Think back to when you were in the first grade. What do you remember? Was first grade exciting? Maybe a little scary? For most of us, it was both.
The Memphis 13 are a group of African American students who were the first to integrate white Memphis, Tenn., schools in 1961. Unlike most of the desegregation stories from this time, these Civil Rights pioneers were just 5 and 6 years old. They were in the first grade.
In honor of these young Civil Rights pioneers, and Black History Month, Regions’ Memphis Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Network recently hosted a virtual event with one of the students, Menelik Fombi, and University of Memphis law professor Daniel Kiel, who made a documentary on the students and the 1961 integration efforts in Memphis.
[I want to] share the story of these individuals … who are heroes in our community.
Daniel Kiel, University of Memphis Law Professor
In 1954, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that racial segregation in public schools was unconstitutional in Brown v. Board of Education. This landmark decision led to great social change — and sometimes violence. In east Tennessee, the 1956 integration of Clinton High School was met with violent protests. In nearby Little Rock, the entry of students to Central High School in 1957 led to a showdown between the state of Arkansas and the federal government. Yet in Memphis, public schools remained completely segregated.
The Memphis branch of the NAACP decided to take action in 1961. They came up with a plan to integrate schools there in a way that they thought would avoid the violence that these high schools experienced. Rather than integrating high schools, they’d start with the first grade.
Kiel set out to make a documentary about this time in Memphis which had been largely overlooked by history. At the February event, Kiel said that one of his goals in making The Memphis 13 was to “share the story of these individuals, like Fombi, who are heroes in our community. Who were asked to do something at the age of 5 or 6 that was really extraordinary, and who have a perspective on our community’s trials and tribulations that is really unique and valuable.”
Fombi shared his memories of being a first grade Civil Rights pioneer with Regions associates at the event. While there was not blatant violence, as when other students integrated schools around the South, it was still a very difficult, and at times scary, experience for him. He shared that the place he felt safest in the school was the cafeteria — because the workers there looked like him. Hear more about his experience in the video below.
You can watch the documentary, and get a discussion guide, at thememphis13.com.