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River of Hope

River of Hope: Black Politics and the Memphis Freedom Movement, 1865--1954

Elizabeth Gritter
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    River of Hope
    Book Description:

    One of the largest southern cities and a hub for the cotton industry, Memphis, Tennessee, was at the forefront of black political empowerment during the Jim Crow era. Compared to other cities in the South, Memphis had an unusually large number of African American voters. Black Memphians sought reform at the ballot box, formed clubs, ran for office, and engaged in voter registration and education activities from the end of the Civil War through the Brown v. Board of Education decision of 1954.

    In this groundbreaking book, Elizabeth Gritter examines how and why black Memphians mobilized politically in the period between Reconstruction and the beginning of the civil rights movement. Gritter illuminates, in particular, the efforts and influence of Robert R. Church Jr., an affluent Republican and founder of the Lincoln League, and the notorious Memphis political boss Edward H. Crump. Using these two men as lenses through which to view African American political engagement, this volume explores how black voters and their leaders both worked with and opposed the white political machine at the ballot box.

    River of Hope challenges persisting notions of a "Solid South" of white Democratic control by arguing that the small but significant number of black southerners who retained the right to vote had more influence than scholars have heretofore assumed. Gritter's nuanced study presents a fascinating view of the complex nature of political power during the Jim Crow era and provides fresh insight into the efforts of the individuals who laid the foundation for civil rights victories in the 1950s and '60s.

    eISBN: 978-0-8131-4475-7
    Subjects: Sociology, Political Science, History

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. [i]-[iv])
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. [v]-[vi])
  3. Introduction
    (pp. 1-12)

    Memphis, Tennessee, was on the cutting edge of black political mobilization in the Jim Crow South. An unusually large number of black Memphians could vote compared with their counterparts in the rest of the South, and many African Americans, both in the South and elsewhere, saw Memphis as a model for political mobilization. The story of Memphis illuminates the small but significant number of black southerners who retained the right to vote and engaged in formal political efforts from the disenfranchisement campaigns of the late nineteenth century through theBrown v. Board of Educationdecision of 1954, which overturned the...

  4. 1 “To Regain the Lost Rights of a Growing Race”: Black Political Mobilization, 1865–1916
    (pp. 13-50)

    W. Herbert Brewster grew up in a community “with very little opportunity” in rural West Tennessee near the small village of New Castle.¹ Until a life-changing night in 1916, he had never been in an auditorium before and did not even know what one was. When he and his fellow black students pressed their way into Memphis’s crowded Church’s Auditorium that evening, they looked up and saw a beautiful place. After the singing of “The Battle Hymn of the Republic,” Brewster remembered, “there strode out to . . . the platform a young man of great personal carriage and personality....

  5. 2 “The Fight . . . to Make America Safe for Americans”: Memphis as a Political Model for the Region and the Country, 1917–1927
    (pp. 51-92)

    The Lincoln League’s 1916 victory at the polls inaugurated a new era of formal political mobilization for black Memphians. They also expanded their activism into new avenues such as NAACP and Commission on Interracial Cooperation (CIC) chapters. They pressed for economic opportunities, civil rights, improved public services, political influence, and an end to lynching. Robert R. Church Jr. became increasingly involved on the national political scene and emerged as the country’s most prominent black Republican. He transformed the local Lincoln League into the Lincoln League of America, an influential black political organization that was part of the upsurge of black...

  6. 3 “Come . . . and See What a Negro Democrat Looks Like”: The Diversity of Black Political Activity, 1928–1939
    (pp. 93-136)

    The years from 1928 to 1939 brought new political challenges for black Memphians. The Republican Party became less attuned to African American concerns with Herbert Hoover’s election to the presidency in 1928. Edward H. Crump, who became more powerful locally as a result of the 1927 election, saw Franklin D. Roosevelt’s election to the presidency in 1932 solidify his control. He held greater national influence than he had when Republicans occupied the White House and cracked down on Memphians who challenged his power. In addition, Memphians faced the blow of the Great Depression. Despite all these difficulties, black Memphians engaged...

  7. Photgraphs
    (pp. None)
  8. 4 “As Un-American as Any Dictator-Ridden Country in Europe”: Seeking Democracy during the War Years, 1940–1945
    (pp. 137-174)

    At a time of increased political opportunities for African Americans across the country during World War II, black Memphians confronted Edward H. Crump, who attempted to further restrict their political power. At the same time, he supported their voting rights to a limited degree and provided them with public services that were unequal to those of whites but better than those afforded to African Americans in other southern cities. Crump forced Robert R. Church Jr. and two other black Republicans to leave the city, and he also cracked down on whites who threatened his control. Within this environment, black political...

  9. 5 “A New Day Breaking” in the City and the South: The Decline of the Crump Machine and the Rise of New Leadership, 1946–1954
    (pp. 175-210)

    In the postwar years, Memphis saw the growing political independence of its citizens. Black Memphians joined forces with white unionists and reformers to hand Edward H. Crump his first electoral defeat in decades in 1948. Their effort resulted in the Crump machine’s decline, a more democratic political environment, and local government reforms. Robert R. Church Jr. carried on his battle to make the Republican Party embrace civil rights, while a new generation of black activists bolstered civil rights efforts in Memphis and the South. In order to increase voter registration, politicize African Americans, and ultimately break the Jim Crow system,...

  10. Conclusion
    (pp. 211-220)

    For black Memphians, theBrown v. Board of Educationruling was a call to action. A new generation of leaders, including Maxine and Vasco Smith, Jesse Turner Sr., A. W. Willis Jr., and Russell and Laurie Sugarmon, joined Benjamin Hooks and H. T. Lockard in giving new life to the black freedom struggle in Memphis. With no appointed successor to Crump, a leadership vacuum existed in the city, and they took advantage of this environment to pursue political power and civil rights.¹ They joined the Bluff City and Shelby County Council of Civic Clubs and the local NAACP branch, which...

  11. Acknowledgments
    (pp. 221-230)
  12. Notes
    (pp. 231-300)
  13. Bibliography
    (pp. 301-326)
  14. Index
    (pp. 327-356)
  15. Back Matter
    (pp. 357-358)