Civil rights leader recalls Memphis City Schools integration

(WMC-TV) - Monday marks the 50th anniversary of integration at Memphis City Schools.

Just before Sunday morning services at Monumental Baptist Church, Rev. Samuel Billy Kyles talked about the event considered the beginning of the end of school segregation in Memphis.

"Well, it was something that had to be done," said Kyles.

Kyles was the head of the NAACP's Education Committee in 1961 and was part of the bold plan to begin desegregation at city schools with 13 first graders.

"In my own case, my daughter was five years old, and I had to give some thought to putting a five-year-old in that position," said Kyles.  "But we said, well, it's got to be done.  If if has to be done, we will do it."

Kyles' daughter and 12 other children became known as the Memphis 13.  While Kyles has marched with Martin Luther King, Jr. and been involved in the fight for civil rights his whole life, he was stunned by the intense anger of people who did not want white and black children to attend school together.

"She got into the classroom and the teacher smelled her hair, as if she had not seen black hair," said Kyles.

Kyles said police had to surround his daughter's school to keep mobs away, but even some police ordered to protect them hurled racial insults.

He said the taunting could have been even worse if the police chief had not issued an ultimatum.

"Yes, that was Claude Armour, and he said, if there is any policemen here that can't go out there and protect those little Negro kids, then turn in your badge," said Kyles.  "And no badge was turned in."

Kyles said attitudes toward integration changed over time.

His daughter is now pursuing an acting and singing career in New York.

Kyles said the courage those 13 first graders and their parents showed is something people of all races should be proud of.

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