Church Sr. continued his rise to prominence by expanding his assets in saloons, hotels, and real estate.
Women like Catherine Hunt remained in Memphis, working as a laundress all her life. She joined Beale Street Baptist Church and was a member of the church organization that established Zion Cemetery, where she was buried in 1899. She had the foresight to leave a will, and the few hundred dollars Catherine managed to save was bequeathed to relatives more poor than she. Numerous black women supported their families as seamstresses like Jane Wright, and teachers like Julia Hooks, Virginia Broughton, and Ida B. Wells. The book includes a number of extraordinary photographs representative of black social life in Memphis within the broader context of the Victorian era.
James P. Newton, the first professional black photographer in Memphis opened his studio in 1897on Beale Street, by then the epicenter of the early black community. Photographer-entrepreneurs like Newton, would play an important role in combatting race in America. By the turn of 20th century, scholars like W.E. Dubois were at the vanguard of attacking racial stereotypes, formulating his ideas in theory and practice, into a movement that came to be known as the ‘New Negro.’ Black photographers provided them with the visual weapons, as evidence, to do so, documenting everyday life, and aspirations in the communities to which they also belonged. Their pictures of black beauty, pride, ambition, and success were disseminated in black newspapers, books, journals, and magazines across the nation, and in world fairs and expos abroad in Europe. A mesmerizing visual record of African American history, these early photographs today, inspire contemporary artists in all media. The spoken and written words of Frederick Douglas proved indeed, to be prophetic.
About the Author
Earnestine Jenkins is Professor of Art History in the Department of Art at the University of Memphis.She teaches courses in African American and African Diaspora arts and visual culture. Her areas of research include early African American photographic history, the study of the African diaspora in Europe focused on the relationship between the arts, slavery, colonialism and empire; 19th century Ethiopian manuscripts, African Diaspora cinema, Gender Studies, and the history of blacks in the urban south.
Attorney General Janet Reno died this morning in Miami, Florida, her hometown. I knew Ms. Reno had been ill for over two decades. Having lost close family members after long illnesses myself, I know that the death of a loved one sneaks up on you, and when people you love die, it’s almost as if nobody told you they were ill. It’s a weird thing how the mind copes with loss – this was how I felt this morning.
I had the privilege of being counsel to Janet Reno, with my tenure ending at the end of President Bill Clinton’s administration. Ms. Reno hired me to become one of the seven attorneys who helped manage contacts to the Attorney General from various departments at the Department of Justice (DOJ).
Ms. Reno believed public service was one of our nation’s highest callings. She was committed to making sound moral and legal judgments in the matters that came before her. She managed over some of the most difficult of circumstances: law enforcement’s response to the siege at WACO, Texas; the return of Elian Gonzales to his father and stepmother in Cuba; policing and minority communities; and more.
I traveled with her as part of President Bill Clinton’s delegation to the inauguration of the president of the Dominican Republic. I was frankly surprised and quite amused to learn on that trip that Ms. Reno was quite the celebrity (this was before the Saturday Night Live skit where she played herself). Long before “selfies” became a household word, I saw people in the airport slowly walk up to Ms. Reno (who was sometimes being interviewed by the press), stand sideways, take a photo with her, and slowly ease away. This was comical and I never saw or heard Ms. Reno complain.
Despite her sometimes serious demeanor, Mr. Reno was a hoot in her own right. The public would often call directly the Attorney General’s office to offer advice or criticism of the Attorney General or the DOJ. These calls were assigned to the support staff. However, Ms. Reno would sometimes wander over to a ringing phone and answer “Janet Reno.” You could see the telephone receiver freeze over with the “shock” from the person calling. They never expected to speak directly with the Attorney General of the United States. Both the caller and Ms. Reno were often amused with each other during the call.
My parents’ leadership as civil rights activists cemented in me long before I was seven-years-old that I wanted to be an attorney. However, I did not voluntarily tell Ms. Reno of my parents’ civil rights activism, or that a book, Our Portion of Hell (Hamburger 1973), had been written about my parents’ activism and the struggle for civil rights in Fayette County, Tennessee. I did share this book with a fellow colleague and he, unbeknownst to me, gave the book to Ms. Reno to read.
