For more than 45 years, enduring changes in its programs, leadership, and even its name, Literacy Mid-South has stayed true to the vision that inspired its creation in 1974: to bring the gift of literacy to people of the Mid-South.

The rich history of Literacy Mid-South began with a call to help low-literacy adults gain the reading skills needed to excel academically, secure gainful employment, and engage fully with their communities. Later, LMS broadened its mission to include family literacy and students not reading on grade level by third grade. Today, in addition to continuing its work with adult and student readers, Literacy Mid-South serves as a convener and core collaborator for the broad community of literacy-focused organizations in the region.

Multiple generations of volunteer tutors have anchored Literacy Mid-South’s story. Prominent community leaders have played key roles, but so has a large cast of supporters serving quietly in the background. Setting the stage were a foreign missionary and the local preacher who championed his teaching method. A music superstar also pitched in. Thousands of people and numerous partners have worked with energy and dedication through the years to grow the organization that is still the literacy leader of the Mid-South.

Literacy gains the nation’s attention

The Memphis Literacy Council, parent organization of Literacy Mid-South, was established at a time when the nation had come to recognize the price that low-literacy was exacting in America.

In 1966, the U.S. Congress passed the Adult Basic Education Act in connection with President Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty and Great Society initiatives. The Act was designed to attack the roots of poverty, which for many citizens was directly linked to low educational attainment and illiteracy.

Adult education programs that were focused on high school equivalency and job training already existed; the new Act emphasized literacy training for adults who lacked the most fundamental reading skills. States would administer the funding, and the new law called for widespread community input and collaboration in the project. As a result, volunteer organizations that focused on basic adult literacy proliferated in communities across the country. The organization that emerged in Memphis was the Memphis Literacy Council.

Teaching one-to-one

As states and local communities considered various approaches to teaching adult literacy from square one, a popular choice was the Each One Teach One method. Each One Teach One was the brainchild of a Congregationalist minister and missionary who was convinced that teaching people to read would not only advance Christianity but also foster world peace. His name was Frank Laubach.

Dr. Laubach’s earliest literacy work was with savage tribesmen in the jungles of the Philippines. While teaching illiterate natives to read their own language, Laubach conceived the Each One Teach One technique of individualized instruction by volunteer tutors. He went on to create Laubach Literacy, a literacy training business. It has been estimated that Dr. Laubach was directly or indirectly responsible for as many as 100 million people learning to read.

A Memphian who followed and championed Laubach’s work was Dr. R. Paul Caudill, pastor of First Baptist Church in Memphis from 1944 to 1975. Caudill had been a high school teacher in rural Kentucky and saw the impact illiteracy could have on an individual’s life. He said, “It’s like being half blind. It’s like living on an island. They (the illiterate) are isolated from the community that you and I take for granted.”

In his lifetime, Caudill visited more than 80 nations in the crusade for world literacy. He began supporting literacy projects early in his ministry in Memphis. Baptist women’s organizations accepted literacy as a Christian mission; Sue Stansill and Muriel Briggs were among the Baptist women leading literacy endeavors in the Memphis area during this period.

In one early local effort, a gifted and experienced city schools teacher named Pauline Hord adapted the Each One Teach One approach to television and became director of a literacy program on WKNO, the Memphis public television channel. A flaw in the undertaking was that television was still in its infancy and many of the people who needed training did not have televisions. A generous Memphian stepped forward and donated TVs to local community centers to encourage viewing in low-income neighborhoods. The donor’s name: Elvis Presley.

The groundwork is laid

Each One Teach One was the method chosen to implement basic adult literacy training in Memphis. Volunteer tutors were recruited for training, and 10-hour workshops led by certified Laubach trainers were scheduled. Among the volunteers who attended a workshop in 1972 were two pioneers in the early work of the Memphis Literacy Council: Jocelyn Rudner and Nina Katz.

A number of agencies were collaborators in these early adult literacy activities. Among them were the adult education division of Memphis City Schools; local VISTA workers (Volunteers in Service to America); Metropolitan Interfaith Association (MIFA); and the Memphis Public Library. Gid Smith of MIFA and Blake Welch, director of adult education for Memphis City Schools, played prominent roles in organizing for literacy.

Community leaders already involved in literacy efforts established the Memphis Literacy Council (MLC) in January 1974. Dr. Paul Caudill was the Council’s first chairman. The organization’s goal was to help centralize and coordinate adult literacy work in the Memphis area.

