You Won't Read About Them in History Books

Access to High-Quality Schools, Who We Are | 01/29/2016

Cardell Orrin
Memphis City Director

Cardell is the Memphis City Director of Stand for Children

In 1969, the Memphis City Schools’ Board and top-level administration had no African American members even though the district had a slight majority of African American students. This was just a year after Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated in Memphis and less than 5 years before attempts to desegregate the schools would turn the school system from a slight majority to overwhelmingly African American. Memphis NAACP took on this battle to gain representation on the school board through school boycotts and marches.

Local NAACP leaders challenged a group of young, black men called the Mobilizers to go out and organize students in the schools to walk out of school every Monday to put economic pressure on the school system. My father was one of those young, black men, serving as chairman of the Mobilizers. They took up the charge, driven by a mix that was a sign of the times: equal parts civil rights struggle and Black Power Movement.

At their height, Black Mondays, as they would come to be called, saw 68,000 students and close to 800 teachers stand up for their community by staying home from school. The school board agreed to appoint two (non-voting) African Americans to the board, and shortly thereafter state law would allow for actual representation on the board. Those African American school board members would be instrumental in appointing the first African American superintendent (also the only principal who supported Black Mondays), who would go on to be the first elected black mayor of Memphis.

You won’t read about my father, Cardell Jackson, and his compatriots who did the organizing in most history books. The role they played is all but forgotten except by those few school board members and NAACP leaders who are still with us. These are the forgotten tales of black history, long and interconnected threads that you can’t see at the time and maybe not for years in the future. These are the elements of change and unintended consequences that lead to the historical milestones we eventually read about.

And these are the reasons that I am so appreciative of our Stand leaders and members. They recognize the long road towards systemic change that leads to every child benefitting from a quality education and having the opportunities each and every one of them deserves.

The policies we advocate for tomorrow will not be labelled with our names, but they will bear our fingerprints. Your watchful eye of accountability to make sure that policy is implemented well may not be documented in the final tale. The school board members we elect will be the ones remembered for their bold and brave stands for children. Yet, these things don’t happen without individuals -- like you -- joined together within groups like Stand for Children. The unknown soldiers are the latticework for change.

Now, my father didn’t go on to be a “model” citizen. Growing up as a young, black man in Memphis’ Orange Mound [the first African American neighborhood in the U.S. built by African Americans], my father’s prospects were limited by the bounds of systemic racism. I lost him from much of my life as he struggled with drug addiction and imprisonment, where he led efforts for prisoners to return as positive citizens. He didn’t benefit from the equity and representation that he helped to put in place, but I did. I don’t know if he would have described himself as a black education champion, but I know that Maxine Smith, one of those first African American school board members and a Memphis NAACP leader, did.

As we move into February - Black History Month - we get to reflect on the impact of people of the African diaspora on the history of the United States and the world. I encourage you to think about the people between the lines of the history books. In that context, think about yourself, the people in your school, your Stand chapter, and your broader community. We all can find our own part to play in the larger effort to build greater equity in access to quality schools for all children. Whether in the moment or over a lifetime, each step moves us closer to the outcome we all desire and need.

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  • You're right, Cardell, I grew up in Memphis, attended Memphis City Schools and was attending Central High School the day Martin Luther King was killed. I lived through integration and sadly was oblivious to many of the real struggles that were taking place in our schools - and our city. Thanks for this story about your Dad because I had not heard about the Mobilizers. Thanks also for continuing this legacy through Stand for Children.
    Glenda Yarbrough

    February 2, 2016 10:50 AM

  • Thank you for the information on African American Cardell Orrin director of Stand for Children
    Helen M. Brown

    February 2, 2016 1:07 PM

  • Thanks for sharing this valuable information.!i will share it with my church doing our Black History program.
    Betty Thomas

    February 3, 2016 11:45 AM

  • Thank you, I also was among the 68, 000 students who left school. In 1969 I was a senior at Northside High and it was a "Black Day'-when Northside first opened it was to be one of the premier schools in the integration process-but, that did not happen. Most of the students came from Humes High (which was all white). My classmates and I integrated Humes in 1967, the 10th grade was half black and half white, by the time we were assigned to Northside, the white student body was maybe 10 students. In that two year period, there was a massive "white flight" every white family in North Memphis, pass the dividing line at Vollintine to Danny Thomas had moved. When we decided to boycott, we were some scared kids, they told us we would be suspended and the seniors would not graduate. What would we tell our parents-but we moved on and I for one, am very proud that we did.
    Doretha Jones

    February 3, 2016 11:55 AM

  • Hi Doretha - Thank you for sharing! How incredible to hear from someone who was a student in this particular story, let alone a student who walked out. If you want to share more of your perspective from the student side, we'd love to hear it (and share it, as well). You can reach me at [email protected]

    February 3, 2016 2:16 PM

  • Thank you for sending this. It's so important that all Americans know these stories.
    Joan Spiegel

    February 3, 2016 11:57 AM

  • What Mr. Orin has stated "...thinking about the people between the lines of history books" really resonates with me. How often do we read or hear about the leaders of different historical, reli- gious, or social movements, but we hardly know about the influences of the lesser, but certainly not insignificant, "mobilizers" who were in the trenches doing a lot of the grunt work that made for the underlying changes and motivations for what have become the laws of the land and integral amendments to the Constitution?! THESE are some of the REAL movers and shakers, the unsung heroes, that have forged the paths we now walk upon!
    Kraig and Valer...

    February 3, 2016 1:20 PM

  • Thanks for your comment! We couldn't agree more. Change takes a herculean effort by numerous people, and we love hearing and sharing the stories of the - as you said - "unsung heroes" who get it done.

    February 3, 2016 2:12 PM

  • Cardell, This is a powerful story on so many levels--thanks for sharing with all of us.
    Russ Wigginton

    February 3, 2016 2:00 PM

  • Thanks for sharing the story of your father's service to this community. The entire city has benefitted from his courage and commitment.
    Dr. Marie Milam

    February 3, 2016 2:57 PM

  • Awesome article. Our children need to know what happened behind the scenes of today.
    Karen Love

    February 3, 2016 7:05 PM

  • You're right.
    Eric Wollscheid

    February 4, 2016 6:49 PM

  • Thank you for the information about the Black Mondays. I remember some of it when I was in elementary school at the age of 10 at Hyde Park Elementary in the Hyde Park Community where I grew up in North Memphis. I remember when Hyde Park Elementary was closed when the schools were integrated. Most of my friends I attended school with during my last year at Cypress Junior High, were bused to the majority white schools then. The schools were Kingsbury High, Treadwell, Central, and others. Tech High was on Poplar Avenue and it definitely changed in ratio of students as well as name change. My mother graduated from Douglass High School in 1958 and her year book shows that the school has history whereas in her yearbook there were elementary, junior high, and high school students that attend that school. I can say that most of my teachers were dedicated and inspire us all to learn. I am also a graduate of Northside High School and was sad to see that the school was on the list to be closed.
    Rita Sweeney

    February 5, 2016 12:23 AM

  • This story is one of many reasons why Educators should share Black History. Students of today take education for granted. It is important for educators to share the movement others made (and still make) for educational equality.
    Valencia Jeffri...

    February 6, 2016 6:15 AM

  • I really enjoyed reading about this great person that never knew even existed.

    February 22, 2016 8:03 PM