June 11, 2020
Dear Students, Faculty and Staff:
Over the past seven years, I have written many messages to our campus and used the word “community” countless times. Our community has a history, both for our campus and our City, one that should inform our future, and one that encourages thoughtful reflection on the past as we move forward. In the fall of 1959, eight remarkably courageous Black students came to then-Memphis State University. In the face of hateful and racist opposition, they carried the burden of hope that racial barriers could be overcome and a new community defined, one that embraces the promise of equality and justice for each and every member. Today, a marker rests on the east side of the Administration Building commemorating the bravery of Bertha Mae Rogers Looney, Eleanor Gandy, Sammie Burnett Johnson, Marvis Kneeland Jones, Rose Blakney Love, Luther McClellan, Ralph Prater and John Simpson. Sixty-one years later, the murder of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police officers, coupled with the recent abhorrent killings of Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery, make it clear that promise has not been realized.
As detailed in a 2012 Daily Helmsman story, Bertha Mae Rogers Looney said, “We were making a big statement, and a bold statement.” That bold statement was not embraced by the campus at the time. They were not allowed to enroll in physical education classes. They were not allowed to be on campus after noon. They were not allowed to attend sporting events, nor were they allowed in the cafeteria or student center. Ralph Prater described his experience in the following way, “Students didn’t speak to me, and they wouldn’t sit by me in the classrooms — there would be vacant seats on both sides. If I ever sat at a table with students, they would all leave.” Luther McClellan added, “It was like I was not there. We sat in the back of the classrooms, and no one spoke to us. We were invisible."
There are many ways to define a community, but most include a feeling of fellowship with others as a result of sharing common attitudes, values, interests and goals. Over the past several years, we completed a visioning task that required us to clearly articulate our values, including a commitment to accountability, collaboration, diversity and inclusion, innovation, service and student success. Let me be clear about our commitment to these values. Black Lives Matter. On our campus. In our city, in our state and in our country.
What is critical now is that we take steps, implement change and realize the hope embodied, and the courage displayed, by the Memphis State Eight. We have made significant and visible progress on our campus over the last six decades, but there is a long way to go in our journey together. Much work has been, and will be done, to ensure that this University is a place where all people can maximize their potential. Hundreds of hours have been spent by University faculty and staff to examine University processes, procedures and culture that impact educational and career opportunities on campus. We have reason to be optimistic and hopeful that we will reach our goals.
I have asked Daphene McFerren and Dr. Karen Weddle-West to work with me as we form a group through our Benjamin L. Hooks Institute for Civil Rights and Social Change addressing the needed change and reform on our campus and in our community. I have spoken with Nakita Bell from the Black Student Association, Kennedi Brown-Willis from our campus NAACP, along with the Student Government Association President Desiree’ Dyson and Vice-President Matthew White. I have also reached out to Antonio Scott, SGA Past-President. All have agreed to help in this effort. We will be reaching out in the coming weeks to expand this effort and reach across our campus and broader community. The focus of our work is to identify areas in need of reform and change and implement that change to take another step in the direction of realizing the hope of the Memphis State Eight and a community defined by equality and justice.
Dr. M. David Rudd, President