[I attended this documentary with a group from Common Ground, and this response was actually written for the group. To find out more about The Memphis 13, visit thememphis13.blogspot.com & to find out more about Common Ground, visit commongroundmemphis.org]
As I settled into my seat anxiously awaiting the premiere of The Memphis 13, two women, one white and one black, sitting on the row behind me began having a disagreement. Seating was done on a first-come, first-served basis, and several people were saving seats for a friend or two. One of the women was trying to save over half a dozen seats, and the other woman and her family sat down in three of them. They went back and forth over who should be allowed to sit where and whether or not people should be saving seats at all. Suddenly, their statements were filled with heavy phrases like “you people,” and I realized that this disagreement over seats in a movie theater had become a full-fledged argument full of racial tension.
In a city like Memphis, you can, unfortunately, expect these things to happen on occasion, but this specific incident shocked me. I assumed that anyone who was that interested in a documentary about the first thirteen African-American children to attend previously all-white schools in Memphis would have enough respect for members of another race to not come in and start some mess. Obviously, I was wrong. They settled down just in time for the movie to start.
It was 1961, and twelve African-American families had just volunteered to let their thirteen six year olds integrate the school system in Memphis. “It can be a scary thing, first grade, even without the burden of making history,” narrated Mayor A.C. Wharton.
Immediately, I began to think about what it must have been like for them, as six year olds, to have this huge pressure to make history thrust upon them. In reality, they had very little knowledge of the impact that changing schools would have on their lives and the lives of so many others. Still, they had to feel something. “I was scared,” said Harry Williams, one of the thirteen who was enrolled in first grade at Bruce Elementary that year. “There were days I didn’t want to go.”
“I don’t know if there’s any perfect time to go through fire,” said Menelik Fombi, another of the thirteen former first graders.
I also thought about how much courage it must have taken for these parents to voluntarily place their small children in a situation with so much potential danger. Pamela Mays said of her mother, “She was scared, but she still took that chance and let me go.”
Both the children and their parents were understandably afraid, and they had no idea what might happen to them as a result of their efforts. One of the students’ mothers was fired from her job when her boss found out about her family’s involvement with integration. Another parent, John Holt, said he received hate mail after his child started school, but he said it made him feel “more determined.”
As someone who was not born until roughly thirty years after the integration of the school district in 1961, I grew up attending schools where the students had a variety of racial and ethnic backgrounds. I’ve always been appreciative of the sacrifices made to advance equality and integrate schools, public places, etc. But there is a difference between being appreciative of those sacrifices as a white person versus as a black person. I’m not sure I can even explain it and won’t try to do so, but it all stems from white privilege.
There is also a difference between getting historical information from a textbook versus getting it from the people who were involved. Hearing their thoughts and feelings, both then and now, made the story a lot more real. Too often, the presentation of historical events distorts and dehumanizes them, and we’re left with something mechanical. Seeing the documentary allowed me to connect with these thirteen people on an emotional level, and because of that, I now understand so much more about the facts.
I was ashamed by the two women who were arguing before the documentary started until I realized something very important. They might not have wanted to sit together for whatever reason, but they made that choice. There weren’t two separate showings for blacks and whites, and no one in that room tried to deter them from sitting together.
There’s a famous quote that describes a long journey as beginning with a single step. Each of those thirteen first graders began their walk to school on the morning of October 3, 1961, with just that – one step. Even though they behaved foolishly, those women represent a small step, too, because we haven’t always had the power to decide for ourselves. I don’t agree with their choice, but I know that eventually there will be another step taken to correct it.
Whether we’re part of a group of thirteen, a participant in Common Ground, or a party of one, all of us can do at least one intentional thing toward making a difference when it comes to racial issues. We only need one thing – the courage to take a single step forward.