Remembering John A. Simpson of the Memphis State Eight

John A. Simpson

By Wiley Henry

    MEMPHIS, TN – In the fall of 1959, eight African-American students broke the color barrier and integrated the former Memphis State University (now the University of Memphis). Known as the “Memphis State Eight,” four of the eight are now deceased.

John Arthur Simpson is the latest member to die, on Feb. 8. Two others also died, ironically, in February, Black History Month: Eleanor Gandy, 76, who died Feb. 6, 2017, in Charlotte, N. C.; and Rose Blakney-Love, 75, who died Feb. 12, 2017, in Memphis. Sammie Burnette Johnson, 71, died on Dr. Martin Luther King Jr’s birthday on Jan. 15, 2011. 

Robert E. Simpson Sr. has fond memories of his brother. “We were closer than most brothers. We were inseparable,” he said. “We went to church together, sang in the male chorus together, went to the Grizzlies games together. We enjoyed our relationship as brothers.”

Mr. Simpson was eulogized on Feb. 14 at Trinity Christian Methodist Episcopal Church. He was 78. Friends and loved ones paid respect to a man who unwittingly made history by defying the status quo.

He and seven others, with moxie aplenty, challenged the university and gained entrance into the all-white institution that once judged them based on the color of their skin rather than scholarship. 

Mr. Simpson has been laid to rest now. His accomplishments are duly noted in his obituary and in the annals of history. As Black History Month winds down, only four of the Memphis State Eight remain: Luther McClellan, Marvis Kneeland Jones, Ralph Prater and Bertha Rogers Looney.

 “Last year in September we celebrated 60 years,” said Looney, recalling the 18th day of that month when the University of Memphis honored the five remaining members of the Memphis State Eight. “I thought it was ironic that we were caught up in history,” she said.

Looney remembers Mr. Simpson as an intellectual who wanted to make sure that everyone was doing well. “I admired him. He was a great person,” she said. “When I walk back on campus, his spirit will be with me.”

“They all seemed to weather the storm and came out balanced,” Simpson said. However, he added that his brother soon grew tired of the rigmarole and didn’t finish Memphis State.

He left the university and married his sweetheart in 1961 from Manassas High School, the former Marion Larkin. He also joined the U.S. Air Force that year and remained for 28 years and retired with the rank of major. After returning to Memphis, he joined MetLife as a retirement marketing sales representative.

Mr. Simpson had made a life for himself after his ordeal at Memphis State University and joined the ranks of other trailblazers who found themselves embroiled in the Civil Rights Movement.

Much to his chagrin, Mr. Simpson had other plans.

“He didn’t like the way he was being treated at Memphis State. They had to sit in a special area. They couldn’t go to the games,” said Markhum “Mark” L. Stansbury Sr., who served as special assistant to Dr. Shirley Raines and three other university presidents.

Once denied admission to the university, Stansbury advocated for the Memphis State Eight. Soon a historical marker was erected in front of the Administration Building in 2006. Raines, then president of the university, welcomed the trailblazers back on campus for the special honor.

Mr. Simpson was in attendance, Looney said, and, like the other trailblazers, welcomed the fanfare. Sixty years ago, they were isolated and faced unbearable hardships trying to get a college education. Now they are celebrated. 

Stansbury said he noticed nearly a dozen non-blacks at Mr. Simpson’s funeral. “Back in the day, they couldn’t accept you. Now 60 years later, non-blacks can accept you for what you did.”

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