Saturday, March 14, 2015

'History makers' to be honored during New Sardis' African American history program

      Memphis is distinguished for its eclectic music, succulent barbeque and, of course, the “Ol’ Man River,” a familiar refrain put to music about the comings and goings of the Mississippi River.
      But Dr. Erma Clanton, a playwright, lyricist and former teacher, envisions Memphis as more than an attraction that beckons tourists; she sees the city as a hotbed of talented and creative individuals who often go unsung.
      “I feel that there are people in Memphis who’ve done some outstanding things and should be honored on the local level,” said Dr. Clanton, 92, who, for several decades now, brought to fruition many of the ideas that she’d envisioned while helping people to realize their potential.
      So after a 2003 interview with The History Makers, purportedly “the nation’s largest African American video oral history collection,” the idea of honoring Memphians prompted Dr. Clanton that year to create “The Living Legends Award” under the auspices of New Sardis Baptist Church at 7739 E. Holmes Rd.
The Memphis 13, part of an effort by the NAACP to desegregate
four all-white elementary schools in Memphis, were honored.
      “I got the idea from The History Makers after they honored me in Chicago,” said Dr. Clanton, a member of the church and director of its drama ministry.
      On Sunday, Feb. 22, the 2015 honorees will be fêted and bestowed the Memphis Living Legends award for their outstanding contributions during the church’s 11 a.m. African-American History Month program.
      “We will have trailblazers as well as living legends this year,” said Dr. Clanton. “There are outstanding young people who are trailblazers and not so much as living legends. I want to recognize the unsung heroes, people in the neighborhood, for example, who help other people.”
      Some of those trailblazers will be among the honorees, including The Memphis 13, a group of African-American first-graders mired in racial upheaval while integrating four all-white Memphis City Schools on Oct. 5, 1961 – Rozelle, Gordon, Bruce and Springdale elementary.
      Dwania Kyles, the daughter of the Rev. Samuel “Billy” Kyles, attended Bruce. So did Michael Willis, the son of the late civil rights attorney A.W. Willis. Willis, who was 5 years old then, now goes by the name Menelik Fombi.
      In 1961, there were 51,815 African-American students in MCS; and only 13 African Americans in desegregated schools, according to a documentary on the 13 that was executive-produced and co-written by Daniel Kiel. Kyles and Willis are perhaps two of the most familiar “history makers” among the group.
      Dr. L. LaSimba M. Gray Jr., New Sardis’ senior pastor and president of Memphis Rainbow PUSH Coalition, understands the significance of paying homage to the Memphis 13 and others who’ve blazed trails throughout history.
      “It’s tremendously important that we not allow our soldiers and trailblazers to even feel like they’re forgotten,” said Dr. Gray. “For the contributions they’ve made, we want to celebrate them.”
      Dr. Gray has extended an invitation to any of the antagonists who were hostile to the first-graders more than 50 years ago to come to the African-American history celebration for “a moment of reconciliation.”
      “This is a healing process,” he said. “Many of these people were psychologically injured, particularly these 13 students.”
      (For more information, call New Sardis Baptist Church at 901-754-3979.)

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