University of Memphis honors historic graduates - WMC Action News 5 - Memphis, Tennessee

University of Memphis honors historic graduates

It was the fall of 1959, and Jim Crow still ran rampant in the south.

But after the Montgomery Bus boycott and the integration of Little Rock's Central High school, Memphis leaders realized it was time for change.

Memphis State University graduate Marvis Laverne Kneeland says, "You know Rosa Parks bus boycott, that I think put it on everybody's mind... We need to do some integration around here.  We pay taxes and these taxes are not being used adequately. We are not getting our fair share."

So at the request of local NAACP President Jesse Turner, 8 Memphis teenagers became reluctant pioneers.

Among them - 18 year old Manassas graduate John Simpson.

Simpson says, "Had I realized, I probably wouldn't have gone.. I'd have been too fearful to have taken that step."
    
The threat of violence was a very real concern for the family of Hamilton graduate Marvis Laverne Kneeland.    

Kneeland continues, "And he said, whatever happens, I'll stand behind you... And I said, what do you think is going to happen... And he said..  Well, I don't know."
    
Though the 8 never faced serious violence, they were harassed and humiliated in subtle ways and their college experience was far different from that of the average co-ed.

Kneeland says, "Get off the campus by noon. Don't go to the cafeteria. You can't take physical education. You can't go to any sports activities."
    
Back then, the university chose their classes... They each still remember the isolation of being the only black in their respective classes...
    
It was a difficult year...They haven't kept in touch.

Kneeland says, "And like I say.. John... Is this John?  John Simpson, you've gained some weight."
  
But looking back now... Jones and Simpson understand the significance of their sacrifice --- one they hope is not lost.

Jones says, "I'm a little embarrassed.. I know that it was important, but it is a special event, and I don't mind sharing it at all."

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