Mark Neal has been the principal of Melrose High School in Orange Mound for four years. On Tuesday, he and several dozen students were combing an area of downtown in search of history.
It was all around them.
Melrose partners with Leadership Memphis and through that connection came an association with Rosalind Withers, the president/CEO of the Withers Collection Museum and Gallery and Museum on Beale Street. Withers extended a hand that allowed the school to get involved in the 50-year commemoration of death of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in Memphis.
That brought the 1968 Sanitation workers strike into the picture.
“Today we watched videos on Dr. (Ernest) Withers (the gallery’s namesake) and the Sanitation Strike. We also had a couple of speakers from the museum. Then we did a reenactment photo,” Neal said.
So with a slight chill on the morning, each student grabbed a replica of the iconic “I AM A Man” signs carried by the striking workers. Then they made their way to historic Robert R. Church Park on Beale St., just across Fourth Street and behind the first brick church in the Mid-South built for and by blacks.
“We held up ‘I AM A Man’ signs to honor the sanitation strikers from 1968,” said Neal. The students – 11th graders – will cover the period in their U.S. history classes, he said.
“Going back after this event, we will spend some time debriefing. … I think they made connections today such as (to) Black Lives Matter and how some of these movements and protests can definitely connect back to the civil rights era.”
Neal was born in 1977, nine years after Dr. King’s death.
“But I am a former history major and a former history teacher. The civil rights era is by far the area I have the most interest in teaching and trying to make connections for my students, even though we didn’t live in that era.”
Neal, who hails from Tipton County, grew up hearing his grandparents and neighbors share stories about coming up through the Great Depression and the Jim Crow and civil rights eras.
His takeaway from those childhood lessons was to “take full advantage of the opportunities … afforded us by the hard work of others.”
Today, there tends to be, said Neal, “a disconnect” between students’ understanding and appreciation of history.
“As a leader of a school, I am charged with helping students reconnect and that’s why I took full advantage of this trip; just being able to help students understand the role they play today in advancing our race and our culture as a whole.”
Kierra Freeman was zeroed in on the day’s opportunity – to learn more about African-American history and photography, particularly what goes on behind the scenes. She wants to be a photojournalist.
“Honestly…I knew about the events, general events, but when I came here I got more details on what actually went on and more detail on everything that was associated with it,” Freeman said.
She also came away with a greater appreciation for being civically engaged today.
The “I AM A Man” reenactment made a particular impression on Jonterio Collins.
“I felt special because I was involved in something that had history,” he said.
Like Freeman, he knew of the historic period but, “I didn’t have a lot of information. I’d seen movies and in the history books I’d seen the signs. …
“I would tell somebody that if they came out here, they would learn a lot; first-hand accounts, meet some awesome people, too, and really just see how our people lived … and what they had to go through during that time. …
Ryan Butler, who has worked at the museum and gallery for about five months, spoke to the students.
“I felt there was a need to express some positive words of encouragement to our younger, black generation. The way that things are going doesn’t look too bright if it continues to tread in the direction that it is heading. “
Butler’s specific reference was to so many incidents of violence and self hate.
“Like I expressed to them, you look back 50 years ago to when Dr. King got assassinated here in Memphis, everything we did, we worked together. That was the only way it got accomplished. Working together … That’s why we are where we are today as far as some opportunity.
“We’ve come a long way, but we still have much way to go. And that aspect, as far as self hate and working together in unity as far as race, I feel like we have regressed a whole lot.”
Still, the 2011 graduate of Whitehaven High School said he has reason to be hopeful.
“Like I expressed to them…what I am going to do, personally, myself, is try to go out in the communities and actually reach these younger people instead of what a lot of what our leaders…do. …
“That’s the kind of initiative it is going to take to make a change. And it’s going to have to take more than one person or more than two people to do it.”