Nina Katz, already serving as a trained volunteer tutor, was named to the first Board of Directors. Jocelyn Rudner was added to the Board the next year. Both women were active locally in Hadassah, the Jewish women’s group that had long supported literacy causes.

Data testified to the need for a strong adult illiteracy crusade in Memphis at the time. The 1970 census indicated there were 30,000 people over age 25 in Memphis who could not read at all, with more than 80,000 adults who had some degree of reading difficulty. The Memphis Literacy Council, with its focus on one-to-one, personal tutoring that could meet each student at his or her proficiency level, had plenty of work to do.

Off to a busy start

Three months after its founding, the Memphis Literacy Council assumed the role of coordinating training sessions in Memphis for volunteers in the Each One Teach One method. Fifty people attended the first MLC-facilitated class.

By the summer of that year, Memphis Literacy Council sought the help of local media in finding students for the trained tutors to teach. Nina Katz told a reporter, “Finding adult pupils willing to admit they cannot read is a challenge. We are not kidding ourselves that 30,000 people are going to come rushing out and scream, ‘Teach us!’” Local businesses, churches and civic organizations joined the effort to identify adults in need of literacy training, and soon all the trained tutors were busy.

At the end of its first fiscal year in July 1975, the Memphis Literacy Council had 220 adults enrolled in tutoring sessions. 100 were on a waiting list. Tutors had logged 11,911 volunteer hours. Nina Katz was serving as the organization’s volunteer executive director.

Later than year, Laubach Literacy announced that the Memphis Literacy Council had made great strides and was prepared to move forward without direct supervision from Laubach trainers and administrators. Only six volunteer organizations working with Laubach across the nation received such recognition.

Growing years

In 1977, Nina Katz stepped down and was replaced by Jocelyn Rudner, who served for five years without salary in the executive director position. During that period, Memphis Literacy Council was an all-volunteer organization. VISTA volunteers served as office coordinators and community recruiters.

“My work with the Memphis Literacy Council was the closest I ever came to having a paying job,” said Rudner, the daughter of philanthropist Abe Plough. “I didn’t need the money, and the Literacy Council did. We were in the old Lowry School, then the old Red Cross building. We had a couple of closets for our office. But the work we were doing was important.”

The Literacy Council hired its first professional staff member in 1979 when Gay Johnston became executive director. She assumed leadership of an organization that was training approximately 350 low-literate adults each year at local churches and libraries. By the time the Memphis Literacy Council celebrated its tenth anniversary in 1984, it had two full-time employees and three part-time employees.

In the early years, Johnston worked out of a small donated space at local Red Cross offices. Whatever she couldn’t fit into her tiny office, like books and school supplies, she carried around in her station wagon. Later in her tenure, Memphis Literacy Council set up offices in the Messick Vocational Technical Center owned by Memphis City Schools.

“I met so many people whose stories were very moving,” Gay Johnston said. “They were people who wanted to be able to read for simple reasons—to get better jobs, to help their children with homework, to read their Bible. I remember one man who told me that before he learned to read, he felt like he was alive and dead at the same time. That is the power of reading.”

Consistency and change

For the next two decades, the mission and work of the Memphis Literacy Council continued to focus on training volunteer tutors to help low-literate adults gain reading skills. In the mid 1990s, Memphis Literacy Council was holding as many as 10 training workshops a year, had more than 400 trained volunteers available, and was working on collaborative projects with numerous local businesses, nonprofits and civic agencies.

As the 25th anniversary of Memphis Literacy Council approached, the organization decided it was ready for a major change. A growing staff, problems with securing convenient locations for tutors and their students to meet, and the desire to be anchored in one place after 25 years of moves led the organization to put down roots in its own headquarters at 902 South Cooper in 1998. A capital campaign enabled MLC to sign a long-term lease and do extensive renovations on the space.

Jeanne Williams, who served as MLC’s finance manager for more than 30 years, said, “It was an exciting time because we felt this was a much better arrangement for the students, and the tutors liked it too. They could meet day or night, depending on everyone’s schedule.” In a break from one-on-one tutoring, the Literacy Council introduced group instruction and classes. “There was increased interaction, a greater feeling that we were all in this together,” Williams said.

Branching out

More changes were ahead. In the coming decade, additional nonprofits with a literacy emphasis would be established in Memphis, many focusing on the reading deficits of elementary students. New strategies for teaching adult learners emerged. Census data indicated that the adult illiteracy rate in Memphis remained woefully high.

