Rhodes Honors Dr. King


Publication Date: 4/4/2008

Today marks the 40th anniversary of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in our city. There are commemorative events all over town this weekend. At Rhodes, we have chosen to honor Dr. King’s birth, which we did in January, and to commemorate his death by continuing our many initiatives aimed at bringing together the diverse members of our community.

“Dr. King knew that change had to start with better understanding, which requires that people of all races engage in dialogue,” says Russell Wigginton, a Rhodes alumnus, former professor of African American history and current vice president for college relations. “Those conversations are happening in Memphis, and Rhodes has been deeply involved in getting things started. We are trying to help provide such opportunities through a variety of initiatives.”
A year ago, Rhodes launched Crossroads to Freedom, a digital archive of primary materials that documents the civil rights era in Memphis, that includes the records of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights hearings held here in 1962 and the papers of a noted civil rights activist and that emphasizes oral histories of everyday people of all backgrounds—a cook at the Lorraine Hotel (the site of the assassination), Dr. King’s close friend who stood beside him on the balcony that night, white school teachers who experienced desegregation—and people of both races who were just trying to take care of their families, educate their children and be good citizens.

Rhodes’ goal in pursuing this project is even larger than capturing the everyday life of people in Memphis during the era of the black freedom struggle. While the educational and historical value of making the rich stories and documents available on the internet is undisputed, Crossroads to Freedom is just as important for its efforts to foster conversations among people of all ages and backgrounds. It is being used as a resource by Common Ground, an initiative the college is co-sponsoring with the National Civil Rights Museum, The Commercial Appeal, the city’s major daily newspaper, Bridges, Clear Channel Communications and others. The declared mission of this group is to engage 100,000 Memphians in conversations aimed at healing the racial divide.

And Crossroads is just one project of many that Rhodes students, faculty and staff are involved in that have their roots in Dr. King’s tragic involvement with the city.

  • Initially funded by a grant from the Department of Housing and Urban Development, Rhodes has established the Rhodes Hollywood Springdale Partnership, a community outreach program in the area northwest of campus, known as the zip code with the highest infant mortality rate in the nation. Today, Rhodes and community partners have improved conditions in housing, crime prevention, health education and student success.
  • The Rhodes Hollywood Springdale Partnership is a key component of the Rhodes Learning Corridor, which includes partnerships with four nearby public schools and other neighboring educational organizations, in an effort to extend educational opportunities for Rhodes students beyond the classroom and into the immediate Memphis community. Through the Learning Corridor, Rhodes students partner with public school students as they study the world around them in exciting and challenging environments.
  • Through its Institute for Regional Studies, Rhodes students and faculty experience “cultural immersion” as they conduct primary research into the history, economy, politics, religion, music—in short, into the life of the Mid-South region.
  • As a part of the college’s archaeology program, students and professors are studying Ames Plantation in Fayette County, and they are finding that there are widely held misconceptions about the everyday lives of black and white plantation residents in the antebellum South.
  • Through a National Endowment for the Humanities grant, Rhodes and Jackson State University (a historically black university in Mississippi) offer high school and community college teachers a program called, “From Freedom Summer to the Sanitation Workers’ Strike” that enhances their understanding of and ability to teach their students about the civil rights movement.
  • Rhodes participates in “The Big Read,” a National Endowment for the Arts program to promote reading and literary appreciation. This year’s book discussions on campus and in the community explored themes in To Kill A Mockingbird.
  • This weekend Congressman Steve Cohen and artist/humanitarian Harry Belafonte will co-host a town hall meeting at Rhodes in honor of Dr. King.

“Tragedy sometimes results in positive change,” says Rhodes president William E. Troutt. “Just as we now have the National Civil Rights Museum on the site of Dr. King’s assassination Rhodes has a deep resolve to work with others in the city committed to the values that Dr. King espoused.”