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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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Introduction: Migration, Memory, and Freedom in the Urban Heart of the Delta

Introduction: Migration, Memory, and Freedom in the Urban Heart of the Delta

(p.1) Introduction: Migration, Memory, and Freedom in the Urban Heart of the Delta
Battling the Plantation Mentality

Laurie B. Green

University of North Carolina Press

Abstract and Keywords

This book documents the struggles by working-class African Americans in the urban South in the period between World War II and the Memphis sanitation workers' strike of 1968. More specifically, it examines what African Americans thought about freedom and their own activism in the context of race, class, and gender. Drawing on oral history interviews with black women workers, many of them recent migrants from the Mississippi Delta, the book explores the dynamic relations between migration, memory, and activism, paying particular attention to how working-class African Americans challenged the urban attitudes and practices that they considered barriers to freedom. It also discusses the concept known as “plantation mentality,” which referred to white racist attitudes that promoted white domination and black subservience reminiscent of slavery and sharecropping, and how it shaped complex and contested understandings of freedom articulated during the modern civil rights movement.

Keywords:   strike, African Americans, urban South, Memphis, sanitation workers, freedom, activism, migration, plantation mentality, civil rights movement

“The struggle was we didn't have a water fountain! No water fountain in 1965!” Sally Turner, a mother of twelve and retired worker who had labored at the Farber Brothers automobile accessories plant in Memphis from the 1960s to the 1980s, raised her voice to a shout when she responded during a 1995 oral history interview to a query about why she had risked her job to help organize a union in her shop. Seated in her living room, surrounded by family photographs of her twelve children, Turner recounted how she and other African American women workers had complained about the lack of drinking water in the sweltering, non-air-conditioned plant. The white manager had reacted, she exclaimed, by giving them “one of them country buckets I already done left in Mississippi! They goes out in this hardware store and buys a bucket and a dipper. A dipper! And brought it back there and had everybody dipping!” For Turner, the bucket and dipper purchased by the white male plant manager became emblematic of what she and other black Memphis workers perceived as their urban white employers' efforts to perpetuate in the city the plantation relations of the South's rural history, whether the relations of the sharecropping system of the recent past, which many had directly experienced, or those of master and slave, shared in the cultural memories of slavery. It represented unfreedom.1

Sally Turner's story gets at the heart of what this book is about: struggles by the postplantation generation of African Americans in the urban South to articulate and achieve a new kind of freedom, freedom that would represent a genuine break from the daily humiliations they associated with the oppressive rural relations of race, class, and gender they had already abandoned. Her account presented this struggle in a Memphis factory by black women workers, many of them recent migrants from the Mississippi (p.2) Delta, as a dramatic confrontation with the plantation legacy, as if it had migrated with them, unwanted, to the city. In the context of the black freedom movement of the 1960s, their outrage at their boss's action tipped the scales toward union activism, despite the risks involved. The dynamic relation between migration, memory, and activism elaborated in Turner's story spurred working-class African Americans to challenge the urban attitudes and practices that they identified as barriers to freedom.

During oral history interviews three decades later, Turner and other working-class black Memphians invoked what to them were powerful symbols of unfreedom, such as the bucket and dipper, to denote what some speakers termed a “plantation mentality.” The term captures both the perpetuation and mutability of racial ideology and practices in American culture. Most obviously, those who talked about the “plantation mentality” referred to white racist attitudes that promoted white domination and black subservience, which they construed as reminiscent of slavery and sharecropping. However, their critiques also included other African Americans. Sally Turner, for instance, recalled her frustration with coworkers whom she perceived as afraid to join the union because they feared losing their jobs. As a migrant from Mississippi, Turner compared these women to sharecroppers who felt bound to the plantation. “It was like they was glued in and they was afraid to step out of it,” she asserted, “because they was thinking they didn't have anywhere else to turn to…. And so you were just kind of locked in.” The “plantation mentality” thus referred simultaneously to racist attitudes among whites and perceived fear and dependency among other African Americans. Turner and others measured their own sense of self, especially their commitments to mobility, activism, and independent thought, against these negative perceptions. During the civil rights era, vernacular terms such as “plantation mentality” and “slave mentality” became central to critical thinking about everyday life and shaped the various struggles that together comprised the black freedom movement. They provided African Americans in southern cities with a language for talking about freedom and unfreedom—a language that encompassed but went beyond the constitutional parameters of equal rights generally associated with the modern civil rights movement.

