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Marching on Memphis

College of Liberal Arts

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College of Liberal Arts

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College of Liberal Arts

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College of Liberal Arts

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College of Liberal Arts

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The nation mourned when civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King was shot and killed on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tenn., in 1968.

Many viewed the heightening unrest of the city sanitation workers’ strike and conflicts stemming from the Civil Rights Act of 1964 for setting the stage for this act. But, according to University of Texas at Austin Assistant Professor Laurie Green, black Memphians had experienced severe racial strife on numerous fronts for decades before King walked with the city’s sanitation workers whose “I AM A MAN” proclamation rallied males and females, poor and middle class during this historic struggle for equality.

Laurie Green, Assistant Professor, Department of History

“Blacks in Memphis had been battling for freedom from discrimination in all facets of their everyday lives for decades,” said Green whose research is chronicled in an upcoming book on race, gender and freedom in the civil rights era in Memphis. “Memphis was dominated by corrupt, racist city officials since the 1930s and blacks struggled to overcome what many referred to as a ‘plantation mentality’ that kept them relegated to menial, low-paying jobs.”

Although issues of desegregating public services and gaining equality in the workplace were significant in Memphis, police brutality, poverty, censorship and harassment were part of blacks’ everyday lives for decades. In the fall of 1940, for instance, Memphis city boss Edward H. Crump started what came to be known as the “reign of terror.” His efforts were enforced by a brutal police force and sought to repress black Republicans, subdue labor activism and exert social control of migrants, Green said.

During World War II, when Memphis’ manufacturing sector grew from just more than 27,000 to nearly 49,000 jobs in two years, many blacks were denied jobs in the burgeoning defense industry. Thousands of black men and women were bused each day from their homes in Memphis back to the rural farmlands surrounding the area and forced to pick cotton, considered a wartime necessity.

Black women, responding to ads calling on females to do their part for the wartime effort as “Rosie the Riveter,” were turned away. In fact, most black women who moved from rural towns to Memphis quickly found the only jobs they could get were as servants in white households.


Although issues of desegregating public services and gaining equality in the workplace were significant in Memphis, police brutality, poverty, censorship and harassment were part of blacks' everyday lives for decades.

“Black men and women were denied the opportunity to work in skilled positions,” said Green. “The jobs they could obtain paid extremely low wages.”

The resulting poverty that overwhelmed the black community caused many families to live in slums where poor sanitation led to widespread health problems. White Memphians then blamed the spread of disease on blacks.

In addition to limited economic opportunities for blacks, Memphis’ police force, led by Public Safety Commissioner Joseph Boyle, brutalized black men and women. In the early 1940s, Boyle initiated a campaign to rid Memphis of “idle” blacks, making it clear that migrant blacks should take jobs as laborers or return to the fields outside Memphis, Green said.

Memphis police also regularly picked up black women and sexually assaulted them. Green said. In 1945, in response to one particularly egregious instance where two white police officers raped two young, black cafeteria workers, public outrage finally exploded. In a break from tradition, the local newspapers covered the case and called for an end to police brutality. The resulting publicity galvanized efforts by blacks and moderate whites for reform during and after the war.

Beale Street was a cultural center for black Memphians during the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s. Here, hundreds gather to enjoy a parade.
Photo courtesy of the Mississippi Valley Collection

“Memphis was a city filled with contradictions during the 1940s and 1950s,” said Green. “For instance, blacks in Memphis could vote while those in neighboring Mississippi were denied this right. However, as most black Memphians could not afford the poll tax that was in effect until 1951, their votes were controlled by the Crump machine, which paid the tax on their behalf.”

The cultural landscape of Memphis also was a mass of contradictions. While access to most theaters, restaurants and businesses was segregated if not completely barred, Beale Street flourished as an urban cultural center for the black community. Blacks would dress up and head to Beale Street, still an active center of culture in Memphis, on the weekends and enjoy cafes, movie theaters, dance halls and other entertainment.

The first all-black-oriented radio station in the nation also was founded in Memphis during the 1940s. This radio station became an important voice in the racial struggle both during and after the war. Battling against this social achievement, however, was one of the nation’s strictest media censors. Films such as “Lost Boundaries,” which featured a light-skinned black doctor who “passed” as white so he could practice medicine, were banned in the city. In addition, any movie scenes showing blacks in roles other than servants, were edited out of the feature.

By the early 1950s, a representative from the regional office of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) noted in a memorandum that the efforts of the local chapter had been largely squashed by Memphis’ white establishment. The Crump machine, backed by the corrupt police department, pressured middle-class blacks and other community leaders to maintain the status quo.

The Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. addresses sanitation workers and striker supporters in Memphis in March 1968.
Photo courtesy of the Mississippi Valley Collection

Still, black activists continued to push for equality and respect. In the summer of 1959, 5,000 black Memphians turned out to hear Dr. Martin Luther King give his first speech in the city. Their passion was so high that it led King to declare he “had never seen such enthusiasm at a meeting of Negroes.”

Later that year, there was a significant struggle at the election booth as blacks saw their first real chance of winning local elected office. Sixty-four percent of registered black voters turned out to cast a vote. The wave of black activism spurred an even larger turnout by white voters who defeated the black candidates.

Blacks also starting staging “sit ins,” first at public institutions and then at local businesses to protest segregation in the late 1950s. A student sit in at the public library, during which black students and journalists were arrested, resulted in a protest by thousands of blacks of all ages. The sit-in movement, which was occurring in cities across the South, continued to grow and finally led many downtown Memphis businesses to desegregate in 1962.

“Most people don’t realize the volatile racial climate that existed in Memphis for decades because the white-run newspapers refused to cover blacks’ efforts to reform the city,” said Green. “Long before the Civil Rights Act of 1964, black Memphians were fighting to improve all aspects of their lives. They saw white repression as a continuation of the ‘plantation mentality’ that treated black men as ‘boys’ and did not recognize their freedom.”

It was this lack of freedom and equality that formed a foundation for the sanitation workers’ rallying cry of “I AM A MAN” in 1968.

Police brutality and racism were ongoing problems in Memphis. Here, police gather on Beale Street in preparation for a march by city sanitation workers.
Photo courtesy of the Mississippi Valley Collection

“I AM A MAN translated for women as well as men who felt it was a pronouncement that they would no longer be pushed around,” said Green. “One woman I interviewed said that to her it meant ‘If you can be a man, I can be a woman. If you can be strong, I can be strong.’ Thus the intangibles of servitude, dependency and dehumanizing treatment became intertwined with the struggles of low-wage workers.”

The sanitation workers’ strike also had become a uniting force for middle-class blacks after police used mace on peaceful strike supporters—including clergymen—in the weeks before King’s assassination. The ongoing police brutality transformed what had been viewed as a working-class issue into a larger issue of labor and local politics.

“Dr. King’s death dramatically changed the scene in Memphis and led to widespread unionization, including a union for the sanitation workers that ended their strike,” said Green. “It also galvanized other movements, such as school boycotts by students demanding desegregation.

“What’s truly extraordinary is that even today, Dr. King’s stand with poor laborers during the sanitation strike generates a strong, personal commitment from many black Memphians who continue efforts to improve life in their community.”

By Marisa Rainsberger