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‘Memphis State Eight’ lose friend, activist

  • Written by Dr. Sybill C. Mitchell
  • Published in News
Sammie Burnett-Johnson succumbed to bone cancer last Saturday. She and seven other students made history in 1959 when they became the first African-American students to attend Memphis State University (now the University of Memphis). It has been a memorable yet bittersweet seven days in the South. Thousands honored Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. on Monday by engaging in community service. Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour invited 125 freedom riders to the state where they were brutally attacked five decades ago. Plans were announced for a civil rights museum in Jackson, Miss., and the famous “Memphis State Eight” lost a comrade and friend.

 Marvis LaVerne Kneeland Jones and Sammie Burnett-Johnson
 Marvis LaVerne Kneeland Jones and Sammie Burnett-Johnson (right) were still inseparable nearly five decades after they helped integrate Memphis State University (now University of Memphis) back in 1959.  The two are shown at the 8th Annual Graduate Association for African-American History Conference in 2006 when the “Memphis State Eight” were honored for “their heroic efforts.” (Photo by Tyrone P. Easley/Courtesy of MLK Jones)

Sammie Burnett-Johnson, a resident of Kansas City, Kan., succumbed to bone cancer last Saturday. She and seven other students made history in 1959 when they became the first African-American students to attend Memphis State University (now the University of Memphis).

“This will be a wonderful home-going celebration,” said Burnett-Johnson’s daughter, Dianne Ward, this week. “Mother lived life to the fullest every moment she was here. She accomplished everything she had aspired to do, and she did not suffer. We are just grateful that the Lord gave her to us for as long as He did.”

Burnett-Johnson was diagnosed with cancer in 2008. She responded to treatment very well during those initial months, said Ward. Later, those treatments became ineffective, and she declined rapidly.

“It looked, at first, like mother would survive, but the illness started to take its toll. She remained quite active until her strength failed. Even after breaking down the racial barrier with the Memphis State Eight, mother stayed true to her activist beliefs. There were five children, and we were all conscious of the fact that she had been a part of something great and profound.”

“Sammie” was the youngest of three children, her sister Zelma Dillihunt said.

“I was four years older than Sammie, but I admired her so much for what those eight students were doing. The family didn’t really consider her famous, but we understood that so many coming after them would benefit because of the trail they were blazing.”

After breaking down barriers at Memphis State, Burnett-Johnson moved on to New Mexico State University, earning a bachelor’s degree in social work. An MBA from the University of Kansas soon followed.

She taught accounting and law at St. Mary’s College for several years before joining the faculty of Kansas City (Kan.) Community College where she taught for nearly 20 years.

“Sammie loved to sing. She loved to relax with a good book. She just enjoyed everything about her life. Sammie remained passionate about taking up causes when she felt something was unjust. Hers was a life well lived.”

Reflections from ‘back in the day’

Marvis LaVerne Kneeland Jones and Sammie Burnett-Johnson became inseparable during their Memphis State days.

“I graduated from Hamilton High, and Sammie came from Booker T. Washington,” recalled Jones. “When we stepped foot on campus, administrators told us to be off campus by noon each day. The only place we were allowed to go was to class. We were being penalized because people were not ready for integration. I remember Sammie’s response to that fact.

“She said, ‘That is just ridiculous.’ I reminded her that we couldn’t say anything. We were there to get an education, and it wasn’t worth getting upset about how others were responding toward us.

“Sammie and I had attended LeMoyne College that fall semester after graduating high school. I received a scholarship to Knoxville College, but we couldn’t afford college out of state. A. W. Willis, Ben Hooks, Jesse Turner Sr. at Tri-State Bank, and the NAACP had gotten involved with our fight to enroll in Memphis State. Black fraternities, sororities, churches, and community organizations got behind the effort and supported us financially.

“But when I came home that first day, I wanted to quit college,” Jones recalled. “I told my father, ‘I have never seen so many white folk in my life, and I want to go back to LeMoyne College.’ He said, ‘We pay taxes like everybody else. Memphis State is a state school, and you have the right to go there just like anyone else.’ I knew then that leaving was not an option.”

Sammie was articulate, brilliant, and quite outspoken, according to Jones. But the Memphis State Eight knew it was important to endure the challenges and reach the goal.

“Sammie was salutatorian of our senior class at Booker T. Washington High School in 1958,” said James C. Nolan. She was active in a number of auxiliaries at BTW, but my admiration really grew for her after she became a part of the Memphis State Eight.

“We’ve come a long way, but we still have not reached the promised land,” said Nolan. “Sammie and the other seven students built a bridge over the waters of prejudice and discrimination back then that others will continue to cross for generations to come. We will all miss Sammie.”

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