The potency of these critiques became most publicly apparent during the 1968 Memphis sanitation workers' strike, when participants carried placards that read “I Am a Man” in boldfaced capital letters. The strike's famous slogan meant freedom, according to former sanitation worker Taylor Rogers, who had grown up in north Memphis yet shared cultural memories of the historical plantation experience of African Americans. “All we (p.3) wanted was some decent working conditions, and a decent salary,” Rogers asserted. “And be treated like men, not like boys. But I guess [Mayor Loeb] had that ‘plantation mentality,’ just wanted to keep us down. Whatever he said went.”2 Rogers's comment, articulated in gendered terms, denounced racist attitudes that degraded black men by categorizing them as if they were neither independent adults nor fully human. His statement also conveyed the sanitation workers' rejection of such views. By posing freedom as an opposite to the “plantation mentality,” Rogers and others referred to both society and identity, to both equal rights and the envisaged self. Indeed, the very process of demanding change and respect—“being men,” in Taylor's terms, or refusing to be “glued in,” as Turner put it—represented an enactment of freedom.3

Significantly, the sanitation strike followed, rather than preceded, federal approval of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, which, together with the 1965 Voting Rights Act, has frequently been seen as marking the end of the civil rights movement. However, instead of quelling black working-class activism with its promise to end racist employment practices, the landmark legislation stimulated extensive protests by workers who seized upon its passage to demand changed racial attitudes and practices within plants. Perhaps more than any other single event of the years directly after the passage of the Civil Rights Act, the Memphis sanitation strike, which culminated in the tragic assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., publicly hammered home the fact that for working-class African Americans in southern cities, freedom remained an elusive goal.

Taking its cue from narratives such as those by Sally Turner and Taylor Rogers, this book explores how working-class African Americans thought about freedom, how they conceived of their own activism, and how these perceptions reflected their historically specific experiences in the changing postwar urban South. While recent years have seen a stunning outpouring of important new studies of local freedom struggles, written by scholars strongly committed to reinterpreting the civil rights movement by shifting attention to the participation of grassroots activists rather than nationally known leaders, or the interplay between the two, this book has somewhat different concerns. Although it builds on this preoccupation with the agency of local activists, it focuses more specifically on the understandings and articulations of freedom that both inspired and emanated from these local struggles.

The following analysis makes clear that for urban black southerners (p.4) in the civil rights era, the process of claiming freedom was about simultaneously uprooting white racist thought and liberating black minds from forms of consciousness they identified with slavery and its long aftermath. It locates these struggles in specific urban moments in Memphis, many of which occurred outside the boundaries of what is generally recognized as the civil rights movement, in contexts as disparate as manufacturing plants and movie theaters. More broadly speaking, the book focuses on the consciousness, culture, and politics that inspired and shaped the black freedom movement, which in southern cities typically spilled beyond the better-known organized campaigns for desegregation and voting rights to various arenas of everyday life.4

The chapters that follow illuminate historically specific, complex, and contested understandings of freedom articulated during the modern civil rights movement, amidst the economic, cultural, and political upheaval that engulfed the urban South between the Second World War and the sanitation strike. Although studies abound of clashing interpretations of freedom after the abolition of slavery in the United States and the Caribbean in the nineteenth century, few works besides biographies and religious studies attempt such analysis for the twentieth-century civil rights movement, despite its common appellation among participants as the black freedom movement. Civil rights scholars frequently incorporate the word “freedom” into the titles of our works, yet its meaning a century after the end of slavery is still far from self-evident. We are familiar with the ideals articulated by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., including his vision of the promised land in his famous final speech, delivered in Memphis on April 3, 1968, on the eve of his assassination, but we know much less about what freedom meant to black working-class Memphians who came out to Mason Temple on that stormy evening.5 The paucity of analyses of the specific, complex meanings of freedom during the civil rights era makes it possible to equate freedom with the juridical and legislative achievements of the movement and to conclude that freedom was attained by these achievements. Such assumptions make it difficult to fathom the persistence of struggles over racial justice well into the post–civil rights era.

