Monday, November 25, 2013

A Friend from Long Ago

By J. Mac Holladay

I had come home to Memphis from five years as a U.S. Naval Aviator. I had been all over Asia, including Vietnam. I was hired by Dave Cooley, the strong and visionary head of the Memphis Chamber. My dad said it was the organization that was making a difference. 

I was the low man on the staff chart. They called me the Director of Special Projects. That meant that I was assigned any and all tasks that none of the key staff wanted to do. So when Memphis faced a seriously controversial school desegregation order in the fall of 1972 and Mr. Cooley decided we had to lead, not follow, I got the call.

We wrote a grant request from the U.S. Department of Justice to help us peacefully desegregate all of Memphis' public schools. With the help of our U.S. Senator, Howard Baker, we got the grant.

So we created IMPACT - Involved Memphis Parents Assisting Children and Teachers. Our core committee was headed by a Methodist minister named Jim Holmes. It was a diverse, dedicated group of citizens. I was the Executive Director. The intensity, the danger, and the importance of what we were doing made those six months before the buses rolled some of the most interesting and exciting of my career. Every child got to school safely that January morning in 1973.

One man captured what happened and its importance at the time. His name is John Egerton. He graduated from the University of Kentucky, served in Army, and in 1965 moved to Nashville to work for Southern Education Reporting Service. John reported on civil rights as it unfolded and later wrote ten books about integration in the South and was the co-creator of the documentary A Child Shall Lead Them, which is about the desegregation of Nashville's schools.

While it is less well known than many of his books, he also wrote a short history of our work in Memphis. It is titled "Promise of Promise," which he wrote for the Southern Regional Council. Memphis was the first major city in the South to peacefully desegregate its schools in 1972-73. John told the story of our people, our strategy, our tactics, and our success. It made me proud to be a part of the story.

John Egerton died on Thursday at his home in Nashville. While he later wrote about food and the connection of social justice with our Southern culture, I know what he cared about the most. He wanted the South to be better than it was, and he knew we had to do it together. Thanks John. I, and many others, will miss you and not forget what you wrote all those years ago.