When I walked into her office one morning, Ms. Reno stood up and announced that she was going to have all of her department heads at the DOJ read Our Portion of Hell. While I should have been flattered, I was horrified that DOJ attorneys would sit around the table in the Attorney General’s conference room and read about my life, and then have a book club discussion about it.
While I was not comfortable being the subject of this book club discussion, I knew that Ms. Reno was trying to make an important point to the DOJ attorneys: she wanted them to know that their work in enforcing the law shaped, created, and changed the lives of millions in the nation. Indeed, in 1959, the Department of Justice sued white landowners in Fayette County under the 1957 Voting Rights Act to prevent them from interfering with African Americans right to vote. The Department of Justice also became a party to the 1965 school desegregation case, John McFerren, Jr. v. Fayette County Board of Education, where my brother served as the named plaintiff in a federal lawsuit to desegregate Fayette County Schools. In her opinion, my parents’ activism and my life experiences represented what the law could achieve in its finest moments. I finally persuaded Ms. Reno that I did not want to be “Exhibit A” for this department lesson and she dropped the idea – reluctantly so.
While I found Ms. Reno to be a very private person, she would reveal the most private details about her family and upbringing in a large crowd. It was apparent to me that she did so to show people she understood their suffering, concerns, and struggles because she was one of them.
In my final motorcade ride with Ms. Reno a few days near the end of President Bill Clinton’s Administration, Ms. Reno asked me about my plans at the end of that administration. I told her I planned to stay in Washington, DC. She sat thinking, while chewing on a pen (as she often did), and stated: “you need to go home!” She continued, “you can spend the best years of your professional life living in Washington, going to the theatre, hanging out with people who went to the same schools you attended, and who are part of the same middle and upper-class circles you will travel in. People are not MADE in Washington they are made in their hometowns. If you are not careful, you will have spent the best years of life having made no contributions to the very community that created you. GO HOME!”
Our communications did not end there. After she left office, I visited Ms. Reno at her home in Miami and attended an awards ceremony honoring her in Washington, DC. Ms. Reno nearly scared a Hooks Institute graduate student to death, by calling the Hooks Institute and stating, “Hello this is Janet Reno, I’d like to speak to Daphene McFerren.” The graduate student came into my office looking stricken and said “JANET RENO IS ON THE LINE! I am convinced Ms. Reno was chuckling on the other end.
Ms. Reno was so special to all who knew her. She lived a life in service to others aspiring to the highest ideals of public service. I will always remember the advice she gave me about making tough decisions: In public life, “you are going to get criticized anyway, so you might as well do the right thing.” Ms. Reno tried to do the right thing as Attorney General of the United States. Equally as important, she cared deeply about and appreciated the people who worked for her and the people she served. I am a lucky and grateful recipient of the gifts of her life.
I will deeply miss my mentor, friend, and former boss, Janet Reno, former Attorney General of the United States.
Daphene R. McFerren
The Benjamin L. Hooks Institute for Social Change
Duty of the Hour, a film on civil rights activist and native Memphian Benjamin L. Hooks, encourages us to ask ourselves, “To what extent are our lives today in the service of advancing a higher good for others?” The documentary chronicles the struggle for civil rights in Memphis and the nation during the 1960s and 1970s through the life of Benjamin Hooks. Hooks’ story demonstrates that civil rights activism is an undertaking not for the weak of heart, but instead a demanding endeavor requiring strong character; an ability to take, and move on from, harsh criticism; strong prayers; and a sense of optimism that universe is on your side.
Benjamin L Hooks and other civil rights activists of the 1960s were under no illusions that the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s would fix hundreds of years of discriminatory practices against African Americans. While they were encouraged by gains of the Civil Rights Movement, they nonetheless remained deeply concerned about the impact of entrenched poverty and racism in American society. “The Poor People’s Campaign,” Dr. Martin Luther King’s grand scale initiative to tackle poverty in America, illustrated the pervasiveness of economic disparities even in the 1960s. Today, as well as then, poverty locks a disproportionate number of African Americans and others in a cycle of economic despair, preventing self-determination and full participation in the life of the community and nation.
