Battling the Plantation Mentality: Memphis and the Black Freedom Struggle

Battling the Plantation Mentality: Memphis and the Black Freedom Struggle

by Laurie B. Green

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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


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.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"Well researched and well documented. . . . Richly grounded in oral interviews. . . .Recommend[ed] to those interested in working class histories, the history of the Civil Rights movements, and Black women's history."
-American Studies

"Grounds evolving definitions of 'freedom' in the everyday experiences of African-Americans as well as in organized campaigns for civil rights progress."
-Social History

"A long chronology is only one of the book's strengths. Its major contribution to movement historiography is its analysis of connections between various spheres of black protest."
-Journal of American History

"[Green's] use of richly textured oral history interviews allows the voices of working-class African Americans to ring clearly as they counteracted and circumvented Memphis' racist environment during and after World War II. . . . A necessary contribution to our ever-changing understandings of the black freedom movement."
-Journal of American Ethnic History

"A deeply researched, comprehensive account of the many levels of struggle and modes of thought that African Americans in the Deep South employed to break the system of Jim Crow. . . . [A] powerful work of people's scholarship. . . . Provides a welcome, fresh look and brilliantly documents that varied terrain of the African American battle for personhood and dignity."
-Journal of Southern History

"A fresh look at the Memphis freedom struggle. . . . The result is a well-documented study."
-Oral History Review

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The University of North Carolina Press
Publication date:
John Hope Franklin Series in African American History and Culture
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Battling the Plantation Mentality

Memphis and the Black Freedom Struggle

The University of North Carolina Press

Copyright © 2007 The University of North Carolina Press
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-8078-5802-8

Chapter One

Memphis before World War II

Migrants, Mushroom Strikes, and the Reign of Terror

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 Greenwood, Mississippi, in January 1936, Bryant had registered to vote, casting her ballot for the first time when she was in her thirties. In the early-twentieth-century Mississippi of her youth, she recalled, "it was right after slavery almost. People were still under that influence. They didn't turn them loose and turn around and treat them like they were citizens. They couldn't even vote." In Memphis, on the other hand, African Americans could vote so long as they paid the annual poll tax required by the Tennessee Constitution-or if Boss Edward H. Crump's Democratic political machine paid it for them.

Bryant quickly learned, however, that voting rights for African Americans in Memphis were not as different from voting restrictionsin Mississippi as they appeared. Many working-class black Memphians who cast ballots were pressured into supporting candidates endorsed by Crump, who paid their poll taxes. Going to the polls, elsewhere a marker of independent citizenship, thus denoted the opposite, servility, for these black Memphis voters. In fall 1940, when this moment at Bryant's doorway took place, politics in Memphis had become even more fraught, as the Crump machine launched an unabashed harassment campaign, dubbed the Memphis "reign of terror" by civil liberties proponents, aimed at repressing black Republicans, subduing labor activism, and exerting social control over incoming migrants.

For Bryant, urban migration represented another leg of a journey that her family had undertaken in the Yazoo-Mississippi Delta. Born in 1904 in Carroll County, Mississippi, Bryant moved "down in the Delta" into LeFlore County, just west of Carroll, with her paternal extended family, the Holmans, in 1913. The large family went first to work on a plantation outside of Morgan City, then to Swiftown, and finally to Greenwood. Moving to Memphis during the Great Depression represented the next logical step. "Times were so tough in Mississippi then," Bryant remembered. Her father had died and her oldest brother had moved to Memphis, leaving her mother unable to making a living from farmwork with her remaining children. Bryant recalled that her mother worked as a domestic servant in white households but received almost nothing for her labor: "She got I think fifty cents sometimes and clothes and things." Bryant herself was unable to farm or work as a domestic because she had become crippled as a child as a result of a leg injury for which she received inadequate medical care.

Moving, however, signified as much a quest for racial independence from white planters as a pursuit of economic stability for at least three generations of Holman family members who shared or inherited the memory of an incident in the 1910s. Bound by debt to the landowner for whom they had been farming, Bryant recalled, her uncles and grandfather tried to leave the farm in the middle of the night to go "up on the Dog"-a reference to the Yazoo and Delta Railroad, nicknamed the "Yellow Dog," or "Dog." A white mob pursued and beat them, she recounted, ultimately forcing them back to the plantation. Although Bryant had not witnessed the beating, it had become part of shared family stories about Mississippi. Memories of her mother toiling as a servant and her older male kin being subjected to white violence when they attempted to exert economic independence, framed Bryant's lasting images of the Delta, along with her own inability to receive proper medical care as a six-year-old. Inherent in African Americans' decisions to leave the rural South were desires to alter the degrading identities assigned to them-and even violently reinforced-by a racist plantation culture.

