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Battling the Plantation MentalityMemphis and the Black Freedom Struggle$

Laurie B. Green

Print publication date: 2007

Print ISBN-13: 9780807831069

Published to North Carolina Scholarship Online: September 2014

DOI: 10.5149/9780807888872_green

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(p.288) Conclusion
Battling the Plantation Mentality

Laurie B. Green

University of North Carolina Press

Abstract and Keywords

This conclusion focuses on the mobilization of African Americans in Memphis following the sanitation workers' strike in 1968 and Martin Luther King Jr.'s assassination. It examines black Memphians' understandings of freedom in relation to the “plantation mentality” and their almost 30 years of struggle between World War II and the sanitation strike. The chapter considers how the freedom movement that was sparked by the 1968 sanitation strike inspired further struggles as black Memphians, including students working with the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, launched protests everywhere to challenge racial injustice and demand equality. It also analyzes the racial ideologies underlying conflicts over labor and police brutality, along with heated debates about portrayals of African Americans in mass culture. Finally, the chapter places black struggles over schooling, labor, welfare, and many other issues, which have persisted well beyond the 1960s, in their historical context.

Keywords:   strike, African Americans, Memphis, sanitation workers, Luther King Jr., plantation mentality, freedom movement, protests, racial injustice, police brutality

Black Memphians participating in the sanitation strike support movement had their eyes trained on the present and future of American society and of their own lives, yet their understandings of freedom had emerged out of years of struggle with what many identified as the “plantation mentality.” For urban black southerners in the mid-twentieth century, many of them migrants from the rural South, critiques of the “plantation mentality” resonated with meaning, given their earlier efforts to remove themselves geographically from the power relations of the plantation. Their use of the term imbued the idea of freedom with complex and historically specific meanings, which involved dismantling racist practices that influenced everyday life and rejecting racial identities that associated blackness with servitude and even inhumanity. The idea of the “plantation mentality,” which surfaced as part of the black vernacular of the 1960s, offers new insights into nearly three decades of struggle between the Second World War and the sanitation strike, a crucial period in the history of the black freedom movement and American society. Grappling with that period today demands that we analyze both the actions and the thoughts of those who struggled on many fronts to claim a new manhood and woman-hood and to change their society.

The freedom movement sparked by the 1968 sanitation strike did not conclude with Mayor Loeb's agreement with the union but inspired further struggles, both immediately and over the next decade. Motivated by the symbolism and momentum of the strike, and deeply moved by the fact that King had lost his life in Memphis, black Memphians in workplaces, public housing, high schools, and elsewhere launched protests to challenge racial injustice and demand equality. Whether they had taken to heart King's message about reaching the promised land or interpreted “I (p.289) Am a Man” as a call to demand respect, black Memphians mobilized following the strike and King's assassination.

This is not to say that such struggles resulted automatically from the tragedy of King's assassination in Memphis, or from the intense weeks of meetings and demonstrations on behalf of the sanitation workers that had preceded it. Quite the contrary. Many black Memphians describe the devastation they experienced in April 1968 and for months thereafter. Naomi Jones, a member of Local 282 of the furniture workers union who had been involved with the strike support movement, remembers that she “felt so let down for six or eight months after Martin Luther King died.” Songwriter and performer Isaac Hayes, who grew up in Memphis and worked at Stax, describes himself as “filled with so much bitterness and anguish, till I couldn't deal with it.” Hayes “couldn't write for about a year,” he recalls.1

It is important to see, therefore, that the movements that ensued in the aftermath of the sanitation strike had already been under way before the sanitation strike but now gained new steam from workers' responses to the tragedy of King's death, and identification with the ideas conveyed by the strike. When public employees at John Gaston Hospital, for example, initiated their own strike almost immediately after the sanitation strike ended, they adopted “I Am a Man” as their own slogan and joined AFSCME Local 1733, the sanitation workers' local. Although the hospital had finally desegregated as a result of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, orderlies, nurses, and assistants continued to confront low wages, long hours, and humiliating treatment.2 Organizing in manufacturing sweatshops and mass industries also intensified, as did the nascent welfare rights movement. For Local 282 of the furniture workers union, the strike would inspire numerous new organizing drives and usher in a new young leadership, with Willie Rudd, a militant young black Memphis worker, elected as president. The reinvigorated local made racial justice and community-based protest fundamental to organizing, as was especially the case during the 1980 strike against the Memphis Furniture Company, when workers finally won union representation after a protracted, difficult struggle. The dynamic, black-led labor organization also elected to key positions women like Ida Leachman, who was unable to get a factory job until 1969, when a plant where she had been unable to procure a job in the early 1960s finally desegregated.3