CONTINUING THE CIVIL RIGHTS MOVEMENT IN TODAY’S WORLD
While clearly not our “mothers’ and fathers’ Civil Rights Movement,” in many respects the #BlackLivesMatter movement picks up where the Civil Rights Movement left off. The issue of policing in minority communities and the shocking deaths of young African American men in the last few years at the hands of the police, or in the case the death of Trayvon Martin, by a self-pointed vigilante, have rocked African American communities to their core. While #BlackLivesMatter’s most prominent issue has been excessive use, or unnecessary use, of deadly force by the police against African Americans, the movement has begun to challenge systemic issues of poverty, unemployment, and discrimination impacting African Americans. Much like the movement’s predecessors, #BlackLivesMatter challenges the strong fibers of racial inequality that run through the fabric of our nation.
As Duty of the Hour unfolds, it’s clear that Hooks, Democrats, and Republicans, worked to build bridges to ensure more inclusive and just communities. Here too is a lesson’s for today’s leaders. While Duty of the Hour is a historical account of past events, it is also a mirror for self-examination by each of us about our “duty” to create fair and just communities for African Americans, the poor, and others in today’s world. Like the 1960s, the struggles of our time require thoughtful examination, reflection, and action within the spheres of our influence.
While much work remains to be done, Hooks and civil rights activist of his time made it across the bridge to create a more just, but still imperfect, nation. We too have a bridge to cross. Our nation faces a crisis with respect to disproportionate incarceration rates for African Americans, entrenched poverty of both black and whites, and severe class and wealth differences that negatively impact us all. These pressing issues clearly show that we have a rough, unsteady, and difficult bridge to cross. Some, including #BlackLivesMatter, activists, and concerned others have begun the walk over the bridge. Making it across this bridge will not be easy. But again, as history makes clear, it never has been.
THE STORY OF BENJAMIN L. HOOKS
The trajectory of Benjamin L. Hooks’ life, and his impact on Memphis and the nation, could not have been fathomed at the time of his birth. Hooks was born in Memphis in 1925, a time when Jim Crow laws openly condoned segregationist and racist practices. Hooks attended LeMoyne College, now LeMoyne-Owen, and completed law school, aided in large part by the benefits he received from GI bill while serving in World War II. During the war, Hooks realized that the Italian prisoners of war whom he guarded enjoyed greater privileges as white prisoners than Hooks held as a soldier serving his country. Like other African American veterans of World War II, Hooks returned to America a changed man with a resolve to fight racial inequality.
In 1965, former Tennessee Governor Frank G. Clement appointed Hooks to serve as a criminal court judge in Memphis, making Hooks the first African American judge in a court of record in Tennessee’s history. While this appointment was life changing for Hooks, it proved to be a brave and courageous move for a white governor who, by the very act of appointing Hooks, unleashed a fury of hate upon himself from whites and members of the voluntary bar association of Memphis.
Hooks was appointed by to the U.S. Federal Communications Commission (FCC) by President Richard Nixon in 1972. There Hooks fought to protect First Amendment rights even in cases such speech was racially offensive. While at the FCC Hooks worked to increase minority ownership of broadcast media to ensure a diversity of voices in broadcast media.
In 1977, when Hooks became the director of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, Hooks held a national stage where he could advance a civil rights agenda that included combatting poverty, creating jobs and business opportunities for African Americans, and ending apartheid in South Africa. Even after retiring from the NAACP in 1992, Hooks remained a lifetime advocate for racial equality and emphasized the urgent need for African Americans to play a pivotal role in economic life of this country.
Daphene R. McFerren is the executive director of the Benjamin L. Hooks Institute for Social Change. McFerren manages the Hooks Institute’s strategic planning; program creation and implementation; local and national fundraising efforts; and work on behalf of the Hooks Institute staff, faculty, and contractors. McFerren is responsible for creating budgets for Hooks Institute programs and monitoring program expenses to ensure that financial targets are met. She is the primary media contact for the Hooks Institute and has made numerous television and radio appearances to promote its work. McFerren was the executive producer of the film Duty of the Hour, a film about the life of Dr. Benjamin L. Hooks.
The opportunities are great for African-American men on campus. The challenge for many of us whether student or faculty is to take advantage of the paths trudged by our ancestors and elders. We need direction but we sometimes we don’t have it, recognize it, or accept it from other men who look like us. I have had the privilege to mentor African-American male professionals and students for several years now and I frequently reflect on the lessons I have learned. I want to believe and sometimes get feedback related to how my sharing has benefited others, but I am increasingly aware of the value I get by staying connected to other men. The United States can be a cruel and harsh place for black males without guidance. I was fortunate to have my father available to guide me for over fifty years of my life and still at times I went crazy left instead of right.
