University District

Beyond the Memphis State Eight: The civil rights fight for equality at the University of Memphis

Much of the history of the civil rights era of the 1950s and 1960s focuses on leaders like Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and major events like the Selma to Montgomery March, but throughout the movement, students also played a critical role. They risked personal safety to desegregate schools and organized and participated in protests, sit-ins and marches. Youth organizations like the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee were instrumental in actions like the 1961 Freedom Rides and 1964 Freedom Summer.

Many Black and white students attending Memphis State University, now University of Memphis, during the 1960s were active in the larger movement as well as their own fight for quality education and full access to all aspects of campus life.

Eight Black students known collectively as Memphis State Eight officially desegregated the school in September 1959, but it would take a decade of protests and direct action before the school reached integration.

"What we were trying to do was get a good job, something more than cleaning somebody's house," said Eleanor Gandy to The Commercial Appeal in 2009, 50 years after she and the other members of the Memphis State Eight first enrolled.

But Jim Crow was still the standard of the South and students would face profound discrimination including exclusion from activities, unfair grading practices and verbal and physical assaults throughout the 1960s.

“Desegregation of the university did not translate into integration because integration meant equal access to facilities without restrictions,” said historian Dr. Jack Lorenzini in an interview with High Ground News. “Students didn’t want to be merely admitted into school, they wanted to a part of the university.”

Student actions included campus marches, picketing the Normal Tea Room on the nearby Highland Strip and a massive sit-in at the office of university president Cecil Humphreys that resulted in 109 arrests. They also founded the Black Student Association, now the largest minority student organization on campus, in 1967.

Lorenzini is a lecturer at Texas A&M University-Kingsville and earned his PhD from the University of Memphis. His academic work focused on Memphis State campus activism in the 1960s and included in-depth interviews with 40 former students, including members of the Memphis State Eight. Lorenzini recorded those interviews and shared them with High Ground News for this article.

Attorneys H.T. Lockard (left) and A.W. Willis meet with members of the Memphis State Eight, prior to their first day at Memphis State University. (Commercial Appeal Archives)

Present Not Equal

When the Memphis State Eight — students Rose Blakney-Love, Eleanor Gandy, Sammie Johnson, Marvis Kneeland Jones, Bertha Rogers Looney, Luther McClellan, Ralph Prater and John Simpson —started classes in 1959, they faced a number of restrictions and assaults from the school’s faculty and 4,500 white students.

“We really didn’t integrate because of so many restrictions placed on us,” said Bertha Rogers Looney to Lorenzini during their interview.

According to Lorenzini’s research, students faced basic Jim Crow restrictions like separate restrooms and seating and were also barred from attending dances, joining the band or sports teams or pledging fraternities or sororities. Until 1964, Black students weren’t allowed to sit down in the cafeteria or remain on campus after 12 p.m. On campus, white students threw paper and food at Black students. At sporting events, Black students’ car tires were flattened, and they were forced to dodge popcorn and ice chips alongside racial slurs.

After the Memphis State Eight paved the way, Black students continued to battle racism in the classroom and across campus life.

Lindsey Poe, an English major who graduated in the top 5 percent of her 1962 Booker T. Washington class, received a D in freshman English at Memphis State. Carey Harris told Lorenzini that her economics professor stood in front of the class and announced, “Black people have never been good at economics, they don’t understand business principles.”

“This is a time where eventually Black students circulate a list of the most racist teachers on campus so that they could know which professors to avoid,” said Lorenzini.

The Normal Tea Room, located on the Highland Strip, was the site of student sit-ins and picketing to protest segregation in 1964. (MemphisTigers.org)

Making a Way

Students did find and make some safe havens on campus.

“I think it really is the religious clubs that provide some kind of safe place for students,” said Lorenzini.

The students attended youth meetings, retreats, bible studies and regular luncheons at the Presbyterian Westminster House. 

The Catholic center, known as the Newman Club, was one of only two places on campus that Black students could sit and eat. They also hosted integrated dances each Friday night, and on more than one occasion, the Newman Club’s chaplain harbored Black student activists safely inside the building and away from a white mob gathering outside.

Students also formed their own organizations. The first Black sorority on campus, Delta Sigma Theta, was founded in 1963 and followed soon by the first fraternity, Kappa Alpha Psi.

“These fraternities and sororities provided Black students with much needed social interaction,” said Lorenzini.

The Black Student Association was formed in 1967 to improve the quality of campus life for Black students, provide networking and social activities and help organize student actions.
 

Demanding More

As the Civil Rights Movement gained momentum in the 1960s and more Black students began enrolling at the university, student actions increased.

The Memphis chapter of the NAACP was one of the largest in the country. Students worked with the organization and learned nonviolent resistance tactics.  

In 1964 the Civil Rights Act legally banned separate facilities, but opposition to Black students and resistance to integration remained.

That year, Emma Primous organized a group of fellow students to sit in the cafeteria for the first time.

