By Elena Delavega, PhD, Hooks Institute Associate Director
When I first arrived in Memphis, I was awe-struck by the racism. I everywhere, and it was visible. I could feel it. I could smell it. It was so thick, one could cut it with scissors. At first, I could not put my finger on it, but by paying attention, I was able to observe that people’s position in society seemed to be determined by their race. I also paid attention to how well the city took care of white areas, and how poorly it took care of African American areas. By carefully paying attention, it became clear to me that oppression and exclusion were a feature of the community.
Fast forward seven years, and the racism does not feel so awful in Memphis. This is incredibly dangerous and it is the lull that leads us to accept the racism as a natural part of life. It does not “feel” so awful anymore because I have become used to it and inured to it. It is still there. It is the same racism and the same oppression that existed seven years ago, that has not changed. I have to conclude that what has changed is my perception.
Humans have a great ability to adapt and to accept new environments. It is this ability is not accidental, but necessary for survival. However, that which is adaptive in an environment and would have allowed our ancestors to survive changing conditions can have horrible and maladaptive consequences in other places and times.
That is what has happened here. Our ability to adapt to circumstances has led me to accept racism as a natural part of the community and to not even see it anymore.
I fight against this. I recognize the awfulness of the still existing deep and noxious racism in Memphis and in the State of Tennessee, but I wonder how many people, otherwise good and decent people have become so well adapted to Memphis that they have stopped feeling and seeing the awful racism that pervades everything here?
This is a call to examination and to critical consciousness. We need to become careful observers of our environment and to recognize the need for awareness and for attention. Racism has not gone away. Just our ability to see it has. If you open your eyes with honesty, you will see it. It is there and it must be fought, lest it takes over and destroys our souls.
The Hooks Institute’s blog is intended to create a space for discussions on contemporary and historical civil rights issues. The opinions expressed by Hooks Institute contributors are the opinions of the contributors themselves, and they do not necessarily reflect the position of the Benjamin L. Hooks Institute for Social Change or The University of Memphis.
Human right and civil rights organizations, liberals, conservatives, Democrats, Republicans, and corporations must unite to end the Trump Administration’s “zero tolerance” policy of separating immigrant children from parents who arrive at the border of the United States without proper documentation for admission. There is a moral urgency to act now to dismantle it. This zero tolerance policy denies basic human rights to immigrants and is immoral.
WWJD or “what would Jesus do?” has appeared in articles arguing that the Trump Administration’s policy to separate immigrant children from their parents is contrary to the very scripture quoted by Attorney General Jeff Sessions. The bible teaches us to “love thy neighbor as thyself.” If we are true to this biblical edict, our nation could not torment immigrant children and their parents by separating them.
The Bible, however, also gives us Pharaoh and Moses. We could learn from them too. The Old Testament, or watching Charlton Heston play Moses in the Paramount Classic, The Ten Commandants, shows that Pharaoh lacked a moral compass which fed his ambition, ego, and prejudices against the Hebrews. Fortified by godly intervention, Moses persuaded Pharaoh to let his people go. Perhaps this story is more fitting for this crisis. Whether one’s grounding is in moral and ethical teachings or religion, we must urgently work to end the “zero tolerance” of separating immigrant children from their parents.
Forcibly removing children from their parents has never boded well for any society. Slavery owners did not recognize the rights of African American parents to raise their children and sold the children of slaves off as easily as one would sell a loaf of bread. A well-documented practice of the Nazis was to separate children from parents upon arrival at German concentration camps. For decades starting in the late 19th century, Native American children were forcibly removed from their parents and shipped off to boarding schools where they were intentionally stripped of their culture. All of these examples show depraved indifference to others humanity because of their race, ethnicity, or differences. This conduct frays the fabric of society and comes with negative consequences, both those who were discriminated and the society itself, for decades and centuries to come.
With respect to the “zero tolerance” policy, there will be no happy ending unless the citizens of this nation put an end to it. Civil rights organizations must oppose this policy. Medical and other professionals must speak out. The American Academy of Pediatrics has already taken the position that separation of immigrant children from their parents will cause the children irreparable harm. Some conservatives have opposed this policy. Public figures are speaking out against this policy, including former First Lady Laura Bush. American corporations also need to take a stand. Corporate speech is well funded, powerful, and shapes legislative and policy outcomes. Here, corporations can act for the better good by opposing this policy.
Moses ended Pharaoh’s cruel practices against the Hebrews. “Our neighbors,” here immigrant children and their parents need our help in ending the “zero tolerance” policy of that separates immigrant children from their parents. The moral authority of our nation hangs in the balance.
