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Battling the Plantation Mentality

Memphis and the Black Freedom Struggle

Laurie B. Green

Publication Year: 2007

African American freedom is often defined in terms of emancipation and civil rights legislation, but it did not arrive with the stroke of a pen or the rap of a gavel. No single event makes this more plain, Laurie Green argues, than the 1968 Memphis sanitation workers' strike, which culminated in the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. Exploring the notion of "freedom" in postwar Memphis, Green demonstrates that the civil rights movement was battling an ongoing "plantation mentality" based on race, gender, and power that permeated southern culture long before--and even after--the groundbreaking legislation of the mid-1960s. With its slogan "I AM a Man!" the Memphis strike provides a clarion example of how the movement fought for a black freedom that consisted of not only constitutional rights but also social and human rights. As the sharecropping system crumbled and migrants streamed to the cities during and after World War II, the struggle for black freedom touched all aspects of daily life. Green traces the movement to new locations, from protests against police brutality and racist movie censorship policies to innovations in mass culture, such as black-oriented radio stations. Incorporating scores of oral histories, Green demonstrates that the interplay of politics, culture, and consciousness is critical to truly understanding freedom and the black struggle for it. Green explores the notion of “freedom” among working-class African Americans in southern cities (specifically, Memphis) during the post-WWII Black Freedom Movement. She argues that although the meaning of freedom is often neglected outside the realm of slavery and emancipation, the civil rights movement indeed was still battling an ongoing “plantation mentality” based on race, gender, and power, which permeated southern culture even after the groudbreaking legislation of the mid 1960s. She examines the Memphis sanitation strike of 1968 (which took the slogan “I AM a Man!” and culminated in the assassination of MLK) as a clarion example of how the movement fought for a black freedom that consisted of not only constitutional rights, but also social and human rights. In her exploration of the “freedom” mentality in Memphis, she looks at aspects of daily life such as protests against police brutality and racist movie censorship policies and innovations in mass culture, such as black-oriented radio stations, that accompanied the crumbling of the sharecropping system and the rise of urban migration. Exploring the notion of African American “freedom” in postwar Memphis, Green demonstrates that the civil rights movement was battling an ongoing “plantation mentality” based on race, gender, and power that permeated southern culture long before--and even after--the groundbreaking legislation of the mid-1960s. She points to the Memphis sanitation workers strike as a clarion example of how the movement fought for a black freedom that consisted of not only constitutional rights but also social and human rights. African American freedom is often defined in terms of emancipation and civil rights legislation, but it did not arrive with the stroke of a pen or the rap of a gavel. No single event makes this more plain, Laurie Green argues, than the 1968 Memphis sanitation workers' strike, which culminated in the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. Exploring the notion of "freedom" in postwar Memphis, Green demonstrates that the civil rights movement was battling an ongoing "plantation mentality" based on race, gender, and power that permeated southern culture long before--and even after--the groundbreaking legislation of the mid-1960s. With its slogan "I AM a Man!" the Memphis strike provides a clarion example of how the movement fought for a black freedom that consisted of not only constitutional rights but also social and human rights. As the sharecropping system crumbled and migrants streamed to the cities during and after World War II, the struggle for black freedom touched all aspects of daily life. Green traces the movement to new locations, from protests against police brutality and racist movie censorship policies to innovations in mass culture, such as black-oriented radio stations. Incorporating scores of oral histories, Green demonstrates that the interplay of politics, culture, and consciousness is critical to truly understanding freedom and the black struggle for it.

Published by: The University of North Carolina Press

Title Page, Copyright

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pp. 2-7

Contents

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pp. 8-15

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

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pp. 1-14

“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 ...

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1 Memphis before World War II: Migrants, Mushroom Strikes, and the Reign of Terror

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pp. 15-46

Susie Bryant opened her door on election day morning in 1940 to a man who had promised to help her get registered African Americans out to vote. “Miss Bryant, I ain’t going to be able to vote with you,” he confessed. “The boss says I got to vote the way he says.” His statement dismayed but did not surprise her. After migrating to Memphis from ...

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2 Where Would the Negro Women Apply for Work?: Wartime Clashes over Labor, Gender, and Racial Justice

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pp. 47-80

In a letter to Franklin Roosevelt, Altha Sims described a visit to the Memphis U.S. Employment Service (uses) office, where she was “coldly refused by a lady” who informed her that “there was not defense work for Negro woman.” Written in July 1942, a year after the president, under pressure from African Americans, issued an executive order ...