There are unwritten rules that African-American boys and men learn and use as they move through the world. Successful African-American men understand the rules of the game as they relate to interacting with those different from them, and many of them understand the rules of ‘the streets’ are equally, and in some cases, more important. Teaching these rules to boys and young men of color can be a valuable part of helping them and ourselves avoid the traps this society has set for us and supports critical understanding of the masculine and nurturing components of ourselves. Yes, there are traps from the Old and New Jim Crow laws in place and whether they are inadequate schools, selling the easy package, or the omnipresent get rich without work message in the media. It is important to realize successful African-American males have learned to operate in the society of the United States by strategically maximizing the resources available to them and carefully choosing ways to challenge the racism and inequity found in social institutions. These resources include relationships with successful African-American males.
Safe places and networks where men can be honest are rare. We need more men and boys sharing nurturing places where conscious African-American men, who understand history, culture, politics, and the economics of exploitation, can be real. Part of the challenge includes the fact that men typically consider sharing feelings feminine in part because it emphasizes self-awareness and vulnerabilities. Some men see it as a sign of weakness to share emotions, particularly men of color from urban neighborhoods. We are frequently taught that sharing feelings, fears and insecurities can make us vulnerable to harm but exploring emotions, coping skills and vulnerabilities are frequently important tasks that promote our growth. Let me be clear, real men connect and share. We have successes and challenges to share, join the real men at HAAMI.
Dr. Gregory Washington Bio
Gregory Washington, LCSW, Ph. Dis the Program Coordinator of the Hooks Institute African American Male Initiative (HAAMI) and an Associate Professor in the Department of Social Work at the University of Memphis. He is also Director of the Center for the Advancement and Youth Development (CAYD) and Co-Director of the Mid-South Institute for Family and Community Empowerment. Dr. Washington is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker. He works as a community clinical practitioner and has practiced as an individual, family and group therapist in Illinois, Georgia, Arkansas and Tennessee. His research interests include culturally-centered empowerment methods and the risk and protective factors associated with youth development. A major goal of his work is to identify and promote the use of innovative culturally-centered group interventions that reduce risk for disparities in behavioral health and incarceration outcomes among young people of color.
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.
Most African Americans are expected to work and are not encouraged to attain higher education. W.E.B Du Bois once wrote, “Most men today cannot conceive of a freedom that does not involve somebody’s slavery.” Lack of education among African Americans has continued the cycle of oppression. Starting in the 1600s in the Virginia colonies and throughout the Antebellum period in the United States, many African Americans were lynched, lashed, or sold for attempting to obtain any kind of education. After the Civil War in the late 1800s and early to mid- 1900s, African Americans in Southern States were still largely denied access to an education due to white supremacy. When people are kept ignorant, they are easy to oppress. Slave owners applied this philosophy of tyranny to limit our ancestor’s learning and psychological process of freedom and empowerment. Today, this philosophy of tyranny through ignorance continues to exist in how we African Americans define our identities and accomplishments.
According to the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation (CBCF) and CBS SAN FRANCISCO, young African American men are falling behind their Caucasian and Asian peers in the classroom. PBS reports only 54% of African Americans graduate from high school, compared to more than 75% of Caucasians and Asians The twelfth-grade reading scores of African Americans are currently lower than for any other racial and/or ethnic group. African American males ages 18 and older make up just 5.5% of all college students. Of the young African American males who do make it to college, only one in six will receive a college degree. If only one in six will receive a college diploma, how are the remaining five students financially supporting their families or themselves without a college degree? What will their incomes and retirement funds look like 30 years from now? “According to the United States Department of Labor, Bureau of Labor Statistics, individuals who achieve the following degree levels earn the following median annual salaries (2012 data): Ph.D. or professional degree, $96,420; masters, $63,400; bachelors, $67,140 (depending on the degree area); high school diploma, $35,170; and less than high school, $20,110. Thus, on average, bachelor’s degree holders earn about $2 million over a 30 year career, while those with advanced degrees, including masters, doctoral, and professional degrees could earn $1.9 million to $2.9 million respectively. Compare those earnings to the earnings of those with only high school diplomas, $1 million over a 30 year career, and those with less than high school, a measly $600,000 over a lifetime.
