Black Political Power against Inequality in Memphis, Tennessee

Thursday, April 2, 2020, 11:00 AM - 12:30 PM

Type: Paper Session

Tags: African American; Politics; Race


Memphis, Tennessee, provides an excellent case study of the long civil rights movement with its rich history of freedom fighters over time in the face of varied white resistance. Unlike most areas in the South during the Jim Crow era of segregation and discrimination, African Americans in Memphis could vote because of the combination of a white machine government that sought their ballots, a state government that had less restrictive voting measures compared to others in the South, and skilled black leadership and grassroots activists that took advantage of these circumstances and used the ballot as a tool for racial advancement. This session looks at three key moments of the long black freedom struggle in Memphis in which racial inequalities were challenged through black political power and that involved institutions.
The first paper examines how Robert R. Church, Jr., the key black political leader in the city, and black Memphians, responded to the horrific 1917 lynching of black woodchopper Ell Persons. They created organizations and institutions such as the local NAACP branch that would have an impact on the city for decades. At the time, Church headed the Lincoln League, a local black political organization that he used as a platform for denouncing lynching and otherwise speaking out for racial justice. Church would go on to be the most prominent black Republican in the nation in the 1920s and 1930s and continued to advocate for civil rights through the 1940s.
The second paper deals with Mayor Edmund Orgill’s controversial suggestion in 1956 to appoint an African American, Dr. J. E. Walker, to the Board of Trustees of the charitable John Gaston Hospital. He asked the public to express their opinion on the matter. At the time, Memphis had no black elected or appointed officials. African Americans were overwhelmingly in favor of Orgill’s idea, whereas whites were divided. Bowing to white opposition and harassment, Orgill ultimately decided to not appoint Walker, who was a medical doctor. One argument provided by those in favor of the proposal was that black representation on the board was necessary because 85 percent of the patients of the hospital were African American. This paper reveals how blacks and whites advocated for this courageous, civil rights stance of Mayor Orgill that was the way of the future.
By the mid-1960s, African Americans were being appointed to public office and winning elected office in Memphis. Some of the civil rights activists who had powered the city’s mass-based desegregation movement earlier in the decade were becoming elected officials themselves. The third paper examines how these civil rights veterans-turned-elected officials forged a governing coalition in the late 1970s and early 1980s to reform and expand the city hospital into the Regional Medical Center, a leading public medical institution devoted to equitable health care. The paper examines their success at a time in which conservative political forces were on the rise in Memphis and nationally.

Papers Presented

Mobilizing for the MED: Civil Rights Veterans Push for Better Health Care

In Memphis, access to health care by African Americans has historically been restricted not only by socioeconomic factors, but also by segregation and its legacy. One aspect of the long civil rights movement in Memphis was the push to revitalize the city’s public hospital in a postdesegregation environment. Although such a move was resisted by many conservative political leaders (mostly white), veterans of the 1960s desegregation movement who had become elected officials forged a governing coalition in the late 1970s and early 1980s to reform and expand the city hospital into the Regional Medical Center, which not only is the point of hospital service for Memphians without health insurance, but also is a leader in advanced medical treatment for neonates and victims of burns and traumatic injury. This paper examines the means by which advocates for more equitable access to health care were able to achieve some measure of success during a period when conservative political forces were on the rise in Memphis and nationally.

Presented By
Steven A. Knowlton, Princeton University Library

A Matter of Black and White: The John Gaston Hospital Controversy in Memphis, Tennessee

In 1956, Memphis mayor Edmund Orgill suggested appointing an African American to the John Gaston Hospital Board of Trustees and asked the public to express their opinion on the matter. At the time, the city had no black elected or appointed officials. The public was divided, and, bowing to white resistance, Mayor Orgill decided not to appoint an African American to the board. Drawing on newspaper articles, archival research, and oral histories, this paper explores this controversy through looking at both supporters and those who opposed the proposal. This paper provides a window into race relations in the mid-South, white responses to the black freedom struggle, and the state of black elected and appointed officials in the South at the time of massive resistance to the Brown v. Board of Education decision, which ruled segregated schools unconstitutional.