“It was a nightmare. Students threw bread at us. They slid chairs to stop our walking,” she recounted to Lorenzini.

As the group left, a white student called her a racial slur and shoved her. She shoved back, and he threw her against a wall. In response, Dean of Students Robert Robeson called Primous a “spitfire” and advised Black students to stop eating in the cafeteria.

Police, picketers and white counter-protesters were regular fixtures on the Highland Strip in the spring of 1964. (University of Memphis Special Collections)

The Normal Tea Room

In early 1964, Black students and white allies began targeting businesses near the university who were vocal about preserving segregation.

“I think it’s proximity. It’s making a stance,” said Lorenzini. “Highland is part of the university community. Students [were] challenging de facto segregation at Memphis State while others [were] contesting the Jim Crow laws in the surrounding community.”

The Normal Tea Room was a diner on Highland catering to blue collar workers. Activist chose the business in part because of its signage that read ‘All Memphis State Students Welcome.’

“When you say all Memphis State students, that means everyone, regardless of color,” said Lorenzini. “So Memphis State activists decided to take the Normal Tea Room at their word.”

On April 15, six students — four Black and two white representing both Memphis State and Rhodes College — walked into the Normal Tea Room, sat down and requested service. The staff refused, asked the students to leave then called the police when they did not.

A small mob gathered outside shouting racial slurs, singing Dixie and shooting water guns filled with ink as police loaded the Black students together in a paddy wagon and the white students in separate police cars. The protesting students' charges of interfering with trade and commerce were later dropped.

“We were willing to lay it on the line. Whatever we’ve got to do, we’ve got to do,” said participant Phyllis Banks to Lorenzini.

Members of the Intercollegiate NAACP, Black Student Association, several white athletes and a handful of other allies picketed the restaurant through May. Mobs threw bananas, squirted ink and physically attacked one picketer with glass bottles.

A marker commemorating the Memphis State Eight was erected on campus in 2012. (University of Memphis)

A Presidential Protest

Lorenzini said it was the 1968 sanitation workers’ strike and Dr. King’s assassination that pushed Black students towards more high-profile direct actions and shifted the perspectives of many white students who then began joining the Black students’ efforts.

“The alliance between Black and white students was a defining moment,” he said.

Students organized and attended a series of events in support of the strike and to speak out against injustices on campus like the lack of scholarships and campus jobs for Black students.

In 1968 there were also only two Black faculty members at Memphis State.

From the late 1960s through the early 70s, Black students and white allies demanded more Black instructors, Black deans, Black studies and more Black athletes. They also fought for fuller social integration, like access to homecoming courts, pep squads and student government. 

In fall 1968, the school offered its first class specific to the Black experience. Professor Aaron Boone’s American Negro History launched with 35 students.

By 1969 Memphis State had the largest percentage of African-American students of any predominantly white college in the country. The school had gone from eight Black students to 1,500 or 10 percent of the student body, and those sheer numbers also helped fuel the movement.

“The activism of the Black students in the sanitation strike and after Dr. King’s death I think really serves as the catalyst for greater activism in the ‘69 student sit-in,” said Lorenzini.

In April 1969, students staged a sit-in in the office of university president Cecil Humphreys. They demanded to know why the school was still not fully integrated and why Humphreys had denied funding to bring Congressman Adam Clayton Powell, Jr. -- an outspoken proponent of the Black Power Movement -- to speak at the Black Student Association's upcoming Black Extravaganza program. Six white students and 103 Black students were arrested.

“Some of us came over here for an answer,” said organizer James Mock to The Tiger Rag, the campus' newspaper in the 1960s. “We’re going to stay here until we get an answer. We can’t be isolated any longer. Dammit, we’re here.”

In the later 1970s, activists shed light on campus inequality with less fervor. Black students still faced verbal attacks and unfair treatment, but they also had full legal access to all aspects of campus life and classes, a growing Black student population and clubs and extracurricular activities devoted to Black student life.

Since then, considerable progress has been made. Today around 37 percent of the student body is Black or African American. In a 2018 interview with the Daily Helmsman, Linda G. Hall, associate dean of multicultural affairs, highlighted other progresses made since 1959.

“African-American students have occupied the top positions in most of the prominent organizations on campus, including Student Government, Student Activities Council and Student Ambassador Board,” said Hall. “There have been many programs and resources initiated to ensure the success of African-American students.”

Vernie Owens was a Memphis State student during the 1960s. In an interview with Lorenzini, Owens said Memphis State University’s early Black student pioneers were driven by a vision of a possible future where all students would be assessed based on merit, not skin color. They were willing to make sacrifices so that today’s students had a more equal opportunity to thrive.

“You have a responsibility to do what you can to make the world a better place,” he said.

Read more articles by Cole Bradley.

Cole Bradley is a native Memphian and applied anthropologist. Since 2011, Cole has worked as a researcher, strategist, and community engagement specialist across the city's private, public, and non-profit sectors. Passionate about storytelling, they began contributing to High Ground News in 2017.
Signup for Email Alerts