- An Unseen Light: Black Struggles for Freedom in Memphis, Tennessee ed. by Aram Goudsouzian, Charles W. McKinney Jr
Aram Goudsouzian and Charles W. McKinney Jr., editors
Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 2018; 422 pages. $45.00 (paperback), ISBN 9780813175515.
An Unseen Light: Black Struggles for Freedom in Memphis, Tennessee examines the history of race relations in Memphis, Tennessee. Editors Aram Goudsouzian and Charles W. McKinney Jr. have assembled a wide-ranging collection of new essays that are relatively even in terms of readability, rigorous research, and scholarly contributions. Consisting of sixteen essays written by established and rising academics alike, the book offers a chronological survey of the city’s history relative to its sometimes mischaracterized race relations.
Essays in this collection address various issues relative to the experiences of African Americans in Memphis from the 1890s to present. Individual pieces investigate topics as diverse as migration, the environment, gender, politics, labor, and music, among others. From this breadth of topics, readers gain a feel for the complexity of race relations and activism over time in Memphis during the long civil rights movement.
The volume’s authors establish how racial inequality, accommodation, and various forms of activism permeated the city’s history during the period under examination. As multiple essays point out, much of this history runs counter to an established idea of Memphis as a city troubled less by turbulent race relations and oppression than other southern cities of the era. An Unseen Light shatters this image of a racially harmonious Memphis. As the book’s contributors confirm, any increased opportunity and political voice offered to African Americans by the machine politics of long-time boss Edward Hull Crump often came with a price tag of expected accommodation and limited activism. Jason Jordan’s essay, “We’ll Have No Race Trouble Here: Racial Politics [End Page 193] and Memphis’s Reign of Terror,” skillfully explores the heavy-handed tactics that the Crump machine employed in its attempts to maintain power while thwarting any attempts at community-based activism that might threaten the status quo of racial discrimination.
Other essays, such as Brian Page’s “‘In the Hands of the Lord’: Migrants and Community Politics in the Late Nineteenth Century,” David Welky’s “‘There will Be No Discrimination’: Race, Power, and the Memphis Flood of 1937,” Laurie Green’s “Power and Protection: Gender and Black Working-Class Protest Narratives, 1940–1948,” Elizabeth Gritter’s “Black Memphians and New Frontiers: The Shelby County Democratic Club, the Kennedy Administration, and the Question for Black Political Power, 1959–1964,” and Anthony Siracusa’s “Nonviolence, Black Power, and the Surveillance State in Memphis’s War on Poverty” relate the complex nature of African American life and activism in Memphis before, during, and after the Crump machine’s dominance. From these and other essays readers gain an understanding of Memphis as a city where African Americans experienced, navigated, and often fought against a reality of discrimination, violence, political intimidation, environmental risk, and limited opportunity. Readers learn that citizens’ responses to discrimination ranged from somewhat conservative efforts to accommodate and work within the existing political system to more radical instances of direct action protest and efforts at empowerment. These essays place the complexity of the city’s race relations, African American experience, and civil rights activism squarely alongside those of more frequently studied urban centers of the civil rights era South.
Goudsouzian and McKinney’s An Unseen Light succeeds in reaching its goal of “helping to situate Memphis” alongside other major American cities in terms of “the critical conversation about the nation’s African American experience” (5). Its essays reveal a rich and varied urban history shaped by and indebted to its African American citizens’ struggles, activism, and accomplishments. By bringing these historical activists, or “unseen lights” as the editors refer to them, into a finer focus, Goudsouzian and McKinney have produced an ambitious and comprehensive volume that improves our understanding of Memphis’s history. An Unseen Light should find a place on Civil Rights, Urban, and African American History reading lists. [End Page 194]