Students often ask, how can I make a difference? Facing History empowers young people to access the talents, skills, passions, and resources they have in their own lives to become Upstanders. When students view their lives and communities through the lens of history, they learn that their choices matter, for themselves and for the world.
These extraordinary Memphians embraced the challenge to speak out, stand up for others, and make decisions that help create positive change in our world. As they show us, there are many ways to be an Upstander--through education, law, art, friendship, or speaking the truth as a witness. Sometimes it is being the leader of a movement, other times it is behind the scenes with actions that may never get noticed. It often requires risk or stepping out of your comfort zone. Their choices have helped to create a more inclusive, just, and compassionate Memphis.
Learn about each of them below.
Nina Katz (1924-2014) “Victimhood Didn’t Define Her”
A Holocaust survivor, Nina Katz became a voice for tolerance, diversity, and literacy in Memphis and helped to establish the Memphis Literacy Council and Diversity Memphis. For 40 years, she gave speeches to schools, churches, and communities on her experiences during the Holocaust, and never accepted payment for any of her speaking engagements. She was also passionate about equal rights and worked with organizations to promote tolerance and respect for all. Recognizing that creating a more inclusive community starts with relationships and modeling what that community looks like, Katz started an interracial, interfaith, women's discussion group called "Coffee and Dialogue."
Reverend Billy Kyles (1934-2016) “Hold on to Your Dreams”
Reverend Billy Kyles served as pastor of Monumental Baptist Church. He became very active in the Memphis Civil Rights Movement, and will be forever etched in history as a witness to the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Reverend Kyles grew up at a time when a nation torn by legalized racial segregation was being challenged to live up to its promises of freedom and democracy for all. He joined a movement that would require him and others to be bullied, beaten, attacked by dogs, blasted by water hoses, and even lynched by mobs. He had every reason to lose faith but when he spoke to students, he challenged them to hold on to their dreams. He spoke of hope, not despair. He spoke of progress, not barriers. He spoke of courage, not fear. He built bridges across communities. He asked kids to face how far we have yet to go, but to appreciate how far we have come. He challenged them to keep dreaming.
Lucy Tibbs (1860’s) “Spoke the Truth at Great Personal Risk”
Lucy Tibbs provided key testimony to the U.S. House Select Committee on the 1866 Memphis Riots and Massacres. During the massacre, in which 46 African Americans were murdered and scores of black churches, homes and schools were burned, a group of white men came into her home, stole her possessions, and raped her. Tibbs found the courage to be a witness for the committee which met in the Gayoso Hotel. She had to provide her name and address, risking retaliation. Her testimony and that of the other witnesses led to radical reconstruction and the passage of the 14th amendment. Tibbs, along with other women, are often cited as the first victims of sexual assault to testify in public.
Maxine Smith (1929-2013) & Vasco Smith (1930-2009) “Even Great Leaders Have to Protect their Hope”
Maxine and Vasco Smith were nationally known civil rights leaders, fighting to end segregation in all its forms across the South, particularly in Tennessee. Maxine was executive secretary of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) from 1962 to 1995 and on the front lines in Memphis involved in milestone events, such as escorting the Memphis 13 when they integrated Memphis City Schools and negotiating on behalf on the sanitation workers. She was often the only woman at the table. Smith said the only time she almost lost hope was when Medgar Evers was assassinated. “I asked myself, ‘who am I and what right do I have to quit?’”(Grace Magazine, 2000) Fortunately for us, she found a way to restore and protect her hope and carry on. Vasco was the first black elected county commissioner serving for 20 years. He led sit-ins and boycotts of businesses that refused to serve African Americans. Maxine and Vasco had a strong partnership, supporting each other through 46 years of marriage.
Dr. Sheldon Korones (1924-2013) “Protecting the Most Vulnerable”
Dr. Sheldon Korones founded the city's first neonatal intensive care unit in 1968 as one of the first units in the country devoted to saving babies who were born prematurely. Dr. Korones spent his career trying to improve the odds for babies in a county with one of the highest infant mortality rates in the nation.