Black Memphians' vernacular use of terms like “plantation mentality” in oral histories I conducted in the mid-1990s profoundly influenced this project and is key to the analytic framework of the book as a whole, providing new insights into black experience, consciousness, and agency in the mid-twentieth century. Working-class African Americans struggled (p.5) against white hegemony by asserting views of themselves that countered racist thought. In doing so, they acknowledged that such thought would be internalized unless it were explicitly and persistently challenged.6

Critiques of the “plantation mentality” and concomitant understandings of freedom articulated during the 1960s were deeply rooted in the social movements, structural changes, and cultural developments of the recent past, most notably the years during and after the Second World War. Even as they migrated away from the cotton fields to northern and southern cities, working-class African Americans compared and contrasted the racial parameters of city life to cultural memories of the plantation. These critiques thus emanated from the crucible of the historic plantation South but served as a means to assess contemporary urban culture in the cities that served as destinations for black migrants.

Indeed, although the term “plantation mentality” would likely not have been used until the 1960s, this book uses it as a framing concept for a narrative that begins on the eve of the Second World War and continues through the sanitation strike. In a sense, the chapters of the book establish a kind of genealogy of such language. In the decades before this particular emphasis on “mentality” arose, for example, black Memphis activists sometimes characterized contemporary urban power relations between whites and blacks as ones of master/slave, or in other terms that similarly invoked the past of slavery to assess the present and anticipate the future. They also seized upon contemporary political discourse about democracy, justice, equality, and freedom, making it their own by using it to express their own critiques and aspirations, building a kind of counter-hegemony.

In Memphis, the urban vortex of the Mississippi Delta cotton region and the focus of this study, the conflicting ideas of freedom that emerged during and after the Second World War accompanied momentous economic, social, and cultural restructuring. The crumbling of the sharecropping system, urban migration, and innovations in mass culture generated new sites of struggle and fresh possibilities for change as everything from labor markets and police violence to housing and popular entertainment became flashpoints for conflict. In these multiple contexts, African Americans in postwar Memphis demanded freedom by contesting racial ideologies and practices that they perceived as reminiscent of the master/slave relation, even though nearly a century had passed since emancipation.

Until the mid-1950s, black Memphians also faced one of the most formidable political machines of the era, the Democratic organization (p.6) headed by Boss Edward Hull Crump. While a majority of African American leaders sought advancement for their communities via cooperation with the machine, others adopted a more defiant posture. Repeatedly throughout this period, therefore, working-class protest exposed tensions among blacks over issues of class, culture, and ideology, in addition to conflicts between the races.

Even as it became a site of internal struggle, Memphis also served as a crossroads of local, regional, national, and international cultures and politics. During the intervening years between the New Deal's restructuring of the cotton economy and the assassination of Dr. King during the sanitation strike three decades later, black activism reflected the city's persistent ties to the surrounding region, on the one hand, and to major national developments, on the other. Struggles in Memphis reverberated well beyond the city limits, as when the Crump machine received national attention for its control over local elections, intervention in labor conflicts, and censorship of Hollywood movies, or when black Memphis activists appealed to national civil rights officials for support. Likewise, both the international Cold War and anticolonial movements influenced local debates about Memphis's direction in the postwar era. This multifaceted political context assured that competing understandings of race and freedom that clashed with one another in Memphis were never the mere products of isolated conflicts but instead reflected this interaction between local, regional, national, and global concerns.

As the following chapters reveal, freedom was neither a static nor monolithic principle, despite its status as a founding American ideal. We know that President Franklin D. Roosevelt's “Four Freedoms” speech in 1941 made freedom into a keyword of U.S. political parlance during the Second World War, along with his far more frequent references to democracy. However, whereas Roosevelt spoke in general terms about human freedom as the basis for a “democratic way of life” that was the opposite of tyranny,7 African Americans challenged the idea of fighting against the Axis powers abroad on behalf of world freedom and democracy without linking this fight to both self-determination for the peoples of color in the colonized world and genuine equality for blacks at home in the United States. The idea of freedom surfaced even more dramatically during the early Cold War, when U.S. anticommunist diplomacy hinged on guarantees of freedom promised by American democracy. Concomitantly, members of a new postwar generation of African American activists presented themselves as champions of black freedom and, especially after the student sit-ins erupted in 1960, demanded it immediately. By the end of the (p.7) 1960s, black liberation and Black Power had gained more international and militant connotations than black freedom and won the adherence of young activists.