Bryant also carried to Memphis a deep and abiding commitment to education for African American children that had emerged as a response to the racially and economically circumscribed conditions she and other youth confronted in rural Mississippi. African American children received drastically truncated educations because the segregated schools they attended were open only during months when they were not needed for fieldwork. Bryant's parents, she recalled, countered this situation by emphasizing the importance of education, devoting time to schoolwork at home. Bryant particularly valued the home-based education that they insisted upon since her leg injury kept her from attending school regularly. She also learned how to cook and nurse children during her time at home with her mother. In Memphis years later, Bryant became involved with community projects dedicated to black children. She established the Dunbar Elementary PTA and a nursery for children of working mothers and became a mainstay of her church's youth group.

Bryant's lifelong dedication to civic and community activism in Memphis reflected both continuities and discontinuities between rural and urban life in the Deep South. In Mississippi, as a member of the Willing Worker Society, a church-based mutual aid association in Greenwood, she had helped her mother prepare soup and deliver it to sick members of their community. In Memphis, however, Bryant extended her community service work to political organizing, a step that would have been prohibitively dangerous in Greenwood, a town that became a focal point for civil rights activism three decades later. In the Orange Mound neighborhood in Memphis, one of the more established black neighborhoods, Bryant discovered that there was only "one little place over there somewhere on Lamar at a store" for black Memphians to vote. Dismayed, she joined black Republican leader Lt. George W. Lee's efforts to register voters, organize voter education schools, and pressure city officials to establish precincts in every black neighborhood.

Susie Bryant discovered an urban milieu in Memphis that opened new possibilities for African Americans yet perpetuated aspects of the degrading and oppressive culture she associated with the Mississippi Delta. On one hand, Memphis's economy offered opportunities to escape the racism inherent in the social and labor relations of the plantation. Moreover, migrants found in the variegated social terrain of Memphis a mobility and anonymity that contrasted with the personal power structures of rural life. On the other hand, the rural Delta's "influence of slavery" reverberated in Memphis, according to Bryant. As in Mississippi, African Americans in Memphis had to go around to the back of restaurants to be served. "You went to that hole," Bryant recalled, "where they could hand you a sandwich through if there wasn't a back door. And you couldn't drink water out of the fountain. You better not!" Private employers, likewise, required women domestic servants to enter their homes through the back door. In addition, when Bryant moved to Memphis with her mother, one of her own children, and two of her sister's children, they lived with her brother in what she called a "shanty"-little better than a shack on a rural plantation. Migrants thus encountered racial practices that appeared to recreate, albeit in specifically urban forms, aspects of plantation culture. Nevertheless, many young migrants arrived in the city with little commitment to the status quo and determined to alter their lives.

At the same time, however, African American political leadership that had been in place in Memphis since the First World War, comprised largely of businessmen, professionals, and ministers, seriously fractured during the late 1930s under a variety of pressures that included severe intimidation and harassment by the Crump machine. For many black leaders, the uneasy coexistence they had managed to work out with the Crump machine now unraveled, forcing them to either increase their fidelity to the machine or pay the consequences. Confronted by the Crump machine's 1940 "reign of terror," only a handful chose open defiance.

Outside critics assessed Memphis in 1940 as a place where the Crump machine reigned supreme. As black political scientist Ralph Bunche put it, "Edward H. Crump, or 'Mistuh' Crump[,] as he is popularly known, is the boss of all things political in Memphis and Shelby County." Bunche and other outside observers expressed concern that ordinary African Americans had been intimidated into silence and black political and business leaders had chosen cooperation over confrontation with the machine. Those who did seek to ameliorate working and social conditions were accused of being subversives and faced reprisals. Bunche, an astute political observer, assessed the consequences for black Memphians as dire: "Beaten into submission by police nightsticks and guns, the Negroes of Memphis are in a terrible predicament."

Reexamined from a fresh vantage point, this situation appears far more complex than Bunche's observations would suggest. Despite the Crump machine's strenuous efforts to dominate economic, social, and political life, central to which was the assertion of racial control, multidimensional struggles over racial authority and identity emerged within this crucible of the urban South, poised between Depression and war. They challenged the domination of the Crump machine and the leadership of black elites, whether the challenge took the form of a CIO-backed labor movement, a youth branch of the NAACP organized at historically black LeMoyne College, or defiant stances taken by a small number of black ministers. Beneath these overt protests, however, lay the daily struggles of recent migrants such as Susie Bryant to reorganize their own lives in Memphis. These travails led many migrants into new terrain, from the political work conducted by Bryant to the "mushroom strikes" that sprouted in sweatshop manufacturing shops even before the CIO formally visited these workplaces. Together, these efforts prompted repression by the Crump machine and anticipated the persistent clashes over race and democracy that would arise during and after the Second World War.