Clearly, education is a requirement for a successful life. The less African Americans further their education, the more poverty they’ll experience. African Americans experience poverty at higher rates than the general population. The majority of African Americans dominant the poorest parts of America cities. Feeding American data concluded, “Twelve percent of African Americans live in deep poverty (less than 50 percent of the federal poverty threshold), compared to seven percent of all people in the United States.” Many of them are work multiple occupations for low income and have few opportunities for advancement. This cycle shall continue in African American culture until our psychological process of learning rejects the slave owners’ philosophy of tyranny that has contained us in ignorance.
Jason Martin is a sophomore at the University of Memphis. Martin is working on an undergraduate degree in Psychology and hopes to one day obtain a PhD in Therapy. Martin is a proud member of the Hooks African American Male Initiative (HAAMI). Martin enjoys writing poetry, studying philosophy, and writing screenplays.
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.
Student submissions published on the Hooks Institute’s blog are intended to create a safe space for students to express their opinions on civil rights issues of our time. In doing so Hooks Institute student blog publications have been left largely unedited as to keep the student author’s personal voice intact.
By: Technical Sergeant Thomas Graham, MSW Candidate
I will admit that I had difficulty with how to approach equality in the United States military today. At first, I was color-blinded; the U.S. military today is a rainbow of racial inclusion. So why would I need to fight for racial equality in the military? I am very aware this has not always been the case in our country’s history. Every major war and battle sees its own form of discrimination, bigotry, and hatred.
Inclusion is a major component in building comradery in the ranks; each unit is built on the belief that they are the best at what they do. In fact, over my 13 years of service between the Marines, Air Force, and Tennessee Air National Guard, I have never been in a unit where the commander ever told the troops that this was the worst command he had ever been a part of; we were always the best. So inclusion is the heart of a unit, but that must mean we have to exclude others so that we can have a target to be better than. Now each service in our military will joke about the others, but when it comes time to win the fight all the branches come together. More importantly, when it comes to exclusion we have to have an enemy, and propaganda has helped us to see and hate that enemy and built beliefs about other cultures, races, and peoples that were and are false. This same propaganda also colored the military’s belief system. I could go through each decade of our country’s existence and point out those who were excluded, but it might just be easier to list the groups: American Indians, African Americans, Spanish Americans, German Americans, Japanese Americans, and Muslim Americans.
In every conflict, these Americans were targeted as being inferior, savage, and alien to American morals, goals, and beliefs; but through a flaw, that is inherent to the U.S. military, a three pronged insurgency has always conquered these military belief systems. The first prong was the individuals discriminated against. The military, because of its fears and beliefs about these individuals, would build whole regiments of the excluded individuals who still fought for this country. African Americans in the Civil War and Japanese Americans in War World Two are just two examples and in these and other cases those individuals proved that they were gallant, brave and to be admired. The second prong is the officer class. These are the educated and older individuals who are chosen to lead. Both of the attributes that qualify someone to be an officer also help to fight injustice in the military. Through education and experience discrimination will always fail to hold the front lines against inclusion. The final prong is youth, with each new generation of warriors, old guard beliefs fade away and tolerance grows in the ranks.
Even now this battle can be seen waging as the military begins the battle of including the L.G.B.T community as equals. I have heard those individuals of the old guard who fear serving next to someone who lives and loves in a way that the old guard fears but I also see the inevitable that inclusion will always win, but only if we work towards justice.
Thomas Graham is a second-year Masters of Social Work student at the University of Memphis and a U.S. veteran. Mr. Graham has proudly served 13 years as a member in the US military. He is happily married to Leslie Graham and father to three beautiful girls: Isabella, Saffron, and River. In his time at U of M he has also played an important role in the Veterans Resource Center, developing the new student orientation for veterans. He is currently interning at the Memphis VA Hospital in suicide prevention and will be part of the first Crisis Intervention training for the Shelby County Sheriff’s Department. Mr. Graham will graduate with his MSW in May 2016.
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.Student submissions published on the Hooks Institute’s blog are intended to create a safe space for students to express their opinions on civil rights issues of our time. In doing so Hooks Institute student blog publications have been left largely unedited as to keep the student author’s personal voice intact.