To put this differently, distinct understandings of freedom emerged out of specific historical struggles, several of which are traced in the pages that follow. Although the book considers areas of activism typically perceived as the core of the civil rights agenda, such as desegregation and voting rights, it also encompasses conflicts over labor, police brutality, politics, movies, radio, and other issues that helped shape understandings of freedom, issues without which it would be difficult to understand the intense popular support generated by the 1968 sanitation strike.

As the urban center of the tri-state Delta region that extends from southeast Arkansas to west Tennessee to northwest Mississippi, Memphis was crucial to the regional cotton and hardwood industries. In addition to its role in the grading, compressing, trading, storing, and transporting of cotton, Memphis by the dawn of the twentieth century had spawned manufacturing industries based on cotton by-products and hardwood such as cottonseed oil and furniture. Its ability to expand in these economic areas depended upon not only regional agricultural products but also a steady supply of workers from the surrounding area. Even as the city diversified its economy into new areas of manufacturing and attracted major corporations to establish production plants in the area, its reliance on a regular influx of migrants and a racially segmented low-wage labor force belied its ties to the rural Delta. Indeed, when African Americans poured out of Memphis for northern cities during the First World War and the Great Migration, the Chamber of Commerce took steps to enhance living conditions for blacks, asserting that “from an industrial viewpoint the negro labor is one of the best assets of this community.”8

Memphis's position as an urban-rural crossroads also spurred its national and even international prominence as a distribution hub and an entertainment center. Its role first as a Mississippi River port and later as a major railroad depot meant that both goods and people moved in and out of the city on a daily basis. This development helps explain the rise of a small black middle class that did not rely upon local employers—including, for instance, Pullman porters—and a tiny but notable black business elite. Memphis also acquired a national reputation for its regionally based popular culture. Paradoxically, the sounds emanating from the nightclubs of Beale Street (black Memphis's “Main Street”) and the churches that (p.8)

Introduction: Migration, Memory, and Freedom in the Urban Heart of the Delta

The Arkansas and Yazoo–Mississippi Delta Region

reigned in the rest of black Memphis together intertwined to make the city into a musical hub, first for jazz, blues, and gospel, and later for rhythm and blues and soul.9

Significantly, beginning during the New Deal era and continuing through the Second World War and the postwar period, boundaries distinguishing the urban and rural South became more porous. As the sharecropping system in the Delta started to collapse, white and black southerners sought nonagricultural livelihoods. Once wartime jobs became available, millions abandoned the rural South altogether.10 Although a large portion of these migrants moved to the North, many headed to southern cities like Memphis, either to stay briefly before moving farther north, or to remain permanently. Still others literally traversed these urban/rural boundaries on a daily basis, either holding down Memphis jobs while residing in rural areas, or working as day laborers in cotton fields while inhabiting the city. Music, radio, religion, and politics also crossed this rural-urban divide. (p.9) While migrants had brought their sacred and secular music to Memphis in earlier times, new black radio stations and recording studios attracted many more to the city in the postwar era. Black radio also beamed urban music and talk radio back out to the small rural towns of the Delta, even to the people living in the shotgun shacks that still littered the countryside, who may have had battery-operated radios even before they had electricity. Just as significantly, roads such as Highway 61, running from Memphis down into the Delta, became two-way political thoroughfares, as rural activists sought support in the city and their urban counterparts not only lent assistance but also found inspiration in rural areas.

These dynamics helped destabilize the Democratic political machine of Boss Crump that loomed over city life and west Tennessee politics from the early twentieth century until Crump's death in 1954. Several spheres of everyday life transformed into political battlegrounds. At the end of the Second World War, for instance, police brutality against veterans and police sexual assaults of women sparked heated protest movements in neighborhoods heavily populated with black migrants. Simultaneously, popular culture became a major locus of controversy. The city's practice of censoring movies that did not adhere to southern racial conventions prompted widespread outcry both inside and outside of Memphis. Meanwhile, new media outlets, especially radio stations that converted to all black-oriented programming, provided new virtual public spheres, creating spaces for a cultural consumption by blacks that was grounded in a politics of pride, despite their Jim Crow origins. Together, these struggles addressed highly charged issues of racial identity and power that can be obscured when civil rights is approached from narrower perspectives.