Bishop Carroll Dozier (1911-1985) “Love the Stranger”
In the aftermath of the fall of South Vietnam, Bishop Dozier, the first Bishop of the newly formed West Tennessee Catholic Diocese of Tennessee, provided leadership to encourage Memphians to expand their universe of obligation by welcoming refugees from the war. These individuals and families, who had experienced the trauma of war and loss of loved ones, arrived at the newly formed Catholic Charities. Through the resettlement program, the newcomers found support to begin a new life and establish the vibrant Vietnamese community in Memphis. It is through the example of Bishop Dozier and other individuals and organizations that Memphis continues to be an increasingly diverse city, welcoming people from across the globe and creating a more inclusive community.
Ida B. Wells (1862-1931) “Challenging Racist Ideologies”
Ida B. Wells was an African-American journalist and activist who led an anti-lynching crusade in the U.S. during the 1890s. Wells was forced to flee Memphis in fear for her life after she wrote about the lynching of three black business owners in Memphis. Her experience exemplifies the terrorism of lynching, not just on those who were killed by it, but by those who survived under its threat. She did not let the threat of death stop her from calling out the racist ideas that led to dehumanization and fear of blacks and upheld a society in which lynchings were justified by the perpetrators.
Charl Ormond Williams (1885-1969) “Equality in Schools and in the Voting Booth”
Born in Arlington, TN, Charl Ormond Williams was only 29 when she became superintendent of Shelby County Schools in 1914. She is credited with introducing many improvements that made it one of the top rural districts in the nation. Williams was an activist for the "equalization of education," believing that all children should have access to quality public education. In 1921, Williams was elected the first woman president of the National Education Association. She was also actively involved in the women’s suffrage movement in Tennessee. On August 18, 1920, those efforts paid off when Tennessee became the 36th state to ratify the 19th amendment, clearing the way for its official adoption eight days later.
Yellow Fever Upstanders (1878) “Compassion in times of Crisis”
The nuns of St. Mary’s Episcopal Church and the Catholic Dominican sisters arrived in Memphis in the mid-1800’s to operate the St. Mary's School for Girls and St. Agnes Academy. During the yellow fever outbreak in 1978 in which over 25,000 people, mostly white, fled the city, a group of young businessmen formed a local chapter of The Howard Association to provide medical assistance. Along with the nuns and the Howards, those who did not leave also included most of the African American population, many of whom also tended to the sick and performed the difficult tasks of recovering and burying the deceased.These upstanders demonstrated mercy and compassion for suffering in the face of great personal sacrifice.
Sanitation Strike Upstanders:
John T. Fisher (1934-2011) “Going against the Status Quo”
John T. Fisher, a prominent Memphian who grew up in a life of privilege, was one of the few white businessmen to support the sanitation strike and equal rights. In the days after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., John T. brought the Memphis community together, regardless of race, to join in a peace rally called “Memphis Cares." Although he was ostracized by many in the white community for his actions, he continued to work for equal rights and is now regarded as one of “the lions” of that era.
Rabbi James A Wax (1912-1989) ”Building Bridges”
Rabbi James A. Wax served as Senior Rabbi at Temple Israel in Memphis, and took an active role in civic and community leadership serving many organizations throughout the city. He was actively involved in the mediation during the strike, acting as co-chair of a race relations group of Memphis ministers. Working with other religious leaders in the community, Rabbi Wax consistently fought for justice for all Memphians. This coalition ultimately led to the formation of MIFA.
T.O. Jones (1924-1989) “Power in Identity”
Thomas Oliver "T.O." Jones, a sanitation worker-turned-union-organizer, led 1,300 black sanitation workers in Memphis in a strike against the city's neglect and abuse of its black employees, demanding recognition of their union, better safety standards, and a decent wage. Jones' initial outrage and leadership inspired his colleagues to organize and take action in the campaign, which included the famous “I am a Man” signs as a statement of dignity and individual rights, and ultimately led to a better wage and more equal rights for black sanitation workers.
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