By Daphene R. McFerren, Executive Director, The Benjamin L. Hooks Institute
The 1968 Sanitation Strike and assassination of Martin Luther King are defining events in the history of Memphis. Across the city, we are grappling with how to tell the story of those events, and how to understand their connections to our present circumstances. This fall I joined two professors from the Department of Journalism on one of those efforts, a project called Once More at the River: From MLK to BLM.
Roxane Coche is the driving force behind it. She conceived of the idea, recruiting me to teach a Fall 2017 course on the history of the civil rights movement in Memphis. In the spring of 2018, Joe Hayden will teach a course in which those same students interview activists in Memphis. Finally, Roxane and Joe will enlist student help and co-produce a documentary film that explores social justice movements in Memphis.
Roxane spearheaded our successful application for a Discovery and Development Grant from the University of Memphis and reached out to the National Civil Rights Museum, which offered to make contacts and house the video archive of interviews. We have since attracted more funding for the documentary project, including from the Benjamin L. Hooks Institute for Social Change.
This fall, I taught “Memphis and the Movement.” In my thirteen years at the University of Memphis, this was one of my most rewarding experiences. We were a mixed bunch: History majors and Journalism majors, undergraduates and MA candidates, men and women, young and old, black and white. We had four senior auditors and another senior citizen enrolled; they shared firsthand experiences in Memphis that stretched back to the 1960s. “Dr. Joe” was a frequent visitor in the back corner chair, while “Dr. C” hustled over whenever possible.
The students were ALL IN. They dove into the assigned readings, asked questions, drifted off on tangents, and argued with me and each other. Sometimes the material was raw, as we read about instances of grotesque violence or racist maneuvers. And because it was local, it was personal – we were talking about our city, our neighbors, our lives. At times, some students got angry, and others got uncomfortable. But those emotions were necessary and important.
The course was divided into three units. We started in the nineteenth century, as cotton and slavery transformed Memphis, and discussed the repression of African Americans during Reconstruction and Jim Crow. We then explored the city’s unique political landscape during the long reign of E.H. “Boss” Crump. Among our readings were excerpts from Stephen Ash’s A Massacre in Memphis, Elizabeth Gritter’s River of Hope, and Laurie Green’s Battling the Plantation Mentality.
The second unit centered around the civil rights era in Memphis, especially the sanitation strike. We read Michael Honey’s masterwork Going Down Jericho Road, giving the class an intimate, detailed, and comprehensive look at this watershed moment, which illustrated the promise of a movement that fused racial and economic justice, as well as the tragedy of failed city institutions, resulting in the circumstances that led to Martin Luther King’s assassination.
The final unit took us from 1968 to the present. We read historians, journalists, political scientists, and sociologists as we explored the ways that African Americans in Memphis staked claims to political power and cultural space, yet suffered from enduring, racialized issues of prejudice and poverty.
We took a class visit to the National Civil Rights Museum, where we got a first-class tour from Ryan Jones, and we visited Special Collections at McWherter Library, where Gerald Chaudron familiarized us with the Memphis Search for Meaning Committee records, an incredible archive on the sanitation strike. For their final project, the students selected and analyzed oral histories from this collection.
The best parts, we all agreed, were our special guests. I exploited as much local expertise as I could! My colleague in History, Beverly Bond, talked about black women in slavery and freedom. Daniel Kiel came over from the Law School and screened his film The Memphis 13, about the first graders who integrated Memphis City Schools. Before leaving for his new job at Colorado College, Anthony Siracusa taught us about nonviolent direct action and Rev. James Lawson. Journalist Emily Yellin presented her ongoing project of interviewing sanitation workers and their families. Steve Ross visited from Communication to show his film about the strike, At the River I Stand. Rhodes College professor Charles Hughes discussed Memphis music and his great book Country Soul, while Otis Sanford, the Hardin Chair of Journalism, recalled the election of Willie Herenton, as told in his new book From Boss Crump to King Willie. Finally, the crusading Wendi Thomas showcased her important project, “MLK50: Justice through Journalism.”
Wendi’s visit was the perfect transition to Joe’s spring course, Reporting Social Justice. Hopefully, we provided the students with the historical background and critical approach to enrich their interviews and articles. Look for Joe’s post on the Hooks blog later this spring!
Aram Goudsouzian is the Chair of the Department of History at the University of Memphis. He is the author of Down to the Crossroads: Civil Rights, Black Power, and the Meredith March Against Fear and the co-editor, with Charles McKinney, of An Unseen Light: Black Struggles for Freedom in Memphis, Tennessee.
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.