Lessons from the Memphis 13: What 13 First-Graders Have to Teach About Law, Life, and the Legacy of Brown

Fifty years after desegregating schools in Memphis as first graders, the pioneering students shared their stories for the first time. The resulting film, The Memphis 13 (2011), brought a largely overlooked episode in the civil rights movement into the broader movement narrative. In this essay, the film’s director – who also happens to be a law professor – combines a first-person account of the intellectual journey involved in meeting the pioneering students and their families with a scholarly analysis of the implications of the students’ stories. Specifically, the essay describes the intense isolation the students experienced both during their experience desegregating schools and in the decades that followed and questions the responsibility that lawyers and movement leaders have to foot soldiers who are participating in a social movement through no choice of their own. Looking back, the students took widely divergent lessons from their experience, demonstrating the complexity of crafting a meaningful remedy even for individuals in the post-Brown era. The essay thus utilizes these personal narratives to critique the choices made during the desegregation effort. This real world testimony provides a fresh perspective on longstanding debates that too often discount the experiences of those most directly affected.