McFerren Pursues Social Change In Role at Hooks Institute

MARK SULLIVAN | Special to The Daily News

Daphene McFerren

Photo: Christopher Parks

With a diploma from Yale College, a degree from Harvard Law School and deep roots in the civil rights movement in Fayette County, Daphene McFerren is a mover and shaker.

While in Washington, McFerren practiced law as a trial attorney for the U.S. Department of Justice and was counsel to former Attorney General Janet Reno.

While she could not have imagined that her career would return her to the Mid-South, McFerren is thrilled to be a southerner again.

Since 2008, McFerren has led The Benjamin L. Hooks Institute for Social Change at the University of Memphis.

In 2006-2007, she served as a visiting scholar for the Institute. One year later, she was part of its leadership.

As a scholar, McFerren was responsible for creating the symposium “The Fayette County, Tennessee, Civil Rights Movement: How African-Americans Changed Themselves, Their Community, and their Nation by Demanding the Right to Vote.” A documentary McFerren helped produce on that movement, “Freedom’s Front Line: Fayette County, TN,” is now airing on WKNO and other public television stations.

McFerren uses her parents, John and Viola McFerren, leaders in the civil rights movement in Fayette County, as her lighthouse.

“As I worked with the Institute as a visiting scholar, I quickly saw it had the potential to be a flagship and make an extraordinary difference in the lives of people of all races and backgrounds,” said McFerren. “I have returned to Memphis with a very positive perfect storm brewing. We have the opportunity to make fundamental change to help our city and community prosper.

“There is intense focus on enhancing our education systems, providing more quality of life opportunities, and working together on systemic racial issues. I cannot think of a better time to be a resident in the Mid-South.”

The Hooks Institute was founded in 1996 to honor civil rights pioneer Benjamin L. Hooks and to support racial, social and economic justice for communities in need. Its mission is to preserve the history of the American civil rights movement and to advance its legacy through scholarships and community action.

The Hooks Institute began with the approval of the Tennessee Board of Regents and funding from Congress and the state of Tennessee. These funders recognize the pivotal role of the Institute in shaping and solving community problems through the witness and wisdom of pioneers like Hooks, McFerren said.

Hooks was a 2007 recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom and walked the path with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

“Working with the Institute has been as gratifying as practicing law, living in Washington, D.C., or completing a law degree from Harvard,” McFerren said. “Through our work, we are touching a lot of lives in a very positive way. I can see the difference being made on a daily basis.

“This Institute honors the accomplishments of Dr. Hooks, my parents and every person that has come before us. The Institute has developed its own programs and supports efforts of other organizations that improve the life chances of individuals in the community. The Institute also encourages the community to support its efforts by attending Institute programs and by financially supporting the cause.

“Every person should be able to live their lives without fear of discrimination and judged on the content of their character,” McFerren added. “We are all in this boat together and we should be our brother’s keeper. We must learn from the past and make it relevant for today and those who will follow us.”