The Environment of African American Education

By: Jason Martin

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.[1]

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.

Brief Bio:

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.

[1] U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. (2015). Employment 2012 and projected 2022, by 
typicalentry-level education and training assignment. U.S. Department of Labor. Retrieved 
December 7, 2015, from

The Long Arch of Inclusion in the Military

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.

Stressing the need for interracial solidarity in the post-war world, African-American and white soldiers got together as part of the army's general educational program at a heavy bomber base in Italy. March 1945.
Stressing the need for interracial solidarity in the postwar world, African-American and white soldiers got together as part of the army’s general education program at a heavy bomber base in Italy. March 1945.

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.

Brief Bio:

Tommy Graham HeadshotThomas 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.


The Benjamin Lawson Hooks Papers: An Introduction

By: Will Love

Benjamin Hooks, executive director of the NAACP, calls for blacks to ban together in their efforts to overcome racial injustices during a speech to the 69th annual convention. July 4, 1978
Benjamin Hooks, executive director of the NAACP, calls for blacks to ban together in their efforts to overcome racial injustices during a speech to the 69th annual convention. July 4, 1978

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.

President Ronald Reagan, Ms. Francis Hooks, and Dr. Benjamin L. Hooks in 1981.
Ben Hooks and Ronald Reagan shaking hands at the White House in 1981. This picture most likely took place weeks before Reagan gave a speech to the NAACP in Denver, CO.

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.

A close up of Ben Hooks at a podium in 1980.
A close up of Ben Hooks at a podium in 1980.

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.

Ben Hooks and Senator Edward Kennedy, 1972.
Ben Hooks and Senator Edward Kennedy at the 23rd NAACP membership luncheon.

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.

Ben Hooks 1978
Benjamin Hooks, executive director of the NAACP, tells a Portland news conference Friday that his organization had a very successful convention. He added that the NAACP will continue to fight for racial equality on all fronts. July 7, 1978

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.

Memphis and the Lynching at the Curve

By: Nathaniel C. Ball
September 30, 2015

Thomas Moss symbolized the urban entrepreneurial class of African Americans that emerged in the decades following the Civil War. Moss invested in a community-owned grocery store, the People’s Grocery, which he managed at night after spending his days working as a postman. The People’s Grocery was located at the southeast corner of what is today Mississippi Blvd and Walker Ave, known then as “the Curve” for the distinctive turn that streetcars made at the corner. During an era in which African Americans were subject to racial subjugation, the People’s Grocery stood as an emblem of pride for the community.

Modern day photograph of the southeast corner of “the Curve” (Mississippi Blvd and Walker Ave) where the People’s Grocery once stood.

William Barrett, a white man and proprietor of a rival store in the area, felt economically threatened by the People’s Grocery. After he was injured in a scuffle that took place in the Curve on 2 March 1892, Barrett determined to use the incident to discredit Moss’s establishment. Barrett blamed his injuries on a young worker at the People’s Grocery, William Stewart. Barrett arrived at the People’s Grocery the next day with a police officer to arrest Stewart. Instead, Barrett and the officer were met by Calvin McDowell, a grocery clerk, who refused to give up his co-worker’s location. Furious, Barrett struck McDowell with a revolver, losing his grip in the process. McDowell’s athleticism got the better of Barrett. McDowell grabbed the fallen revolver and shot at Barrett, barely missing him. Barrett and the officer retreated. McDowell remarked in the Appeal-Avalanche, “Being the stronger, I got the best of the scrimmage.” This statement only fueled Barrett’s anger. Subsequently, Barrett notified the authorities of the incident. Within a few days Barrett was deputized by a Shelby County Court judge, with permission to form a group to get revenge on those who offended him at the People’s Grocery.

Well aware that an attack was imminent, the patrons of the People’s Grocery asked local authorities for protection. The city of Memphis refused, as the Curve was located just outside of the city, thus outside their jurisdiction. Faced with no other option, a group of men armed themselves inside the People’s Grocery. On Saturday, March 5, Barrett and his men marched towards the Curve. A gunfight ensued in which three of Barrett’s men were injured.

Excerpt from The Memphis Appeal following the attack on the People's Grocery 9 March 1892
Excerpt from The Memphis Appeal following the attack on the People’s Grocery 9 March 1892

The Memphis Commercial and the Appeal Avalanche inaccurately characterized the attack as evidence that the African American tenants of the People’s Grocery were planning a race war against whites, when in fact those inside the People’s Grocery were simply defending their establishment from attack. Though no evidence suggested Moss was involved in any of these events, his position at the People’s Grocery led the white owned newspapers to sensationalize his name, claiming he was the leader of a great “black conspiracy” against whites. White mobs stormed the Curve damaging property while searching for Moss, McDowell, and Stewart. The three men quickly turned themselves in to prevent any other harm to their community and were held at the Shelby County Jail as they awaited trial. After a few days, the frenzy surrounding the case died down, and security around the prison was lessened.


On 9 March 1892 at around 2:30 A.M., 75 masked men stormed the Shelby County Jail and forcibly removed Moss, McDowell, and Stewart. The three men were taken a mile north of the city, where they were mutilated and murdered. The description of the lynching in the Appeal-Avalanche and the Memphis Commercial the next morning is chillingly positive, a troubling aspect to the city’s reaction to the murders.

representation of the lynching found in the Appeal-Avalanche 10 March 1892.
Representation of the lynching found in the Appeal-Avalanche 10 March 1892.

“There was no hooping, no loud talking, in fact, nothing boisterous. Everything was done decently and in order… The vengeance was sharp, swift, and sure but administered with due regard due to the fact that people were asleep all around the jail. [They] did not know until the morning that the avengers swooped down last night and sent the murderous souls of the ring leaders in the Curve riot to eternity.”

