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From the Memphis State Eight to Vietnam War-era demonstrations around the flagpole, U of M students have a history of making their voices be heard. They even helped keep the school from closing in the 1930s.

The first 100 years at the University of Memphis have been – with few exceptions – peaceful ones. Even the angry clashes and flag burnings that rocked many colleges during the Vietnam War largely skipped the Memphis campus. But life at a University mirrors the times that surround it, and even the usually tranquil U of M has seen its share of turbulent times.

The Great Depression created an international crisis, and less than 20 years into its existence West Tennessee State Teachers College found itself struggling for survival. In 1931, the state Board of Education cut the school year from 48 to 36 weeks, then cancelled the summer session and night classes. Faculty members stopped receiving their state salary after August, instead getting half pay raised through tuition and dormitory fees. In December President John W. Brister made the first of many lobbying trips to Nashville. At each turn, the state legislature allocated less funding than requested. Faculty continued on half pay until March 1932. There was fear that the school would lose its accreditation because of low faculty salaries. At the same time, enrollment reached a record high due to the shortage of jobs and the availability of cheap room and board on campus.

With the state out of money, the Tennessee General Assembly proposed closing all the state teacher colleges, saying there were too many teachers and not enough jobs. The plan touched off a passionate campaign on campus and in the community to keep WTSTC open, led by President Brister, the city’s two daily newspapers and local civic groups. Students organized action committees and held large meetings to generate public support for the school. A few selected students made speeches on local radio stations and from theatre and movie stages. Some 900 students planned to march on the state capital before Brister called for calm. The college remained open, but with a state appropriation so small it equaled the school’s funding in 1913.

Centennial photosIn 1959, Memphis State underwent one of its most significant transitions: the first eight African-American students were admitted along side its 4,500 white students. It would be more than a decade before black students were assimilated fully into campus life. They were issued their books early so they wouldn’t have to stand in line with white students at the bookstore. The “Memphis State Eight” were not allowed in the cafeteria or student center, and were assigned separate restrooms. They could not set foot on campus before 8 a.m. and had to be gone by noon. Black students were exempt from physical education and ROTC classes that were mandatory for white students. A special section was designated for them at basketball games, and state troopers escorted them to classes.

At Memphis State, unlike some other colleges and universities undergoing integration, the eight students did not meet with violence. They were generally ignored, apart from a few hecklers waving Confederate flags. Student Ralph Prater recalls, “If I went to a table in the library where white students were already sitting, they would immediately get up and leave. It was certainly frustrating, and we all felt a sense of isolation during our stay at Memphis State.”

Five of the Memphis State Eight returned for their sophomore year; 25 additional black students joined them. Administrators urged the new group to integrate quietly and cautiously, advising them not to use the cafeteria. They were allowed to sit anywhere during on-campus basketball games, but relegated to separate sections for games at Ellis Auditorium or football games at Crump Stadium, which were both owned by the city.

MSU continued to bar black students from participating in many sports and extracurricular activities. That changed when Herb Hilliard (BBA ’71) became the first African-American to play basketball for the Tigers as a walk-on freshman in the 1965-66 season.

“I remember people yelling, ‘Get the ball to Leroy,’” Hilliard says. “I didn’t let it bother me.”

Hilliard later became a favorite of basketball boosters. When he hit two free throws after the buzzer to win a game against North Texas State, a huge “Herb for President” banner was hung across the University Center. Hilliard would rise to executive positions during his career with First Tennessee Bank.

With the escalation of the Vietnam War, protests swept many colleges and students burned draft cards, but not at MSU. This may have been due to the conservative values of many Memphis State students or the lack of active campus life at the commuter school. A group of students even organized a campaign to send holiday packages to soldiers serving with the 101st Airborne Division. Tensions between supporters of the war and those who opposed it sparked in 1966 when a publication called Logos surfaced on campus declaring, “As American citizens, we should be ashamed of what our government is doing in Vietnam.”

