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.
By Gabrielle Maxey
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.
In 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
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
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
As 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
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
Two other senators publicly defended the students, one recalling young protesters
during 1960s civil rights demonstrations.