Law Professor Kiel Recounts Stories of ‘Memphis 13’

By Andy Meek

Daniel Kiel, a professor at the University of Memphis Cecil C. Humphreys School of Law, has spent years thinking and writing about issues like school desegregation in Memphis and the influence of race on education.

But beyond the case law, legal documents and histories, he’s also found himself drawn to the human element of a particular story that represents an historic milestone in those areas. It’s the moment in 1961 when 13 African-American first-graders in Memphis enrolled in four all-white elementary schools – the first step toward desegregating schools in the city.

And earlier this week – a week that included the 50th anniversary of that desegregation effort – a few Memphis audiences beheld the big-screen product of Kiel’s interest in that story of some of Memphis’ youngest trailblazers.

Kiel is the director of “The Memphis 13,” a new, 45-minute documentary narrated by Memphis Mayor A C Wharton Jr. and featuring 21 interviews from the students and family members central to the story.

The documentary premiered Monday, Oct. 3, 50 years to the day after the students first entered those segregated schools. The invitation-only premiere was held at the National Civil Rights Museum.

The following night, the movie had a showing to the public at the Malco Paradiso theater in East Memphis. No future screenings have been scheduled, but Kiel expects more will be on the way.

The film was made possible by a grant Kiel got a few years ago from the Benjamin L. Hooks Institute of Social Change to collect oral histories from the people involved in the desegregation effort. Working with a local independent filmmaker, Jane Folk, Kiel set about to do just that.

“Ever since I started doing the research, I wanted to find these people and find out what it felt like in the schools and what it felt like for these students — who were first-graders — doing this.”

–Daniel Kiel
Director, “The Memphis 13”

“Ever since I started doing the research, I wanted to find these people and find out what it felt like in the schools and what it felt like for these students – who were first-graders – doing this,” said Kiel, a 2004 graduate of Harvard Law School who has worked at firms in Memphis and Boston.

He wanted to know what it felt like for students like Dwania Kyles, who said in the film that, “It was not very difficult for me to realize I was in a situation where I was like … ‘OK, where are the other kids who look just like me?’”

And the same for Harry Williams, who said in the film, “You heard the worst, but you didn’t really know how bad it was going to be. It was hard to cope with at first. But the more I went, I just didn’t pay attention. I blocked it out.”

Kiel has been a professor at the U of M since 2006. His work around the law and education frequently takes him outside his U of M classroom, with the new film serving as an example of that.

He also serves on the faculty advisory board of the Benjamin L. Hooks Institute of Social Change and the advisory board of Facing History and Ourselves, an organization that focuses on encouraging students’ insights into ethical and moral questions.

And Kiel is a founding steering committee member of Common Ground Memphis, an initiative whose goal is to improve race relations in Memphis. In addition, he has facilitated programs for high school students in conjunction with the National Civil Rights Museum on the seminal legal decision Brown v. Board of Education.

“Slowly but surely, we accumulated interviews and ended up talking to all 13 families,” Kiel said. “We spoke to 11 students and parents of the other two.

“I think this film will be useful for lawyers and people interested in using the law for social change to think about the human impact that these kinds of things have. That’s what the film is about.”