Lessons Learned from the Civil Rights Visionaries of Memphis


Memphis has Soul

IMG_0068Memphis, Tennessee is home to so much more than Graceland, delicious barbeque, and the intriguing duck march of the Peabody Hotel. At the heart of this city is a rich history and culture, with beams of light shining through the darkness. Similar to its influential musical roots and the glittering neon signs of Beale Street, Memphis has soul, with enough people and movements that are willing to change for the community’s future wellbeing. We first witnessed community through mass at St. Patrick’s Catholic Church, where we were reminded to live through each coming moment with eyes, hearts, and arms wide open to receive an authentic perspective on what Memphis is experiencing.

“Only in the darkness can you see the stars.” Martin Luther King Jr.

Movement to Overcome

Our first big experience of the week was visiting the Civil Rights Museum, located at the Lorraine Motel where Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated. The exhibits chronicled the history of the civil rights movement in America up to the focus on empowerment and representation today. It was overwhelming yet enlightening as we internalized the painful history w were presented: the history of slavery, the Jim Crow era, color-lining (red-lining), Freedom Riders, desegregation, the Albany Movement, police brutality, the Birmingham Campaign, the March on Washington, the Mississippi Summer Project, the Selma-to-Montgomery marches, the Memphis Sanitation Strike, and, of course, the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. The exhibit on the power of nonviolence was especially significant in inspiring us as we began this trip. The journey of freedom continues today and working towards justice through peaceful service and advocacy builds the foundation of this movement. Making an investment in learning and understanding such just and unjust times in American history is crucial to developing meaningful connections to the issues we face currently. Taking the time to delve deep into the historical narrative provided a framework for understanding the week’s coming experiences and the issues of poverty and education in Memphis.

“These are ordinary people who made extraordinary courageous choices: to stand by their convictions, to represent the concerns of others, and to mobilize individuals into mass movement for change.” National Civil Rights Museum


Leading Exemplars of Justice

            Many people served as an inspiration and role model for living out the values of compassion, justice, faith, peace, and more. We could feel the hopeful spirit through each interaction with, and hearing from, members of the Memphis community as they shared their stories, advice, and passions with us.

Jeff Riddle, the director of our host-site, Serve901, prepared many opportunities of engagement throughout the week including an orientation, seminar, and discussion with other college students. It was heartwarming to witness the selflessness and willingness to lift up the city of Memphis through the work of Serve901. Coordinating the many universities’ service work, being a welcoming and inspiring presence throughout the week, and representing how to be the light for a community were just a few things Jeff exemplified. Walter Casey, the director of Lester Community Center, was a similar ray of hope and positivity. He’s worked hard in his position for many decades—with limited resources and space—to give back to the youth and families of the Binghampton neighborhood.

Daniel Warner gave insight into the education system and its flaws. He shared that one solid solution to the disparities, inequalities and lack of access to education could be implementing more diversity in race and socioeconomic status. How can we positively impact a community without giving them representation, or a platform for their voices to be heard? This is the first step among many in combating the injustices of many institutions that are required to serve rather than harm or hinder the people as they often do today. We began to unpack this complicated matter through our services at the Memphis Delta Preparatory Charter School, where leading instructor Oliver Miller personified the grace in teaching and uplifting children. It was natural to create a friendship and mentor relationship with each child, and it was a true blessing to be a part of their lives if even just for one week. Educators such as Daniel and Oliver highlight the need for empowering the youth and giving each child the tools to not only survive but thrive in life.

It’s not easy. Averell Mondie, a photographer and community activist in Memphis, shared an emotional response regarding the reality of working for justice. The struggle of first identifying your passions, and then the consequential struggle of not giving up those passions once you find a way to engage them in the real world, is extremely challenging. He noted how vital it is to have a support group or a social network in which you can confide and draw strength from. I felt solace as I looked around me and saw the attentive faces of the other Creighton students. We as Creighton students can become stronger in our reliance on one another, while also growing personally through each experience. This is the power of community, where each individual contributes to something greater, thus enabling the community to collectively create change.

“These children–unoffending, innocent, and beautiful–should never become victims of vicious crimes perpetrated against humanity.” Martin Luther King Jr.


Understanding the Mission

Fr. David M. Knight gave a thoughtful lecture one evening as a thunderstorm raged outside the comforting Monastery of St. Clare, our home for the week. One of the many ideas he talked about was motivation, which he defines as the mystery of divine empowerment to do the Good. Such motivation is found through the gifts of piety, fortitude, and fear of the Lord. He explained how piety as a spirit of family and loyalty gives us the ability to treat others justly and believe in helping others. Fortitude as the courage and strength that gives us the power to do good despite difficulty or danger. Fear as awe of the Lord that gives us the perspective to appreciate all that God is and what the world is, so much so that we can defy temptation. Similar ideas compounded into the three-part mission of the Christian tradition: called to be a prophet, a priest, and a steward. Father Knight’s wisdom created a much-needed connection to God and explained how our spirituality and religious beliefs give us the motivation to do good and give back to others. Service requires a sense of deep understanding of one’s actions, and this understanding cannot be achieved without intentional reflection and vulnerable discussion.

“Hope is the seed of Liberation.” Jon Sobrino

A Worldview Changed

The reflection portion of our trip was crucial for thinking through each experience packed into our days’ busy schedules. Our coordinators led with great consideration and intent so that we were all able to share with each other and grow together. With each passing day, we as a group were able to draw the connections between everything we witnessed. Our social analysis of the injustices Memphis faces drew upon those connections and taught us many things. Thinking that you can figure out the issue of education without looking at its connections to poverty, historically racist systems, and so on, simply cannot lead to a just solution—that was one such lesson. Another lesson: whatever passion you find yourself having, pursue it and find the way to contribute towards and build upon justice in your community of chemists, doctors, entrepreneurs, journalists, etc. Every person has so much to give and so much that others can receive from each of us. This is the action piece for when we have returned to the Creighton and Omaha communities transformed and enriched; we are called to continue to advocate about and remain aware of the injustices we have witnessed firsthand throughout our journey in Memphis. It no longer feels acceptable to ignore the realities of today, to accept the violence and oppression used against the marginalized, to support predatory consumers of power at the expense of those suffering. Our worldview has changed: we strive forward equipped with a hunger for change, conviction for justice, and the knowledge to help inspire those who follow after us.

            “Each of us can inspire greatness. Each one of us can make a difference. The heroes you will encounter bear witness to the universal power of the idea of human rights…The convictions of people who believe they can change the world.” National Civil Rights Museum

Bhavan Chana
Class of 2021

The SCSJ blogs are meant to be a place for Creighton students, faculty, staff, alumni/ae, and friends to reflect on their experiences with programs sponsored by the office or related to its mission. The views expressed in these reflections, and all other blogs found on or linked to from this website, are those of the individual authors and are not necessarily those of Creighton University, the Schlegel Center for Service and Justice (SCSJ), or any of the University’s affiliates. The University and the SCSJ are not responsible for the actions, content, accuracy, or opinions expressed in these blogs.