However, ideological tensions among blacks and among whites made the trajectory of racial politics far from straightforward or obvious. Although freedom, in the broadest sense, had to do with ending white domination, it also represented a crucial struggle of culture, consciousness, and politics among different groups of African Americans, a point that needs to be more fully elaborated in civil rights histories. On the eve of the Second World War, for example, students at historically black LeMoyne College decried not only the Crump political machine but also its supposed opposition. During a spate of police harassment, Daniel Carter, president of a new college NAACP chapter, declared that “the Negro mass [was] in terror either of their jobs or their lives.” Nevertheless, he complained in a letter to the NAACP's national office that “[t]he Negro press has accepted its gag; the white press attempts to soften things; the city N.A.A.C.P. chapter is lethargic.” For these reasons, LeMoyne students had decided to organize (p.10) their own NAACP branch, separate from the notoriously inactive city branch.11 Over the next two decades, LeMoyne students and graduates would help establish a fresh basis for civil rights agitation. Further-more, the “Negro mass” to which Carter referred rebelled on a number of fronts during the 1940s, pushing traditional black leaders to take political stances they might not have otherwise assumed.

This internal black struggle intersected with rifts among white Memphians. As historians Jane Dailey, Glenda Gilmore, and Bryant Simon have argued, scholars “stunned” by the power and magnitude of white supremacy in the Jim Crow era often “minimize the contingent nature of white supremacist ideas and regimes,” thereby missing “the complexities of racism and power.”12 In the postwar era, sectors of Memphis society with clashing visions of postwar development pushed to enact their own agendas, bringing them into conflict with each other. Prominent white moderates seeking to undermine the Crump political machine and implement municipal reform, for example, publicized incidents of police brutality against black women and men as evidence of the Crump machine's corruption.13 Such claims unintentionally reinforced black agitation for racial justice. This is not to say that the vast majority of whites retreated from Jim Crow but that the maelstrom of postwar politics created unexpected openings for change.

The process of transforming consciousness, culture, and politics, therefore, was far from linear and is difficult to chart, a point underscored by outside observers' antithetical descriptions of Memphis's black political scene in different periods. “I've never seen a community as together as Memphis!” exclaimed Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. during the 1968 sanitation strike, in a speech to 15,000 people at Mason Temple. No doubt this response to the unity and passion he observed is part of what drew him back to Memphis two more times before his assassination on April 4.14 However, just one and a half decades earlier, NAACP southern regional coordinator Ruby Hurley bemoaned the state of the Memphis branch, writing to the central office that it was “dying slowly” because “conservative influence dominates the thinking and the little action that is taken.” “I could actually cry about Memphis,” she concluded.15 What had happened in the interim between Hurley's and King's observations? The Memphis story is a not a narrative of a steady progression from an accommodationist “Uncle Tom” consciousness to a militant one; rather, the very meanings of these terms changed in various periods, and varying attitudes coexisted—and clashed—in each period. This book is really about the struggles that gave rise to those clashes and changing understandings.16

(p.11) The following pages examine this dynamic from the ground up, not only among elites but also among working-class black Memphians. Path-breaking civil rights studies published since the mid-1990s have shifted historical attention from national politics and well-known leaders to local trenches where vital day-to-day freedom movements took place. John Dittmer's Local People: The Struggle for Civil Rights in Mississippi (1994) and Charles Payne's I've Got the Light of Freedom: The Organizing Tradition and the Mississippi Freedom Struggle (1995) were particularly influential in pressing for this changed orientation within civil rights scholarship. This investigation builds on these studies; however, it approaches political agency in this era from new vantage points. The book situates the racial agitation of the period, for instance, within the broader context of post-war modernity in southern cities characterized by paradoxical relations of urban and rural, tradition and progress.17

The book also reconsiders the contours of urban black struggles for racial justice during and after the war. “Agency,” a concept frequently boiled down to mere resistance or activism by already constituted subjects with preconceived interests, refers here to struggles over not only external issues of rights but also internal, subjective problems of identity, both of which comprised understandings of freedom. In addition, agency is expanded to include social protest and critical thought about everyday life and activism itself, exemplified by Sally Turner and Taylor Rogers's commentaries.

