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The Documentary “The Memphis 13”

The Memphis 13 is a thirty-five-minute documentary that follows the experiences of the thirteen students that were enrolled in all-white schools (Bruce, Gordon, Rozzelle, and Springdale Elementary schools) in Memphis, Tennessee, in October 1961. The enrollment was purposefully done to help integrate African Americans into the all-white Schools in Memphis. The entire documentary portrays these students’ experiences who were barely six-year-old at the time. The thirteen students underwent several challenges that may have been traumatic. Trauma defines an emotional response to an event that a person finds physically or emotionally threatening or harmful. Traumatic events or experiences may range from bullying, harassment, accidents, being kidnaped to even childbirth, among others. A person exposed to the distressing event may feel a range of emotions both immediately and in the long term. Occasionally, they may be overwhelmed, helpless, shocked, anxious, or have difficulty processing the experience. As demonstrated in the documentary, the thirteen African American students felt complex trauma. This disturbing event arises from exposure to various and multiple traumatic occurrences within the context of interpersonal relationships. The students in the documentary had similar several devastating experiences throughout the ordeal. Most of them shared their anxiety and fears since their first encounter at their new schools. Police officers escorted them, and they guarded the schools. Moreover, they faced prejudice from some racially-biased teachers who would not pick them to answer questions in the classrooms. At the same time, others were teased by some teachers and students. They could not speak up about their dreams and aspirations as they knew they would be discouraged. These discriminative acts made a majority of them feel unequal to their white counterparts. Being unwanted in their new learning institutions forced some of them to leave for their former all-blacks schools despite the better facilities in the all-whites centers. Those who stayed had to deal with derogatory and undermining statements from some teachers and fellow students. All these discriminatory attitudes show the nature of trauma these students underwent. At first, some parents were reluctant to get their children involved in civil rights activism, but eventually, some accepted it due to several driving principles. The parents of these thirteen kids had a strong enthusiasm to help change the situation in the South. During this moment, the civil rights movement was at its climax, and it is true to say that these parents, being involved in them, felt the need to fight for the integration of their children into these all-whites students. Perhaps, many of them had undergone racial segregation during their school days. Thus, they did not want their children to experience similar situations as them. That enthusiasm for fighting for integration was the driving force behind their decision to get their children involved in this activism.

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It is imperative to note that the action taken by these children’s parents was a sacrifice for the future. More African Americans started being enrolled in the previously all-white schools with time, which derives from the acts of the thirteen students’ parents who helped pioneer integration. Unfortunately, some white students started leaving these schools to escape from the Black infiltration, but the school plan was achieved in the long run. According to the documentary, in 2011, African Americans were the majority in Memphis City Schools. Thus, the assertion that the decision of these parents was a sacrifice for the future is correct.

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