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128 Chapter 7 “I Am Not Your Social Conscience” Busing in the Memphis City Schools The year 1971 marked a turning point for Memphis and its activist community . The economic inequality exposed by the strike at St. Joseph’s Hospital proved to be only the beginning of a new series of racially divisive events that mobilized Memphis’s activist community and continued to drive a wedge between black and white Memphians. The death of a black suspect, Elton Hayes, held in Memphis police custody, and the proposed desegregation of the Memphis city school system created renewed opportunities for activists to hone their skills and arguments within the fight for racial justice.1 Dorothy “Happy” Jones met the horrors of seventeen-year-old Elton Hayes’s October 1971 death with the formation of the Memphis Community Relations Commission (MCCR). Both the mayhem of the post–sanitation strike fallout of riots and violence and the black and white community outcry prompted the Memphis City Council to create the Memphis and Shelby County Human Relations Commission in May 1968. Memphis followed the model of cities like New Orleans and others , which had developed similar structures in the wake of the vestiges of racial tensions following the civil rights movement. Jones stood at the forefront of the group’s creation at this early stage, writing a letter to the council criticizing the racial discrimination that permeated the city’s housing and employment structures. Although the council publicly acknowledged the “city’s seething racial problems and the need for a concerted effort . . . to correct the inequities brought on by years of Busing in the Memphis City Schools 129 racially prejudiced practices and racial discrimination,” three years elapsed before the council allocated funds to the administration of the Memphis and Shelby County Human Relations Commission. Happy Jones served as the first chairperson of the MCCR in 1972, and she remained in that office three years.2 The MCCR built upon the model of multiracial discussion and communication initiated by the Panel of American Women, utilizing many of the same personnel in its projects and as administrators. Jones and Jocelyn Wurzburg both believed that the time had come to stop talking about the city’s problems and start resolving them; the MCCR afforded them that opportunity. The MCCR functioned as an “ombudsman for city government,” allowing citizens a forum from which to lodge complaints about racial discrimination. Jones admitted that the organization had no legal clout, but it did have a degree of political pull; the executive director of the MCCR at this time, James Netters, served simultaneously as a city council member. Jones herself served on the city’s planning commission, working with Loeb’s successor, Wyeth Chandler, a politician who believed no outside, federal agency had the power to force him to integrate. Jones recalled a verbal exchange she had with Chandler that illustrated this fact. While chairperson of the MCCR, Jones asked Chandler to expand African American representation in city hall. After he flatly refused, Jones reminded him that such a choice did not lie in the hands of a municipal official, but fell under the aegis of outside government agencies. Jones pointed to this conversation as illustrative of the recalcitrant climate in city hall. She lamented the fact that this unfortunate resistance characterized an administration that paid lip service to demands to alleviate Memphis’s tense race relations. This attitude exposed the city’s vital need for an organization like the MCCR.3 Along with assisting in the battle over busing, the MCCR made great strides in easing racial segregation in Memphis neighborhoods. From eliminating the unscrupulous practice of “blockbusting,” in which realtors utilized “scare” tactics to sell an entire block of property quickly to ensure racial segregation, to forcing the city to suspend its annexation of surrounding areas before providing city services in efforts to facilitate “white flight” to the suburbs, the MCCR exercised its political muscle to influence city government to implement fair practices in administrating . Through the MCCR, Jones orchestrated a combined effort with Busing in the Memphis City Schools 130 the Department of Housing and Urban Development to informally investigate complaints filed with HUD regarding racial discrimination in rental properties. By tapping into her extensive network from the MCCR and the Panel, Jones trained and sent one African American potential “renter” to a property cited repeatedly by HUD for racial discrimination. A white “renter” followed the first, and tried to obtain the same apartment . Jones and...


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MARC Record
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