- Battling the Plantation Mentality: Memphis and the Black Freedom Struggle
Green's history of freedom struggles in Memphis, roughly from 1940 to the assassination of Dr. King, includes all the expected moments and movements from Boss Crump's role, to the desegregation campaigns, to the voting rights battles, to the students' activism of the late 1960s, and ending with the Sanitation Worker's Strike. She does a very good job of explaining this history. But what is truly of value are the roughly sixty interviews Green conducted for this study. They add a human dimension to what has become a familiar story and they remind us that it was ordinary, everyday people wanting to live with dignity and self-respect who really created the history of this period. A great example is the interview with Sally Turner, a retired factory worker, that opens the book. She relates what may seem like a minor grievance at first, but clearly is the kind of issue that was at the heart of the freedom struggles, that is, the struggle to live with dignity and self-respect. Ms. Turner notes, "The struggle was we didn't have a water fountain! No water fountain in 1965" (1). The reader will notice that the complaint was not about integrating the water fountain, but about providing a basic necessity of life. Instead of installing a water fountain, the factory foreman provided a bucket and a dipper—the same type of implements used in the fields back on the plantation and what most black people hoped they had left behind by moving to a city like Memphis.
This first interview exemplifies several other themes at work in Green's well researched and well-documented work. First, this study is richly grounded in oral interviews of working-class African Americans in Memphis, not the middle class. Second, they allow those on the frontlines of this battle to tell their own stories of the everyday battles that had to be waged so that black people in Memphis in the mid-twentieth century could live with dignity and self-respect. The opening interview exemplifies another theme that is often overlooked and not much discussed when histories of the freedom struggles are written. The opposition was not static. As African Americans moved to express their grievances, the white opposition pushed back, as illustrated by the foremen adding another insult to an already degrading situation. Ms. Turner reminds us that not all the battles in this struggle were legislative; some were very personal.
Additionally, these interviews allow Green to give much more space to the activities of women in Memphis. Most freedom struggle histories now give some attention to women; however, Green, largely through the interviews but also with other sources, is able to document the myriad campaigns carried out by women, from the fight for bathroom rights at the RCA plant to welfare rights fights, to public housing battles, to their often unheralded role in the Memphis Sanitation Workers strike. Green has done an excellent job of filling in a largely missing history of all the participants in the freedom struggles in Memphis.
I would recommend this book to those interested in working class histories, the history of the Civil Rights Movement, and Black women's history.