At RCA, where black workers had also supported the sanitation strike, King's assassination ignited so much rage that management temporarily suspended production. The language of freedom and opposition to the “plantation mentality” that framed the sanitation strike influenced the way RCA workers perceived their own struggle. “[T]he day of reckoning is (p.290) at hand,” wrote Virgil Grace, president of IUE Local 30, to RCA's personnel manager in June 1968. The local would not allow its members to be “raped of their dignity and pride,” he declared. “The days of slavery and all it's [sic] attendant misery was abolished a century ago. We will not allow RCA to institute it all over again. RCA must realize that our foreman is not our Lord and Master and the Corporation does not own us body and soul.” Grace threatened to ignore the contract's no-strike clause if “nonconcern for the Grievance Procedure and mal-treatment of our members” did not cease. His highly charged gendered language of slavery and rape drew on biblical allusion to reject the idea that anyone but God could be one's master, and it reverberated with the sanitation workers' slogan, “I Am a Man.” RCA workers threw their support behind workers at other plants as well, including Hunter Fan, where roughly 500 of the 1,300 employees were black women, hired as a result of the Civil Rights Act. They likewise had become determined to “stand up for what you want,” in the words of Hunter Fan worker Earline Whitehead, a participant in a three-month-long strike in 1969 and many civil rights demonstrations.4

In addition to these burgeoning struggles in labor and welfare rights, Memphis students challenged the nature of their education. Working with the NAACP, high school students launched a massive protest movement in 1969 aimed at desegregating the public schools and winning black school board representation. Fifteen years after Brown v. Board of Education, only a token number of black students had been permitted to enter “white” schools. Desegregation in Memphis had become an urgent, daily issue for African American children and parents, since the overcrowding of “black” schools had reached appalling proportions in the 1960s, resulting in split shifts and the use of gyms, auditoriums, and other spaces as classrooms. The “Black Monday” movement, a weekly boycott of high schools on Mondays by thousands of students (to some parents' dismay), encompassed mass meetings and marches of as many as 15,000 participants, coordinated by the NAACP, especially executive secretary Maxine Smith, who was eventually elected to the school board.5

In a different vein, student protesters at LeMoyneOwen College, who identified more with the ideas of Black Power than those of the NAACP, halted classes and flew a “flag of Black America” over campus buildings that they occupied and declared part of a “liberated zone” for several days. The students, led by members of a campus group called the Black United Front, presented grievances about the college administration's approach to black education, which they considered bourgeois and conformist to the expectations of white society. Demonstrators included members of (p.291) Black Power groups off campus and white students active with Students for a Democratic Society on other Memphis campuses, including South-western.6 Despite their new orientation, black Memphis students continued to define their own agency in relation to the historical racial power relations in Memphis. A student writer for the LeMoyne Inquirer in May 1968 referred to this history in an article that lambasted recently approved racist policies, including one in which the board of education canceled proms and other social events to keep white and black students from dancing together. The writer denounced not only white officials but also black administrators who conceded to these policies. Referring to the Crump political machine's notorious tactics to win black votes, the article insisted that African Americans need to “show our white counterparts that we no longer accept [their] ‘divided and unequal policies,’ that we will no longer take a ‘barbeque sandwich for a vote’ for now, united we stand.” The student rejected a past history in which African Americans relied on white paternalism to net meager material benefits, demanding black independent critical thought and racial equality.7