9 March 1892, Memphis Appeal-Avalanche



The article gives a description of the brutal attacks conducted by the mob on the three African American men in such detail that one could identify each victim by the wounds inflicted on the bodies of Moss, McDowell, and Stewart when they were found the next morning. Even Moss’s last words were recorded, with an urgent plea to the African American community of Memphis, “Tell my people to go West, there is no justice here.” A call that many in the African American community would follow in the coming decades. The next day a mob ransacked the People’s Grocery, and the store was closed. Within a few months Barrett bought the establishment for pennies on the dollar.

Picture of the bodies of Moss, Stewart, and McDowell, from Memphis Appeal-Avalanche, 10 March 1892. All three men are buried in Zion Cemetery.
Picture of the bodies of Moss, Stewart, and McDowell, from Memphis Appeal-Avalanche, 10 March 1892. All three men are buried in Zion Cemetery.

“Thus, with the aid of the city and country authorities and the daily papers, that white grocer had indeed put an end to his rival Negro grocer as well as to his business.”
 Ida B. Wells Crusade for Justice

Ida B. Wells Illustration in: The Afro-American press and its editors, by I. Garland Penn., 1891.

Like other lynchings in the United States at the time, the Memphis lynching stood as a warning to African Americans that pushed against the American South’s racial hierarchy. Moss was murdered for running a better business than his white competitor; McDowell, for forgetting his place in the hierarchy of the white world he lived in; and Stewart, for being in the wrong place at the wrong time. While many would back down when faced with these threats of violence, Ida B. Wells, an emerging journalist in Memphis at the time and personal friend of Thomas Moss, fearlessly attacked those who participated in, encouraged, or simply ignored the lynching. Her unrelenting attacks would eventually lead to her exile from Memphis, the place she had called home for nearly a decade.

A finer, cleaner man than he never walked the streets of Memphis. He was well liked, a favorite with everybody; yet he was murdered with no more consideration than if he had been a dog… The colored people feel that every white man in Memphis who consented in his death is as guilty as those who fired the guns which took his life.”
Ida B. Wells on Moss death, Crusade for Justice

Today, the story of the People’s Grocery is marked by a single historical marker, just west of Lemoyne-Owen College, where the co-op once stood. As the Hooks Institute moves forward with our documentary film on the Memphis experience of Ida B. Wells, it is important to remember that these events happened in our backyard, to real people with their own hopes, desires, and dreams. The Hooks Institute aspires to tell these stories, and others like it, with the respect they deserve.

Why HAAMI Matters

By Dr. Elena Delavega                                                                                                    September 9, 2015

I once had a friend from Ghana tell me that he did not know he was black until he came to the United States. That statement overwhelmed me. It makes me wonder what we are telling our black youth.  It makes me wonder about the messages we are sending about their value as human beings. It speaks to the exclusion to which we relegate our African American population in this country.

According to data from the 2014 Census, Memphis is ranked #1 in poverty among cities with over 1,000,000 residents. However, poverty does not affect everyone in Memphis equally. The differences between African American poverty and White poverty in Memphis are striking. Many of the people living in poverty are African Americans under the age of 18 (43.2%). African Americans under the age of eighteen are three times more likely to live inpoverty than non-Hispanic Whites of the same age.  Moreover, since 2009, poverty rates among non-Hispanic Whites in Memphis have steadily declined, while poverty rates for minorities have increased at the same time.

While poverty is hard on all children, it is harsher on teenagers who are keenly aware of their situation. African American teens have a rough time in this city, with 42% of African Americans between the ages of 12 and 17 living in poverty in Memphis through no fault of their own.

HIAAM logo FNL 2015

Young African American males, in particular are hit by the double scourge of poverty and unemployment. Unemployment rates are almost three times as high for African Americans (13.8%) as for whites (5.9%); in the case of African Americans (both sexes) between the ages of 16 and 19, the unemployment rate is almost 50%. This is not because they are not capable. In Memphis, 35% of African Americans have a high school diploma as their highest educational attainment, more than the general population (29%).

Sadly, high school completion does not necessarily translate into college degrees for this population. Only 14% of the African American population in Memphis have bachelor degrees or higher (the rate among the general population is 24%). I am immediately confronted with the toll of poverty and exclusion on educational attainment. I have met many wonderful African American men and women. They are intelligent, quick, witty, wonderful in every way. The young men participating in the Hooks African American Male Initiative (HAAMI) are delightful in every way; brilliant and hardworking young men, whose GPA averages are better than the average for the entire University of Memphis. Why is it, then that degree attainment among African Americans in Memphis is so low? I cannot help but think there are some exclusionary forces at work.

We cannot become the city of the 21st century that we want to become when we are leaving so many of our residents behind. Given that the city of Memphis has an African American population that is almost 60%, African American poverty and exclusion is a huge concern for Memphis. We cannot continue the systematic exclusion of such a large percent of our population and expect sustainable economic development for our region. Unless we work together to include this very excluded portion of our population, Memphis cannot succeed as a city.

Hooks HAAMI Staff
Hooks Institute HAAMI staff. (Left to Right) Tim Rose, Daphene McFerren, Dr. Elena Delavega, Dr. Gregory Washington.

When poverty rates decline for whites but not for African Americans, when Black unemployment is twice to three times that of White unemployment, when African Americans are graduating from high school but not completing college at the same rate as Whites, I have to wonder, what kinds of opportunities are we providing for our African American males? Are we really providing opportunities?

How unwise of us, how wasteful, to not take advantage of all our resources, of our strong, smart, wonderful young black men. What an absolute travesty and nonsense not to insure that our African American males have every single opportunity for success. Every single one.

Education is the engine of our economy, and mentoring is a crucial element. We are here today to begin the work to reverse the trend with HAAMI.