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River of Hope

Black Politics and the Memphis Freedom Movement, 1865--1954

Elizabeth Gritter

Publication Year: 2014

One of the largest southern cities and a hub for the cotton industry, Memphis, Tennessee, was at the forefront of black political empowerment during the Jim Crow era. Compared to other cities in the South, Memphis had an unusually large number of African American voters. Black Memphians sought reform at the ballot box, formed clubs, ran for office, and engaged in voter registration and education activities from the end of the Civil War through the Brown v. Board of Education decision of 1954.

In this groundbreaking book, Elizabeth Gritter examines how and why black Memphians mobilized politically in the period between Reconstruction and the beginning of the civil rights movement. Gritter illuminates, in particular, the efforts and influence of Robert R. Church Jr., an affluent Republican and founder of the Lincoln League, and the notorious Memphis political boss Edward H. Crump. Using these two men as lenses through which to view African American political engagement, this volume explores how black voters and their leaders both worked with and opposed the white political machine at the ballot box.

River of Hope challenges persisting notions of a "Solid South" of white Democratic control by arguing that the small but significant number of black southerners who retained the right to vote had more influence than scholars have heretofore assumed. Gritter's nuanced study presents a fascinating view of the complex nature of political power during the Jim Crow era and provides fresh insight into the efforts of the individuals who laid the foundation for civil rights victories in the 1950s and '60s.

Published by: The University Press of Kentucky

Series: Civil Rights and the Struggle for Black Equality in the Twentieth Century


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Title Page, Copyright Page

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pp. 1-12

Memphis, Tennessee, was on the cutting edge of black political mobilization in the Jim Crow South. An unusually large number of black Memphians could vote compared with their counterparts in the rest of the South, and many African Americans, both in the South and elsewhere...

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1. "To Regain the Lost Rights of a Growing Race"

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pp. 13-50

W. Herbert Brewster grew up in a community “with very little opportunity” in rural West Tennessee near the small village of New Castle.1 Until a life-changing night in 1916, he had never been in an auditorium before and did not even know what one was. When he and...

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2. "The Fight . . . to Make America Safe for Americans"

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pp. 51-92

The Lincoln League’s 1916 victory at the polls inaugurated a new era of formal political mobilization for black Memphians. They also expanded their activism into new avenues such as NAACP and Commission on Interracial Cooperation (CIC) chapters. They pressed for...

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3. "Come . . . and See What a Negro Democrat Looks Like"

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pp. 93-136

The years from 1928 to 1939 brought new political challenges for black Memphians. The Republican Party became less attuned to African American concerns with Herbert Hoover’s election to the presidency in 1928. Edward H. Crump, who became more powerful...

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4. "As Un-American as Any Dictator-Ridden Country in Europe"

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pp. 137-174

At a time of increased political opportunities for African Americans across the country during World War II, black Memphians confronted Edward H. Crump, who attempted to further restrict their political power. At the same time, he supported their voting rights to...

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5. "A New Day Breaking" in the City and the South

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pp. 175-210

In the postwar years, Memphis saw the growing political independence of its citizens. Black Memphians joined forces with white unionists and reformers to hand Edward H. Crump his first electoral defeat in decades in 1948. Their effort resulted in the Crump machine’s...

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pp. 211-220

For black Memphians, the Brown v. Board of Education ruling was a call to action. A new generation of leaders, including Maxine and Vasco Smith, Jesse Turner Sr., A. W. Willis Jr., and Russell and Laurie Sugarmon, joined Benjamin Hooks and H. T. Lockard in giving new...

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pp. 221-230

It is appropriate to begin by thanking my dissertation committee. My appreciation especially goes to my adviser, Jacquelyn Dowd Hall, for all the time and intellectual energy that she poured into shaping this book. A remarkably gifted writer and editor, she generously provided...


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pp. 231-300


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pp. 301-326


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pp. 327-356

Further Reading

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pp. 357-358


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E-ISBN-13: 9780813144757
E-ISBN-10: 0813144752
Print-ISBN-13: 9780813144504

Page Count: 380
Publication Year: 2014

Series Title: Civil Rights and the Struggle for Black Equality in the Twentieth Century
Series Editor Byline: Steven F. Lawson & Cynthia G. Fleming See more Books in this Series

OCLC Number: 871007960
MUSE Marc Record: Download for River of Hope

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Subject Headings

  • African Americans -- Tennessee -- Memphis -- Politics and government -- 20th century.
  • African Americans -- Civil rights -- Tennessee -- Memphis -- History -- 20th century.
  • Civil rights movements -- Tennessee -- Memphis -- History -- 20th century.
  • Memphis (Tenn.) -- Race relations -- History -- 20th century.
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