Participants in these movements drew upon concepts of freedom and black liberation (the term they used to mark affinity with anticolonial movements) that reflected decades of struggle with racial power relations that, for many African Americans, invoked cultural memories of slavery. Black Memphians at different points in the twentieth century contended that although slavery had been eradicated decades earlier, its impact on thought and behavior in everyday life persisted, even in the city. In the 1920s, black political commentator Lt. George Lee, who had earlier migrated to Memphis from Mississippi, observed that both the white man and the black man maintained “mental reservations” emanating from slavery that needed to be eradicated for different race relations to be achieved. The struggle for freedom involved demands for both the end of white supremacy and a changed political perspective among black leaders who emphasized cooperation over militancy. This struggle over black political perspectives became an urgent problem in the face of the Crump machine's “reign of terror” on the eve of the Second World War.

The complexity of achieving genuine freedom in the urban South anticipated the multifaceted struggles that erupted in Memphis during and after the Second World War, in the context of an intense outpouring of rhetoric about American democracy. Not only in politics per se but in workplaces, neighborhoods, and popular culture—all spheres that are frequently over-looked in histories of the black freedom movement—an array of conflicts brought to the fore contentious issues about African American identities, (p.292) racial ideologies, and the meaning of freedom. Working-class people, many of them recent migrants from the rural plantation counties of west Tennessee, Arkansas, and Mississippi, seized on rhetoric about American democracy to challenge police violence and discriminatory employment practices that served as reminders of the plantation regime they sought to leave behind.

Concomitantly, heated debates about portrayals of African Americans in mass culture, prompted by the censorship of movies showing blacks outside of servant roles, made the racial ideologies underlying these conflicts over labor and police brutality even more explicit. In a critique of this attempt to control the racial imaginary of both black and white people, an article in the LeMoyne newspaper referred to Memphis as a place still in “slavery territory” when it came to “mental liberties.” In contrast, the advent of black-oriented radio established a new public sphere that, despite the limitations of Jim Crow society, made it possible to push this racial imaginary in new directions.

Freedom involved the transformation of culture, consciousness, and politics—a process that was neither linear nor unitary but contradictory and multifaceted. Indeed, in the mid-1940s, during crises ranging from the Crump machine's cancellation of labor and civil rights leader A. Philip Randolph's scheduled mass meeting, to the mayor's refusal to permit the Freedom Train to visit the city, activists at LeMoyne and elsewhere denounced the conciliatory stance of current black community leaders, which they found humiliating and degrading. While berating those who sought racial harmony in exchange for “benefits” from the Crump machine, they presented themselves as “fighters for freedom.” A. Philip Ran-dolph, during a controversial return visit, succinctly articulated this challenge by declaring in a highly publicized speech that black Memphians did not want to be “wellkept slaves.”

Even as public attention was riveted to the breakthroughs achieved in civil rights by the Supreme Court's 1954 decision in Brown v. Board of Education, struggles in multiple arenas of urban culture and creative expression persisted, shaped by the ongoing rural-urban relations that dominated Memphis and other southern cities. When black Memphis students suddenly began to sit in at public facilities demanding desegregation, their actions overlapped with a movement for voting rights by sharecroppers in neighboring Fayette and Haywood counties, heightened political activism in Memphis, the first efforts by the sanitation workers to organize a union, and the rise of Stax Records and soul music. “Making history,” in the students' view, was not limited to winning the right to (p.293) eat in restaurants alongside whites. It also meant collectively confronting and making sense of their own past experiences of the racial intimidation and humiliation they endured in everyday acts as simple as riding a bus. Through this process they were able to claim new self-identities based on their own agency as activists in the freedom movement. The crescendo of activism, especially among working-class black Memphians and young people, in the aftermath of the Civil Rights Act and Voting Rights Act underscores that the achievement of desegregation in most public facilities in the early 1960s neither concluded the movement nor resolved the problem of freedom.

