Thursday, December 9, 2021

60th Anniversary of the ‘Memphis 13’ Celebrates Youngest Civil Rights Pioneers

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(Left to Right) Sheila Malone-Conway, Memphis 13 alum; Sharon Malone, Memphis 13 alum; Dwania Kyles, Memphis 13 alum and Civil Rights Advocate; and Dr. Joris M. Ray, Superintendent of Shelby County Schools inside of the History Room at Bruce Elementary discussing the impact of the Memphis 13 in Memphis, Tennessee. (Photo/Gary Whitlow)

*The forming of the Memphis 13 Foundation was announced recently at a press conference at Bruce Elementary, which is one of the original schools that was integrated 60 years ago.

Leaders of the Memphis community came together to foster the peaceful integration of the Memphis City public schools by the “Memphis 13” on October 3, 1961, who at that time were 5- and 6-year-old African American boys and girls, the youngest pioneers in the Civil Rights Movement. October 3 also marks the 10th Anniversary of the release of The Memphis 13 documentary.

Speakers included Dwania Kyles, Civil Rights Advocate and “Memphis 13” alum; Deborah Northcross, Lead Plaintiff, Northcross et al v Board of Education of Memphis, Tennessee; Dr. Joris M. Ray, Superintendent of Shelby County Schools; Myke Collins, Executive Director of Equity and Diversity Office, Shelby County Schools;  Rev. Dr. LaSimba Gray, Pastor Emeritus of New Sardis Baptist Church and local Historical Consultant, City of Memphis; Dr. Archie Moss, Jr., School Design Partner of Transcend; Rosalind Withers, Founder, Withers Collection Museum and Gallery; and Daniel Kiel, Director of The Memphis 13 documentary.

“’The Memphis 13’ is such an incredible part of my life’s existence and I consider you a part of my family,” said Kiel. “The 60th anniversary of the ‘Memphis 13’ is an opportunity for us to not just look backwards but also to look and think forward and that is the driving force of the Memphis 13 Foundation. We will preserve the legacy, share the story, connect it and push forward.”

Two of the “Memphis 13” in attendance were twin siblings Sharon Malone and Sheila Malone-Conway who shared with the audience their experience, sharing how difficult it was as a first grader integrating the Memphis school system. It was originally supposed to be only one of the siblings, but their mother insisted that one cannot participate without the other.

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“All they talk about is the Little Rock 9. Nobody talks about the ‘Memphis 13.’ Nobody knew that we existed until Daniel told our story,” said Malone.

“When we got in the school it was scary. As soon as we got in the school, our mom froze, and she pulled us behind her, and she didn’t want to let our hands go. When I got into the classroom, as soon as I sat down, all I heard was the N-word by the little boy behind me. I almost forgot what my name was that day because that’s all he called me all day long,” said Malone-Conway.

Kyles, daughter of the late Rev. Samuel Billy and Gwendolyn Kyles, announced the forming of the Memphis 13 Foundation and the nonprofit’s programming which will include the “Memphis 13” film screenings, curriculum development, and commemorative murals at the four schools where the children attended at the time.

The mission “to preserve and share the pioneering legacy of the ‘Memphis 13’ to spark courageous dialogue and diverse connections in the community” was also shared by Kyles with the audience of community and education leaders and the press.

The committee members of the foundation are in preliminary conversations with Shelby County Schools, National Civil Rights Museum, Facing History, Transcend and The Withers Collection Museum and Gallery to develop partnerships and programming.

Attendees of the press conference were given access to view the murals displayed on the walls of the multipurpose room at Bruce Elementary in honor of the “Bruce Three” part of the “Memphis 13,” Harry Williams, Dwania Kyles and Fombie Melenik (formerly known as Michael Willis), who were the three students

to integrate Bruce Elementary. Former Principal Archie Moss discovered the history of the “Memphis 13” and their connection to Bruce Elementary in 2016 and made it his goal to honor them, ultimately completing a mural installation.

When he left, he passed the torch to Principal LaShanda Bell, who, along with Assistant Principal Monica Helton, will continue the charge to ensure that the “Bruce 3” and the “Memphis 13” legacy continues at Bruce Elementary and that the positive impact on the history is part of Shelby County School’s educational curriculum.

“For the 55th Anniversary in 2016, we had a celebration here in this room with standing room only, but we felt like that wasn’t enough,” said Moss. “I knew that there needed to be something for our scholars to see every single day to recognize the history of Bruce Elementary and have a constant reminder of the ‘Memphis 13’ and that is how the idea of the murals came about. They are our ‘Bruce 3’ and because of them, all of our scholars can be here today.”

Moss’ commitment to the history of the young civil rights pioneers being shared with elementary students does not stop at Bruce Elementary. He started a campaign to get murals inside of the other three schools where the “Memphis 13” attended which includes Gordon Achievement, Springdale Elementary, and Rozelle Elementary.

Principal Michael Alford of Gordon Achievement and Principal Kimberly Shaw of Rozelle Elementary were present at the press conference along with Shelby County School Board of Education Chair Michelle Robinson McKissack and Vice-Chair Althea Greene.

“‘The Memphis 13’ walked so we can run and encourage others to fly,” said Superintendent Ray. “We want to commemorate the ‘Memphis 13’…This is what we are going to do. These murals will be captured at Springdale, Rozelle, and Gordon…Without them I wouldn’t be here…Without them, I wouldn’t be the superintendent of the largest school district in the state of Tennessee.”

“The whole integration process was not just hard on black children. It was hard on white children, too. We all have stories. So that’s why we want to begin to create safe spaces so we can tell the stories because we have all been in pain. We have all been traumatized…And we are capable through love and listening with the heart so we can move forward to be healed,” said Kyles.

“The Memphis 13 Foundation is a project of love. We are leading with our hearts and we’re looking to align ourselves with others that choose to do the same.

Those of us including community leaders, educational leaders, press, and others who are committed to defining what the language of love means and what that looks like in transforming the lives of our children and communities, we are asking you to take this journey with us and with our hearts let’s save our children.”

To celebrate the occasion, a screening of The Memphis 13 and a reception was held at Withers Collection Museum and Gallery in downtown Memphis on October 3. The event was held to commemorate the first 13 black first graders who 60 years ago graced the halls of schools that were previously for white children only.

The documentary was shown to a room full of community leaders, business leaders, tourists, and Memphians who wanted to learn more about the impact of the history of the “Memphis 13.”  The screening included a Q&A and a panel with “Memphis 13” alum Kyles, Malone, Malone-Conway, Alvin Freeman, and documentary director Kiel.

To culminate the event, there was a standing ovation for those who represented the alum and an audience member spontaneously begin to sing “We Shall Overcome” which was the anthem of the Civil Rights Movement and offered courage, comfort, and hope in the battle for equal rights for African Americans.

For more information about The Memphis 13 or to host a screening and/or a Q&A with members of the Memphis 13, please visit www.TheMemphis13.com.

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/TheMemphis13/

YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCR08kY2xF-ssTIG9ASeIi5g

Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/memphis13foundation/?hl=en.
Source | Sheri Neely | [email protected]

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