By 2008, when a record-setting financial downturn shook the nation, the Memphis Literacy Council was experiencing difficulties also. The staff had grown, but fundraising had not kept pace, and the greater number of literacy-related nonprofits meant increased competition for donor dollars.

Executive Director Gay Johnston resigned in 2008. Sallie Johnson, a former deputy director of the Memphis Public Library System, became interim director, then executive director in June 2009. The Council had begun work establishing neighborhood-based family literacy programs and was increasing its collaborative efforts with other literacy focused groups. One of those organizations was Mid South Reads, a nonprofit that provided resources and facilitated collaboration among local agencies committed to improving literacy skills.

As tough economic times continued, nonprofits with allied goals and missions began looking at combining their organizations. The Assisi Foundation suggested such a merger for Memphis Literacy Council and Mid South Reads. The Boards of the two nonprofits approved the merger in November 2009.

Literacy Mid-South is born

The two literacy-related nonprofits became a single entity on January 1, 2010, adopting the new name Literacy Mid-South (LMS). Kaye Shelton became executive director of Literacy Mid-South; she had held the same title at Mid South Reads. Sallie Johnson became LMS’s chief operating officer. The new nonprofit pledged to continue the programs and missions of both merging entities.

In a move intended to address its continuing financial struggles, Literacy Mid-South hired Kevin Dean as its executive director in July 2011. Dean, formerly development director at a local nonprofit, initiated strategies to increase individual donations and secure additional grant funding. Staff reductions and other tough cost-cutting measures followed. One of those frugality measures came in 2013 when Literacy Mid- South downsized from its South Cooper location with than 10,000 square feet to offices of less than 2,000 square feet further east. Savings were plowed back into literacy programs.

Adapting to new needs

Dean remained executive director for five years. He led the organization in a financial turnaround and helped further position LMS as a hub for literacy resources and activities in the Mid-South. Among the changes that occurred during his leadership were:

• Literacy Mid-South revamped and decentralized its adult learning program as it sought to make individual tutoring more accessible. Tutors and adult students began meeting in 31 branch libraries throughout the city. A more self-directed learning model, featuring an online platform, was approved.

• LMS launched the Read Memphis program, designed to certify nonprofit organizations, churches and government agencies to provide literacy education. Organizations completing the program could receive up to $15,000 in seed money from LMS to jump-start their literacy program.

• Literacy Mid-South piloted or continued a variety of initiatives designed to serve struggling young readers, including Smart Memphis (now titled Read 901) that focuses on helping K-3 students improve their literacy and reading comprehension levels; training for community volunteers to tutor students in the city’s public schools; and the Write Memphis program to improve literacy skills through writing (discontinued).

• Literacy Mid-South launched a campaign to put more books in the hands of underserved children across the Mid-South; began sponsoring a Mid-South Book Festival; initiated a workplace literacy program; and sponsored a city-wide reading campaign for all ages.

Current era

Dean resigned as executive director in June 2016. Knox Shelton, who previously served LMS as community relations manager, was named interim and then to the post of executive director in January 2017.

Today Literacy Mid-South has a broader vision than its original goal of providing volunteer tutoring for low-literate adults. While the Adult Learning Program continues, LMS is also working with numerous literacy and education providers to build their capacity to serve Mid-South readers of all ages and backgrounds.

Through the Read Memphis Project, Literacy Mid-South is working collaboratively with other education-focused organizations to create new or improve existing community-based literacy centers (6th grade reading or below) and English Language Learning (ELL) centers throughout the Mid-South. Major program areas are literacy, pre-High School Equivalency, and ELL training.

Literacy Mid-South's out-of-school time support is a city-wide initiative focused on grade-level reading by the end of third grade. As convener of the LMS Out-of-School Time Network, Literacy Mid-South is working on a number of fronts across Shelby County to support nonprofit partners with existing out-of-school programming provide high quality literacy interventions to elementary students.

Literacy remains a stubborn problem in the Mid-South. Today, one in seven adults in Shelby County are functionally illiterate. Three out of four Shelby County third graders read below grade level. Literacy Mid-South and its predecessor, the Memphis Literacy Council, can point to thousands of success stories as the organization nears its half-century anniversary. But work must continue toward the goal that LMS has always been striving to reach: 100% literacy for all the adults, children, parents, employees, and citizens of the Mid-South. 

We were the people who were not in the papers. 

We lived in the blank white spaces at the edges of print. It gave us more freedom. 

We lived in the gaps between the stories.

Margaret Atwood, The Handmaid's Tale