The 1968 sanitation strike most fully and publicly articulated the complex understandings of freedom that had emerged among African Americans in Memphis during the civil rights era. Begun as a labor dispute over the right of municipal employees to organize a union, the strike quickly transformed into a mass movement led by African Americans on the lowest rung of the social ladder, who worked in jobs that were the most de-spised—and the most racially marked—in southern cities. The slogan “I Am a Man” resonated powerfully with black Memphians because they located in it profound issues with which they all had contended, albeit in different ways. Strikers and their supporters not only rejected their role in what they considered the master/slave relations of the city; they also renounced the internalization of those relations, whether by black elites seeking rapprochement with white officials or within themselves. In rejecting the “plantation mentality,” they staked a claim to an equal humanity—to manhood and womanhood.

While all of these struggles over schooling, labor, welfare, and many other issues have persisted well beyond the 1960s, they too, like the conflicts discussed throughout this book, need to be seen in light of their historical context. Although the courts finally forced the city to desegregate its public school system by initiating a busing program in the early 1970s, for example, a movement of white parents to place their children in private institutions has made de facto segregation and inferior schools continuing facts of life for most youth in Memphis public schools. More-over, many of the plants where black workers won important victories, including Memphis Furniture, have since shut down and, in some cases, moved out of the United States, a process anticipated by the closure of the RCA plant and its shifting of production overseas in 1970. As the economy has shifted, other manufacturing plants and distribution companies have (p.294) moved to Memphis and elsewhere in the South to escape higher wage and union workforces. They are now employing multicultural workforces, including immigrants from Southeast Asia, Mexico, and Central America, along with African Americans and native-born whites, that may have more in common with the segregated workforces of the past than meets the eye. And Beale Street, now a major tourist attraction, has not been an epicenter of black Memphis since the surrounding neighborhood was razed during urban renewal in the 1970s.

What, then, does one make of the history of the civil rights era and the massive 1968 sanitation strike? The battle over the “plantation mentality” might seem to be over, but, interestingly the term is now used more, not less, than it was in the 1960s. Moreover, nearly all the African Americans interviewed in Memphis for this project were eager to tell their stories, no matter how painful they were to tell. Their desire to share their stories, therefore, has nothing to do with nostalgia; rather, it has to do with discerning the significance of this history for today, when many Memphians continue to face serious problems of poverty and powerlessness and when, just as importantly, struggles for racial justice continue, often in complex multiracial contexts.

We need new ways of understanding the history of the mid-twentieth-century black freedom movement. If we fail to analyze the thoughts and experiences of the people who made this history and motivated the upheavals of this crucial period, we risk reducing their goals to the specific civil rights won through federal court decisions and legislation. As a result, we also risk reducing their movement to a narrative that lacks relevance for today's very different political, cultural, and economic terrain. By grappling with the transformation of consciousness, culture, and politics that this battle against the “plantation mentality” inspired, on the other hand, we can discern the continuities and discontinuities between then and now, between history and the present.


(1) . Naomi Jones interview by author; Isaac Hayes quoted in Guralnick, Sweet Soul Music, 355.

(2) . Otha B. Strong Jones interview by author.

(3) . Leachman eventually became vice president of the historic Local 282, under Willie Rudd, and succeeded to the presidency after Rudd died. For her own account of her experiences, see Leachman, “Black Women and Labor Unions in the South,” 385–94.

(4) . Virgil Grace to Paul Jennings, March 25, 1968; Grace to G. J. Rooney, June 18, 1968; Grace to Jennings, June 24, 1968; and IUE Local 730 News, September 1969, all in RCA-IUE Records, group III; Earline Whitehead interview by author. Grace's comments echo Paul's epistle to the Galatians, reminding them that Christ freed them from bondage and that God, not civil law, is master (Galatians 3:25, 5:1). See Cone, Black Theology of Liberation, 226; and Van Deburg, New Day in Babylon, 241.

(5) . Maxine Smith interview by author; Bettye Coe Donahue interview by author.

(6) . “Militants Seize LeMoyne Campus,” Memphis PressScimitar, November 26, 1968. LeMoyne and Owen College had merged a few months earlier, becoming LeMoyneOwen College. On protests at black colleges in 1967 and 1968 more generally, see Van Deburg, New Day in Babylon, 70–71.

(7) . “By Ourselves,” Inquirer of LeMoyne, May 1968, LMOC Archives.