To more deeply engage these problems, this analysis traverses historical and intellectual boundaries that generally separate spheres of life and scholarship from each other.18 Taking off from studies that have explored the ramifications for civil rights of such aspects of postwar urban life as popular culture, labor organizing, housing, and municipal politics, the chapters in the book follow black urbanites, including recent migrants, as they crossed the boundaries of these different arenas and developed understandings of freedom that spilled beyond any unitary root cause. In doing so, the study draws jointly on social, political, cultural, and economic history, and on insights from literary criticism, media studies, musicology, and religious studies.19

In recent years, the politics of everyday life have increasingly come under scrutiny by historians and other scholars in an attempt to rethink the sources and contours of modern political movements by focusing not only on elites and public protests but also on daily encounters with race and power. Robin D. G. Kelley, a contributor to this discussion, has focused attention on “black working-class history from way, way below.” (p.12) He encourages scholars to excavate aspects of resistance that precede and parallel organized political movements and illuminate the dynamics of power relations. Politics, in this conception, is not walled off from either everyday life or “the imaginary world of what is possible” but unfolds everywhere there are power struggles.20

Here, I am similarly concerned with dimensions of everyday life that typically appear outside the realm of politics and with groups Kelley would categorize as “way, way below.” However, I build on these foundations by interrogating how specific experiences in the realm of the everyday become politicized, taking on symbolic meanings that influence organizing efforts. Why, for instance, did Sally Turner single out the “bucket and dipper” experience to explain why she helped organize a union in the 1960s? Why did she compare her coworkers in a Memphis factory to sharecroppers in Mississippi? And how did highly charged responses to everyday experience influence understandings of abstractions such as freedom? This book explores the ways in which participants in various concrete struggles made meaning out of these struggles, on the one hand, and freedom, on the other.

Although much of this work could be considered social history, it does not aim to be a straightforward social history of postwar Memphis but draws equally on cultural and political history. If social histories frequently take race and gender identities for granted, cultural studies often present these identities as imposed on the oppressed by dominant elite groups. Merging social, cultural, and political history allows me to show that race and gender were deeply embattled categories. Black working-class women, for instance, eschewed labor practices that cast them as natural servants, while city officials attempted to pigeonhole them as maids, cooks, or laundresses. Similarly, Hollywood's images of African Americans provoked fierce debate within Memphis and other southern cities. Disagreements over blackness and whiteness, manhood and womanhood, lay at the heart of struggles over freedom.

Throughout, the book explores the language used in specific historical contexts to discuss contemporary urban problems of freedom, power, and identity. Well before the term “plantation mentality” came into popular use, black political discourse compared urban racial domination to the “master and servant” relation emblematic of cotton culture. In 1943, for example, after Boss Crump strong-armed several African American leaders into canceling a public speech by renowned black labor and civil rights personality A. Philip Randolph, one courageous minister in Memphis, Reverend George A. Long of Beale Avenue Baptist Church, invited (p.13) Randolph back to town. “Christ, not Crump, is my Boss,” Long publicly declared. Randolph, for his part, announced in his speech at Long's church that “Negroes do not want to be well-kept slaves. Like white people they, too, want to be free.”21 Long and Randolph had two intended audiences—Crump and his cronies, on one side, and black Memphians, on the other—that reflected their twin intentions. If one concern involved critiques of white domination, the other involved the perception that white domination could be internalized by African Americans and manifested in complicity. Similarly, during the 1945 protest against police sexual assaults, black public commentary blasted police brutality and castigated African American leaders for their “supine” attitudes.