Housed in the Preservation and Special Collections Department of the University of Memphis Libraries are the Benjamin Lawson Hooks Papers (MSS 445). By far one of the most expansive holdings of Special Collections, the Hooks papers span close to 400 boxes, containing correspondence, speeches, printed materials, administrative files, photographs, and audio and video recordings that pertain to the life of Benjamin Hooks, long time lawyer/civil rights activist and executive director of the NAACP from 1977-1992.
As a recently hired staff member of the University of Memphis Libraries, I have begun the process of digitizing major components of the Ben Hooks papers, a project sponsored by the Benjamin L. Hooks Institute for Social Change. So far, I have focused on the scanning and recording of the photograph and audio-cassette portions of the collection. With roughly 1200 photographs and several dozen hours of audio files, the Hooks Institute, the University of Memphis Library, and I aim to make a significant sample of images and audio recordings available online for public access. As we continue to build the Hooks digitization project website, we will also include a representative sample of scanned manuscripts to supplement the photographs and audio series. Our aim is to demonstrate the richness of the Hooks collection so that scholars and engaged members of the public visit the Preservation and Special Collections Department to research the Hooks papers more fully.
The majority of the collection pertains to Hooks’ time as executive director of the NAACP from 1977-1992, as these years comprise over 90 percent of the collection. As director, Ben Hooks gave many public speeches both to and on behalf of the NAACP, where he outlined his disagreements with the policies of President Ronald Reagan and Hooks’ concerns with the general socio-economic direction of the country.
In conjunction, Hooks also served as pastor-on-leave of Mt. Moriah Baptist church in Detroit, Michigan where he on occasion preached both to Mt. Moriah and other churches and assemblies around the country. Hooks felt the call to ministry in his youth and was ordained as a Baptist minister in the 1950s, preaching regularly for the Greater Middle Baptist Church in Memphis before becoming a pastor in Detroit in the 1970s.
Having read through many of Hooks’ speeches and listened to many recorded sermons, one immediate observation stands out: Hooks gives an interesting look into a life of racial equality advocacy before the age of social media but after many initiatives of the 1960s civil rights era had been achieved.
In his sermons, Hooks was fond of quoting Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities, “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times,” as Hooks believed that this quotation described the life of African Americans in the 1980s. On the one hand, Hooks was clear that African Americans had made substantial progress in the last two decades, thanks to the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s. African Americans had cumulatively earned enough wealth that if they consolidated and implemented it in a focused direction, they would carry enough influence to bring even the biggest corporation to its knees. African Americans were now mayors, police officers, judges, and business owners in numbers unprecedented in American History.
On the other hand, Hooks believed that the African American community was in a greater crisis now than any other time in history. He often made pointed jokes of African Americans “tithing to the local liquor store” and stark remarks about the level of violence prevalent in many African American neighborhoods, noting that the number of African American men murdered by other other African American men was far greater than the number of African American men lynched in the early twentieth-century South. The remedy for this problem was not government intervention (though Hooks as NAACP director tirelessly advocated for the prolonging of targeted programs) but rather a revival within the African American community, centered on the church and the family.
Hooks, thus, demonstrates the changing nature of rhetoric throughout the history of civil rights. Hooks, at times, sounds like an affirmative action minded civil rights activist, calling Reagan and other conservatives to task over slashing publicly funded programs designed to create opportunities for the poor. In Hooks’ view, Reagan’s policies would not engender equal prosperity for all Americans but in fact, stimulate wealth redistribution from the poor to the rich, destroying the progress achieved over the last two decades. At other times, Hooks sounds like a modern social conservative, noting the central role of the church, the family, and the responsibility of the individual to correct his or her own problems, regardless of prevailing societal ills.
Much of Hooks’ mixed messaging can be attributed to varying audiences. When preaching to a predominantly African American congregation, he sounds quite differently than when speaking to a national audience on behalf of the NAACP. But, I suspect, much of it also stems from a time period when an individual as prominent as Hooks could easily find a media platform for his initiatives without worrying over the “viral” tendencies of today’s hyper charged social media exchanges. Hooks could craft political messages and rhetorical strategies designed to make the nightly news and morning newspapers without worry that a misinterpreted statement would spread around the internet in moments. In this regard, Hooks’ tenure with the NAACP represents a transitional moment in the history of the civil rights movement, and while it shares many differences with our current struggles, it perhaps has more in common with our own struggles than did the marches and protests of the 1960s.
All photographs pictured are the property of Special Collections,
the University of Memphis Libraries.