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Battling the Plantation Mentality

Battling the Plantation Mentality: Memphis and the Black Freedom Struggle

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    Battling the Plantation Mentality
    Book Description:

    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.

    eISBN: 978-1-4696-0453-4
    Subjects: Sociology, History

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. [i]-[vi])
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. [vii]-[xiv])
  3. Introduction Migration, Memory, and Freedom in the Urban Heart of the Delta
    (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 a union in her shop. Seated in her living room, surrounded by family photographs of her twelve children, Turner recounted how she and other African American women workers had complained about...

  4. 1 Memphis before World War II Migrants, Mushroom Strikes, and the Reign of Terror
    (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 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...

  5. 2 Where Would the Negro Women Apply for Work? Wartime Clashes over Labor, Gender, and Racial Justice
    (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 banning racial discrimination in war production industries and creating the FEPC, the letter asked him to confirm this information and explain “why there is no work for” black women, since the news “was hard to beleave coming from local authority.” Sims wondered why...

  6. 3 Moral Outrage Postwar Protest against Police Violence and Sexual Assault
    (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 of their workplace.¹ Daughters of domestic workers, the young women lived with their mothers and various siblings and their children next door to each other on Broad Avenue, near the...

  7. 4 Night Train, Freedom Train Black Youth and Racial Politics in the Early Cold War
    (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 theLeMoyne Democrat, a campus newspaper, in February 1946. He contrasted Acuff’s country music lyrics about a much-anticipated romantic rendezvous to his own sentiments aboard a segregated Memphisbound train. “Irresistibly,” he wrote, “I was being rushed through the night back to the world cotton market, back to Beale Street, back to...

  8. 5 Our Mental Liberties Banned Movies, Black-Appeal Radio, and the Struggle for a New Public Sphere
    (pp. 142-182)

    In late September 1949, the LeMoyne NAACP ran a story in theBeaconthat 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 pictureLost Boundaries, about a light-complexioned African American doctor who “passes” as white in order to avoid racial discrimination that would have prevented him from practicing. TheBeaconwriter predicted the board would next ban 20th Century Fox’s new releasePinky, about an African American nurse who had similarly opted to “pass” and...

  9. 6 Rejecting Mammy The Urban-Rural Road in the Era of Brown v. Board of Education
    (pp. 183-215)

    In April 1955, just before the Supreme Court ruled on how to implement its momentous decision inBrown 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 southern-style food. The workers, all but one of them women, were offended by their bosses’ new mode of attracting customers: seating an elderly black woman, Mrs. Savannah Keyes, outside...

  10. 7 We Were Making History Students, Sharecroppers, and Sanitation Workers in the Memphis Freedom Movement
    (pp. 216-250)

    “Applause literally rocked Mason Temple,” exclaimed theTri-State Defenderin 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 Love, Rev. Henry Bunton, and others. The crowd roared as speakers ripped into “Uncle Toms,” declaring, as one speaker did, “Let this night be the burial of uncle toms of all shapes, forms and fashions!” “We’re going to fight till hell freezes over and...

  11. 8 Battling the Plantation Mentality From the Civil Rights Act to the Sanitation Strike
    (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. A few weeks prior to King’s speech, reactions to Memphis policemen’s use of mace against participants in a march by sanitation workers and supporters, including black clergymen, had transformed what had begun...

  12. Conclusion
    (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, many of them migrants from the rural South, critiques of the “plantation mentality” resonated with meaning, given their earlier efforts to remove themselves geographically from the power relations of the plantation. Their use of the term imbued the idea of freedom with complex and historically specific...

  13. Notes
    (pp. 295-358)
  14. Bibliography
    (pp. 359-380)
  15. Acknowledgments
    (pp. 381-386)
  16. Index
    (pp. 387-415)