These critiques of barriers to freedom were profoundly gendered, a quality that added to their resonance as African Americans fought against practices that enforced racial dependency and challenged perceived black submissiveness. Struggles against the “plantation mentality” turned battles over racial domination into conflicts over manhood and womanhood. During the sanitation strike, “being men” made freedom contingent upon addressing external problems of racial domination and internal issues of identity. Because invoking manhood rejected racial subservience, both men and women identified with “I Am a Man.” But women also challenged specific identities assigned them by white society, rallying against being perceived as natural domestic servants or as sexually licentious. Black southerners articulated ideas of freedom that rejected racist gender identities while staking claims to new ones.22

Not intended as a seamless chronological narrative, the book is instead organized around a set of themes that illuminate how African Americans in Memphis from the postplantation generation struggled to imagine, articulate, and realize ideas of racial justice, equality, and freedom, from the eve of the Second World War through the 1968 sanitation strike. Rather than concentrating solely on what has been recognized as the civil rights movement, the following chapters address different cultural, political, and economic arenas that became sites of contestation over race, power, and identity. After an introductory chapter that discusses racial politics in Memphis on the eve of the Second World War, Chapters 2 through 5 explore in depth specific aspects of everyday life and political culture that influenced understandings of freedom: labor and black working-class struggle; community protest against police brutality and sexual assault; postwar racial politics, particularly surrounding the 1947–48 (p.14) Freedom Train, a project of the American Heritage Foundation; and popular culture, especially motion pictures and black radio. Looking through the prism of this analysis of overlapping arenas of urban life in the Jim Crow South, the final three chapters, 6, 7, and 8, turn to the more well-known years of the black freedom movement, from the period surrounding the Supreme Court's 1954 school desegregation decision through the 1968 Memphis sanitation strike.

In 1925, Lt. George W. Lee, a Beale Street literary commentator, insurance executive, and Republican political leader, argued that in the aftermath of slavery, both the white man and the black man suffered from “mental reservations” that needed to “be banished from the seats of thought control.”23 Four decades later, black laborers made the slogan “I Am a Man” central to a mass movement against the “plantation mentality.” As the chapters of this book show, the road in between these two expressions was a complex, nonlinear one, involving various dimensions of Memphis life.

At the core of the book are nearly sixty oral history interviews conducted for the most part between 1995 and 1997 with black Memphians who were involved with struggles for racial justice between the Second World War and the late 1960s, in addition to many months of archival research in Memphis, Washington, D.C., College Park, Atlanta, and elsewhere. These interviews greatly influenced my thinking about the protest movements and daily lives of African Americans in the urban South of this period. Given the book's interest in the impact of everyday life on both protest and critical thought, the interviews proved invaluable in probing areas that do not easily come to light in archival sources. The majority of these interviews were with working-class African Americans, and among that group there was a preponderance of migrants from the rural South. Moreover, well over half the interviews were with working-class women, whose struggles had particular salience in this period, in part because of their fierce challenges to racial, gendered images of black women as natural servants.

For sanitation strike supporters such as Sally Turner and Taylor Rogers, freedom necessitated but was not exhausted by constitutional rights protections. Rather, as their comments show, it extended to battles against commonplace experiences of humiliation that resulted from power relations of race, gender, and power, bound up in critiques of the “plantation mentality.” These understandings of freedom are far from a merely academic matter; rather, they are of great importance for grappling with problems of race in the post–civil rights era, into the twenty-first century.


(1) . This account by Sally Turner is based on interview by author.

(2) . Taylor Rogers and Bessie L. Rogers interview by author.

(3) . See also comments by Waldo E. Martin Jr. on black self-consciousness, in No Coward Soldiers, 8. Martin asserts that a “vital aspect of the black social imagination is its emphasis on self-definition, self-fashioning, or what Arjun Appadurai terms ‘selfimagining.’” The Appadurai reference is to Modernity at Large, 7.

(4) . See discussion of consciousness, culture, and politics in Martin, No Coward Soldiers, especially the concise presentation of these concepts in the introduction, 1–9. See also Green, “Battling the Plantation Mentality,” 1–21.

(5) . The text of King's speech can be found in Washington, ed., Testament of Hope, 279–86, along with other speeches and writings by King. See also Green, “Battling the Plantation Mentality,” 353–412, which includes a fuller discussion of King's relation to labor and welfare rights in the mid-1960s than has been included in this book; and Honey, Going Down Jericho Road. Honey's work, which is being published concurrently with this book, presents an extensive discussion of King's relation to the sanitation strike and his ideas about labor and the black freedom movement.