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3 Moral Outrage: Postwar Protest against Police Violence and Sexual Assault

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pp. 81-111

At 1:30 a.m., August 3, 1945, two young African American women awaited a bus at the corner of Poplar and Cleveland in midtown Memphis. According to their sworn statements, made later before a white attorney retained by the NAACP, Alice Wright and Annie Mae Williams had just finished their shifts as dishwasher and cook at Fred’s Café and were headed home to the working-class Binghampton neighborhood, a few miles east ...

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4 Night Train, Freedom Train: Black Youth and Racial Politics in the Early Cold War

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pp. 112-141

“Returning to Memphis from a small town in northern Alabama recently, I found myself humming and reflecting on Roy Acuff’s classic invitation: ‘Take that night train to Memphis / Take that night train to Memphis / I’ll be waiting at the station,’” wrote LeMoyne College student Charles E. Lincoln for the LeMoyne Democrat, a campus newspaper, in February 1946. ...

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5 Our Mental Liberties: Banned Movies, Black-Appeal Radio, and the Struggle for a New Public Sphere

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pp. 142-182

In late September 1949, the LeMoyne naacp ran a story in the Beacon that excoriated the Memphis Board of Censors for its “mental processes.”1 The board’s notorious chairman, Lloyd T. Binford, according to the article, had once again exhibited his capricious logic by banning the Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer motion picture Lost Boundaries, about a ...

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6 Rejecting Mammy: The Urban-Rural Road in the Era of Brown v. Board of Education

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pp. 183-215

In April 1955, just before the Supreme Court ruled on how to implement its momentous decision in Brown v. Board of Education, declaring that desegregation of public schools should proceed at “all deliberate speed,” the eyes of many black Memphians turned briefly in a different direction, to the case of the “Patio 6.” The appellation referred to a group of six black employees of Joel’s Patio, a downtown Memphis café serving ...

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7 We Were Making History: Students, Sharecroppers, and Sanitation Workers in the Memphis Freedom Movement

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pp. 216-250

“Applause literally rocked Mason Temple,” exclaimed the Tri- State Defender in a report on a “Freedom Rally” for the Volunteer Ticket, July 31, 1959, that drew 5,000 black Memphians to hear Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., gospel singer Mahalia Jackson, and local speakers. “Thunderous applause” repeatedly interrupted black Memphis political candidates Russell Sugarmon, Benjamin Hooks, Rev. Roy ...

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8 Battling the Plantation Mentality: From the Civil Rights Act to the Sanitation Strike

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pp. 251-287

Eight and a half years after a spirited rally of 5,000 African American voters in 1959 prompted Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. to spontaneously predict that “Something is going to happen,” King once again stood before a huge crowd of Memphians. This time, on March 18, 1968, 15,000 people crammed into the same cavernous Mason Temple to hear King and demonstrate their support for striking city sanitation workers. ...

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Conclusion

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pp. 288-294

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, ...

Notes

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pp. 295-358

Bibliography

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pp. 359-379

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Acknowledgments

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pp. 381-385

... I first wish to thank the women and men whose struggles, stories, and reflections became central to this project. Each interview became far more than a gathering of information, transforming instead into a challenging exchange about how to interpret historical memories. Indeed, these conversations became crucial to my decision to organize the book around the concept of the “plantation mentality” and ...

Index

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pp. 387-415


E-ISBN-13: 9781469604534
E-ISBN-10: 1469604531
Print-ISBN-13: 9780807831069
Print-ISBN-10: 0807831069

Page Count: 432
Illustrations: 25 illus., 3 maps
Publication Year: 2007

Series Title: The John Hope Franklin Series in African American History and Culture

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Subject Headings

  • African Americans -- Civil rights -- Tennessee -- Memphis -- History -- 20th century.
  • African Americans -- Segregation -- Tennessee -- Memphis -- History -- 20th century.
  • Civil rights movements -- Tennessee -- Memphis -- History -- 20th century.
  • African Americans -- Tennessee -- Memphis -- History -- 20th century.
  • Racism -- Tennessee -- Memphis -- History -- 20th century.
  • Memphis (Tenn.) -- Race relations -- History -- 20th century.
  • Memphis (Tenn.) -- History -- 20th century.
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