Over the new few weeks, additional issues of the underground newspaper appeared on campus, prompting shoving matches between the distributors and students who were against its editorial stand. The student newspaper, The Tiger Rag, responded with an editorial on the dangers of radical movements on campus.

Not until 1970 did a clash related to the war shake the MSU campus. On May 5, a small band of students gathered on the Alumni Mall to speak out about four Kent State University students who were killed by members of the Ohio National Guard during an anti-war demonstration the previous day. The final speaker called for the flag in front of the Administration Building to be lowered to half-staff in memory of the slain students. As the flag was lowered, other students voiced their opposition, and agitated members of the anti-war group chanted, clenched their fists and raised their arms. While the protesters then moved to Jones Hall, where Air Force ROTC classes were taught, opposing students returned the flag to the top of the pole. When the protesters returned, they attempted to lower the flag again. There were chants of “down, down, down” and “up, up, up” as fistfights broke out. President Cecil C. Humphreys tried to calm the crowd. After representatives from both sides met in Humphreys’ office, a compromise was reached: the flag remained up that day, but was lowered the next day at noon for a memorial service to honor the Kent State four.

The assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in 1968 forever changed the civil rights movement. Although MSU had been integrated for a decade, many African-American students continued to feel marginalized. While they attended classes, being a black student meant only partial participation in campus life. There were few black athletes, no fraternities for blacks, and no African-Americans on the Homecoming court.

The Black Student Association was determined to bring change to the University. On April 23, 1969, 75 students staged a sit-in at the office of President Humphreys to protest his refusal to provide $1,750 to the BSA to bring controversial lawmaker Adam Clayton Powell to campus as a speaker. The students met with Humphreys, but refused to leave until police were called. They eventually left peacefully, but on April 28, 109 students massed and again occupied the office of Humphreys, who was not there. The police were called again, but this time the protesters stood their ground and refused to leave. No violence erupted, but the 109 were arrested and charged with trespassing.

Centennial photosAs a result of the stand taken by the 109, along with growing social and political pressures, more black students enrolled and additional black faculty members were hired. African-Americans started to gain a full measure of campus life.

The spring of 1970 also brought to campus the controversial Broadway musical Hair. The show, featuring an interracial cast, followed a group of hippies trying to avoid the Vietnam War draft. The show was groundbreaking for its profanity, nudity and drug use. Theatre director Keith Kennedy promised to cut the brief nude scene near the end of the first act. Still, the show ruffled some with conservative tastes. One Memphian called the play “an outrageous assault on morality, an outrageous assault on patriotism, and an outrageous assault on America’s youth.” Still, not everyone agreed. Hair sold out every performance. It proved so popular that six more shows were added to the play’s run.

The women’s liberation movement born in the 1960s generated little action on campus, except over specific issues. When incoming freshmen received a new health form in 1977, women objected to a series of 19 questions directed at females only, which inquired about sexual activity and birth control. Female students argued the questions were discriminatory and invaded their privacy since men were not asked to answer them. By the next year, the University had dropped the offending questions from the health form.

Protests were a part of student life for Baby Boomers of the early 1970s. But as times changed, so did the students.

Have Memphis students always been too busy with studies, work and other responsibilities to shake things up? Is it because many come from families with traditional Southern values? It’s hard to pinpoint a reason.

Dr. James Chumney, a U of M professor of history and observer of campus life for more than 40 years, points to the social makeup of many students. “Many came from solid, conservative families,” Chumney says. “So many were business-like. They saw this as a chance for a better life for themselves, and they didn’t want to blow it.”

More recently, the campus has welcomed Generation X’ers, then students of the millennium. At least a few have shown they can still growl when provoked. Last March, seven people, including two U of M students, were arrested at the state Capitol in Nashville. The protesters disrupted a Senate committee hearing and were removed from the committee room. They had been rallying against a bill that would have revoked the collective bargaining rights of the state’s teachers union. Two days later, a state legislator rose on the floor of the Senate and called for the University to take action against the protesters.

Two other senators publicly defended the students, one recalling young protesters during 1960s civil rights demonstrations.

- by Gabrielle Maxey

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Last Updated: 1/8/13