By Tajuan Stout-Mitchell, Special to The Tri-State Defender
Memphis recently lost five African Americans who made a significant impact on the advancement of civil rights, justice, and opportunities for Blacks.
Greatness walks among us each day. Sometimes, it is difficult to recognize their contributions because too many take advancement for granted. There was not always room at the table for Blacks, women, people with disabilities, or blue-collar labor in corporate offices, public services, and political structures.
But each of these trailblazers worked to open doors by performing at a high level, advocating for fairness, and sharing a vision of what Memphis could be through inclusion.
Three were well-known—longtime legacy Memphis City School Board members Carl Johnson and Sara Lewis, along with Elmore Nickleberry, a key figure in the sanitation workers’ strike.
Not as well-known to the general public were trailblazing journalist Jerome Wright and the first African American female to work in the City of Memphis’ Human Resources Department as a manager, Barbara Farmer Arnold.
Mrs. Farmer managed Police Recruitment and Planning. She was 92 when she died on Jan. 2, 2024. While at the City of Memphis, she worked under five mayors: Ingram, Loeb, Chandler, Hackett, and Herenton. She started as a clerk-typist.
Mrs. Farmer was the embodiment of a “tempered radical,” defined as someone who finds themselves “in a tricky situation of trying to be a part of a dominant culture while at the same time trying to change the system.”
There are some common characteristics of a tempered radical. They often use their influence to create small wins in the workplace to influence the hiring of more people of color. A tempered radical works from the inside to create opportunities for racial or ethnic minorities by sharing information about vacancies with qualified people they know. They are usually high performers to prove the competency level of minority groups.
Tempered radicals often use their knowledge of the culture and work environment to influence change. Mrs. Barbara Arnold Farmer challenged the system from inside; she recruited and, when necessary, gave support to many civil rights court cases just by sharing data on hiring, promotions, and terminations.
Proof of her impact was demonstrated at her funeral, where more than 400 people attended to say goodbye. Normally, unless you are a public figure, someone that age may have smaller crowds.
“She opened doors that were shut. Lifted up people who were supposed to be kept outside,” said Rev. Chester Berryhill.
Dr. W.W. Herenton also spoke of her kind smile that penetrated your soul.
“This is the celebration of a good woman. She lived a life of abundance because she gave her life to others,” Herenton said.
The pastor officiating the service, the Rev. Roger R. Brown, asked if Mrs. Barbara Arnold Farmer ever helped you in being recruited, hired, or promoted at the City of Memphis to stand. Over two-thirds of a mostly African American audience at Mt. Vernon Baptist Church stood. Yes, she quietly influenced the hiring within her 30 years at the City of Memphis.
Carl Johnson Sr. was a quiet and unassuming force that paved the way for Blacks at St. Jude Hospital as a scientist and at Rhodes College as a professor. Mr. Johnson was one of three Blacks on the legacy Memphis City School Board of Education who saw a qualified, tenured teacher and academic leader being overlooked as superintendent.
He led an effort to secure votes for Dr. W.W. Herenton as superintendent. Always remember, they shaped this vote with three members of the nine on the Memphis City Schools Board.
Elmore Nickleberry stood up for workers who wanted to be treated with dignity and respect. His tempered radicalism led Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. to give national attention to sanitation workers in 1968. The employees led changes in the workplace that would be heard around the world and archived in history books. He too just wanted better opportunities and all work valued. Mr. Nickleberry died Dec. 30, at the age of 92. He retired from the City of Memphis at the age of 89.
Sara Lewis, a scholar, a teacher, a leader, used her skills to be an advocate for teachers, children with disabilities, and people who needed opportunities in Memphis. Her life’s work is well known to many because she was a fierce force. When she realized that Blacks received less than 1 percent of contracts from the legacy Memphis City Schools, she drafted a resolution to order a disparity study that was later duplicated by city and county governments. As a co-sponsor of that resolution, I know it changed the diversity pool of contracts in every public government in this county. Sara Lewis died Jan. 22. She was 87 years old.
Another “tempered radical” was actually Jerome Wright, a gifted and prolific writer for The Commercial Appeal and Deputy Editor of the Tri-State Defender. He was one of the first Blacks hired by The Commercial Appeal in 1971 in the midst of the civil rights movement. Marcus Latrell in a Facebook post stated that “Jerome Wright volunteered to mentor him in the country’s first city-wide high school newspaper, Teen Appeal.”
Wright loved all people but was keenly aware that he had to be an example of excellence to keep the doors open. He often said that many voices are needed in a newsroom to get all perspectives and represent the public.
Jerome Wright helped in the writing of this column, never realizing he would be included, but he wanted stories told of sung and unsung changemakers in Memphis. Jerome died the day we talked about the outline of this story on Jan. 23, of heart failure. He was 74 years old.
All of these great citizens of Memphis made significant changes in their community and valued diversity of thought, whether based on social status, culture, race, religion, abilities, or disabilities. Memphis is a better community because they lived.
When you look at their body of work, you quickly realize that they kept the light on and the doors open for so many others.