Presented By
Elizabeth Gritter, Indiana University Southeast

Robert R. Church Jr. and the 1917 Lynching of Ell Persons in Memphis, Tennessee

This paper will discuss the 1917 lynching of Ell Persons in Memphis, Tennessee. Persons, a black thirty-something-year-old wood chopper, was burned alive in front of a crowd of 10,000 - 15,000 spectators at the Wolf River Bridge after being accused of murdering and raping a white sixteen-year-old girl. This paper provides a detailed narrative of the lynching, and also discusses the reaction of black Memphians who did not cower or acquiesce to white supremacists in the wake of this horrific event, but instead organized and created organizations and institutions to speak to the social, political, and racial inequalities that plagued the city. In particular, this paper will discuss the leadership and political activism of Robert Church Jr. This lynching transformed the political and social activism in the city and garnered international attention, and is instrumental in understanding the black freedom struggle in Memphis.

Presented By
Darius Jamal Young, Florida A&M University

Session Participants

Chair and Commentator: Aram G. Goudsouzian, University of Memphis
Aram Goudsouzian is a Professor of History at the University of Memphis. He is the author of The Men and the Moment: The Election of 1968 and the Rise of Partisan Politics in America (UNC Press, 2019); Down to the Crossroads: Civil Rights, Black Power, and the Meredith March Against Fear (Farrar, Straus, Giroux, 2014); King of the Court: Bill Russell and the Basketball Revolution (University of California Press, 2008); The Hurricane of 1938 (Commonwealth Editions, 2004); and Sidney Poitier: Man, Actor, Icon (UNC Press, 2004). He is also the editor of Karnig Panian's Goodbye Antoura: A Memoir of the Armenian Genocide (Stanford University Press, 2015) and the co-editor, with Charles McKinney, of the essay collection An Unseen Light: Black Struggles for Freedom in Memphis, Tennessee (University of Kentucky Press, 2018).

Presenter: Elizabeth Gritter, Indiana University Southeast
Elizabeth Gritter, Ph.D., is assistant professor of history at Indiana University Southeast in New Albany, Indiana, as well as director of its Institute for Local and Oral History. She also serves as the school’s campus historian and in that capacity is helping plan for Indiana University’s bicentennial in 2020 and directs the Indiana University Southeast division of the IU Bicentennial Oral History Project. She is the author of numerous publications, most notably River of Hope: Black Politics and the Memphis Freedom Movement, 1865-1954 (University Press of Kentucky, 2014). Her research and teaching has been funded by a number of grants and fellowships including a research grant from the John F. Kennedy Library and Museum, and she has given talks on her research both locally and nationally. Under the guidance of Jacquelyn Dowd Hall, she received her Ph.D. from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in 2010.

Presenter: Steven A. Knowlton, Princeton University Library
Steven A. Knowlton is Librarian for History and African American Studies at Princeton University. He has published book chapters and journal articles on race, politics, and libraries in the history of Memphis, and has been awarded the Justin Winsor Library History Essay Prize and the Marshall Wingfield Award for best article in West Tennessee Historical Society Papers. His other research interests include vexillology (the study of flags) and issues in librarianship for African American Studies.

Presenter: Darius Jamal Young, Florida A&M University
Darius J. Young is as an Associate Professor of History at Florida A&M University (FAMU). His research focuses black social and political movements during the twentieth century. He is the author of Robert R. Church Jr. and the African American Political Struggle (University Press of Florida, March 2019). Currently, he is working on a manuscript of Black Power leader and political activist, Albert Cleage Jr. His latest project will focus on Cleage’s political activism in Detroit, Michigan from the 1960s – 1980s. Dr. Young is the recipient of several awards including the Southern Regional Education Board Doctoral Scholars Fellowship, the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History Research Fellowship, and the Benjamin L. Hooks Institute for Social Change Teaching Fellowship. Young is also the recipient of the 2013 Florida A&M University Teacher of the Year Award.