(6) . The oral histories that I conducted in summer 1995, were done in conjunction with Duke University's Center for Documentary Studies project, Behind the Veil: Documenting African American Life in the Jim Crow South, directed by William Chafe, Raymond Gavins, and Robert Korstad. As part of the Behind the Veil project, transcripts and tapes of the Memphis interviews have been deposited both at Duke University's Special Collections and LeMoyneOwen College's Hollis F. Price Library in Memphis.

(7) . Roosevelt's January 1941 State of the Union address, also known as the “Four Freedoms” speech, calls for “four essential human freedoms”: freedom of speech, freedom of religion, freedom from want, and freedom from fear.

(8) . Quoted in Sigafoos, Cotton Row to Beale Street, 137. More generally, Sigafoos's book is a good source for information about Memphis's economic development.

(9) . On Beale Street's history, see Lee, Beale Street; and McKee and Chisenhall, Beale Black and Blue. See also David Goldfield's commentary on the rural-urban relations that shape southern cities, including Memphis, in Region, Race, and Cities, 37–68.

(10) . Pete Daniel (Lost Revolutions, 1) estimates that eleven million rural southerners left the land during the first two decades after World War II. For more on rural southerners' cultural impact in the city after the war, see especially Book II of Daniel's work.

(11) . Daniel Dean Carter to Thurgood Marshall, January 8, 1941, NAACP Papers, part 18, group II, 28:976–77.

(12) . Dailey, Gilmore, and Simon, Jumpin’ Jim Crow, 3–4.

(13) . On southern politics after World War II, see especially Frederickson, Dixiecrat Revolt; and Bryant Simon, “Race Reactions: African American Organizing, Liberalism, and White Working-Class Politics in Postwar South Carolina,” in Dailey, Gilmore, and Simon, eds., Jumpin’ Jim Crow, 239–59.

(14) . Martin Luther King Jr., quoted in Beifuss, At the River I Stand, 194–95.

(15) . Ruby Hurley, Southeast Regional Office, Report from Field Trip, March 27, 1952, NAACPLC, group II, box C186, folder: Memphis, Tennessee, 1951–55.

(16) . For an important philosophical discussion of this kind of nonlinear, contradictory development, see radical philosopher Raya Dunayevskaya's comment in reference to the African revolutions of the postwar era, that “the whole point seems to be to hold on to the principle of creativity, and the contradictory process by which creativity develops” (Philosophy and Revolution, 246).

(17) . Dittmer, Local People; Payne, I've Got the Light of Freedom.

(18) . Michael Honey's Southern Labor and Black Civil Rights, an examination of CIO organizing in World War II–era Memphis, argues that wartime CIO militancy provided a space in which black workers could simultaneously battle on two fronts, class struggle and racial justice, but that Cold War red-baiting of radical CIO unions and their leaders placed this confluence of economic and racial issues on hold until the 1968 sanitation strike. My research, however, reveals the continued importance of black workers' labor struggles in the intervening decades as working-class consciousness found expression in struggles in other spheres of community, culture, and civil rights. Recognizing that continuity, I argue, should help us to better understand the 1968 sanitation strike and the import of King's intervention, a topic Honey's new work, Going Down Jericho Road, also seeks to address.

(19) . Two works that also traverse these historiographical boundaries, albeit for different time periods, are Daniel, Lost Revolutions; and Hunter, To ‘Joy My Freedom. Daniel's discussion of white southern migrants and Hunter's of working-class black women both examine intersections of politics, culture, and everyday life.

(20) . Kelley, Race Rebels, 9–10.

(21) . Rev. George A. Long, “Christ, Not Crump, Is My Boss,” Memphis PressScimitar, April 3, 1944, 1; “Randolph Scores Attitude of Memphis Labor Leaders,” Memphis World, April 4, 1944, 1.

(22) . On black masculinity and the “I Am a Man” slogan, see Estes, I Am a Man!, chap. 6; and on the slogan's meaning for recasting black manhood and black womanhood, see Green, “Race, Gender, and Labor in 1960s Memphis.”

(23) . Lee, “These ‘Colored’ United States.”