Memphis's Roots in the Plantation Economy

Memphis's historic symbiotic relationship with the broader Mississippi Delta region bound it to far-flung national and world markets. Its position as a key river port along the Mississippi River made it an excellent site from which to ship the region's cotton as early as the 1830s and 1840s. The city's role as the linchpin of the Delta cotton economy greatly expanded after the Civil War, leading cotton factors and merchants to open the Memphis Cotton Exchange in 1873, and for Memphis to capture from New Orleans the honor of being the world's "Largest Spot Cotton Market" (where cotton was traded on the spot, rather than through a futures market). By the turn of the twentieth century, Memphis had also become the hub of a burgeoning hardwood industry that was transforming the Mississippi Delta's native forests into immense profits for lumber companies, most northern-based. As the center of an extraction-based industry that included over 500 mills within a 100-mile radius and produced a billion feet of lumber annually, Memphis had become a world leader in hardwood markets. The large lumbering operations that cleared timber fed the area's development as a plantation region, as lumber companies sold off immense tracts of cleared land to local, northern, and foreign investors.

These roots in the cotton and hardwood industries attached Memphis's fate to that of the surrounding agricultural region. Regional hardwood and cotton by-products spawned the city's homegrown manufacturing companies, including such spectacularly successful corporations as the Plough Chemical Company, which in 1971 became part of Schering-Plough, Inc., a world leader in pharmaceuticals, and the E. L. Bruce Company, a major producer of hardwood flooring, along with firms such as the Memphis Furniture Manufacturing Company and the Buckeye Cotton Oil Company, owned by Procter & Gamble. As a transportation, distribution, and manufacturing hub, the city brought cotton and lumber in from the surrounding region and shipped raw goods and processed products out. The Memphis Chamber of Commerce's efforts to diversify the economy only amplified the city's ties to the rural Delta. When Fisher Body Corporation, a General Motors subsidiary, was looking for a site to build automobile frames in 1923, it gravitated to the city because of the availability of hardwood, out of which auto bodies were constructed. Firestone Tire and Rubber Company opened a plant in 1937, taking advantage of the city's access to cotton, used in tire fabric, along with raw rubber shipped to Memphis by barge up the Mississippi.

Even Memphis's municipal services and housing reflected its rural influence. Although the city began addressing urban squalor by building sewer lines, draining waste-filled bayous, and improving neighborhoods in the early twentieth century, most black families continued to live in slums comprised of ramshackle structures that city officials referred to as "Negro housing." As late as 1941, a federal survey reported that "Negro slums are usually shacks and tenements that were never properly equipped with sanitary requisities [sic] in the first place. They were built for negroes by those who knew that negroes could never afford anything better than the worst." Such conditions fed racial stereotypes, as whites identified poor African Americans with this squalor. Likewise, as the city tackled public health, blacks were cast as bearers of tuberculosis, syphilis, and other communicable diseases. Memphis's notoriety for violent crime and murder also became a race issue, with daily newspapers limiting coverage of African Americans to crimes they allegedly committed. Even municipal corruption became insidiously associated with race, as blame shifted from those who bought votes to those whose votes were bought.

Despite the fact that hundreds of black Memphians worked as teachers, postal workers, and railroad porters, or owned cafés, beauty salons, and barber shops, the vast majority toiled as servants and unskilled laborers. In the 1930s, few black women found openings outside private domestic service or public service establishments, such as commercial laundries, hospitals, and restaurants. Men had more options, but most worked as unskilled laborers in cotton compress plants, lumber mills, manufacturing plants, construction sites, railroad yards, on river boats and wharves, or in personal service. Job opportunities for black men had narrowed during the 1920s, as white trade unionists pushed skilled black workers out of several professions. In addition, city officials used vagrancy laws to force blacks to the countryside at cotton harvest time until the 1930s, when public agencies systematized the process of supplying this labor.

Beale Street, the hub of Memphis's urban black culture, offered a sharp contrast to these restrictive labor practices, attracting both local residents and rural visitors to its commercial and cultural venues. Lt. George Lee, who served as one of the few black officers during World War I before becoming a political leader, insurance executive, and author of Beale Street: Where the Blues Began (1934), marveled at how "the cooks, maids, houseboys and factory hands" took over the famous avenue on Saturday nights. Beale offered public spaces where they could claim identities far different from the subservient ones they likely acted out at work. "The working people are on parade; going nowhere in particular, just out strolling, just glad of a chance to dress up and expose themselves on the avenue after working hard all the week," Lee observed. On Beale, black Memphians at- tended movies, caroused in cafés, and danced to live music, celebrating it as a space free of the racial tension of Main Street, just a turn of the corner away.


Excerpted from Battling the Plantation Mentality by LAURIE B. GREEN Copyright © 2007 by The University of North Carolina Press. Excerpted by permission.
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Meet the Author

Laurie Beth Green is associate professor of history at the University of Texas at Austin.

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