Racism, Repression, and the Freedom Struggle: Memphis after 1968

Endorsed by the Labor and Working-Class History Association (LAWCHA)

Friday, April 3, 2020, 3:00 PM - 4:30 PM

Type: Paper Session

Tags: African American; Politics; Social and Cultural


The 1968 murder of Martin Luther King Jr. in Memphis, Tennessee, where he had gone to support striking sanitation workers, is familiar to anyone who studies civil rights history. The tragic and tumultuous events of that spring have provided indelible, iconic images: strikers with “I Am a Man” placards, King delivering his “Mountaintop” address, and the Life magazine photo of the gravely wounded leader on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel. But while the assassination and the strike rightly loom large over the city’s history, they have rendered the later years virtually invisible. The Memphis of 1968 is familiar to all; the Memphis after 1968 is relatively unknown.

This session foregrounds developments in Memphis in the years immediately after 1968, making the city central to the scholarly conversation rather than incidental to it. Memphis’s long, tangled history of racial discrimination, socio-economic inequities, and white repression did not suddenly end in 1968. But in subsequent years, more so than ever before, black and white students, activists, and citizens became increasingly assertive in challenging the white supremacist system, a challenge that inspired a backlash from the powers who ran the city.

Each paper in this session illuminates an element of the city’s post-1968 history. Shirletta J. Kinchen considers the emergence of the youth-driven Black Power Movement in Memphis starting in the late 1960s and demonstrates the key role Stax Records played in the Movement’s growth and development. As Memphis-based Stax emerged nationally as the musical soundtrack to the Black Power Movement, black youth in Memphis looking to establish their own political platform engaged traditional and non-traditional modes of Black Power activism in their struggle for freedom. Gregg L. Michel examines the Memphis Police Department’s efforts after 1968 to suppress activist causes of all types, from civil rights to opposition to the Vietnam War. Working through a secret counterintelligence unit—a “Red Squad”—the police illegally spied on, harassed, and abused activists until the unit was exposed and disbanded in the mid-1970s. Michael K. Honey assesses the complex realities of post-1968 Memphis, a time in which movements for social change led by African Americans, women, and labor unions endured and even expanded. Their achievements, however, came against a backdrop of deindustrialization and a rising tide of conservative political power that have called into question the gains of the civil rights era and highlight the work still needed to achieve the freedom and equality envisioned by Martin Luther King Jr.

Collectively, the session’s papers demonstrate that a vibrant, multi-facted movement for social change continued in Memphis well after the strike and assassination. The persistence and resilience of these movements stand as a corrective to interpretations that suggest leftists movements collapsed or simply faded away after 1968. And they highlight the rich, frequently overlooked history of post-1968 Memphis in which advocates of reform and change fought to achieve their vision of a freer, more equitable society while enduring attacks and repression from the city’s entrenched powers.

Papers Presented

Black Power, Black Youth, and Black Soul: Memphis, Stax Soul, and Black Youth Activism

This paper will explore the development of the indigenous black power movement that developed in Memphis, Tennessee, during the late 1960s and 1970s, the interplay between the rise of African American youth activism in Memphis during the black power era and the evolution of Stax Records and Isaac Hayes as important icons during the black power movement. As black power activism emerged as an ideological, strategic, and tactical response to the limits of the civil rights movement, many black youth in Memphis embraced this ideology as a logical transition in the struggle for black freedom. At the same time that segments of black youth in the city began to turn toward this ideology, Memphis’s Stax Records also began to shift its politics as it became less of the integrationist musical enterprise that it had been in the early 1960s. Stax embraced the ethos of black power both in its musical offerings and its economic pursuits. This paper traces this evolution, culminating in a discussion about the tragic death of Elton Hayes, a 17-year-old black male who was killed by the Memphis Police Department. In the aftermath of the tragic incident, the black community in the city exploded, and a riot ensued. The death of young Elton Hayes sparked violence and rioting in its aftermath and the youth and community at large responded. The Memphis chapter of the Black Panther party as well as other local black radical organizations attempted to rally the black community to action. Notably, Stax Records music recording artist Isaac Hayes, who by the late 1960s and early 1970s had become one of the leading soul icons in the music industry, was dispatched to help subdue the understandably distraught and frustrated black youth. This paper will also look to situate Isaac Hayes’s function during the riot, as well as Stax’s position as the visible beacon of black power and black pride in Memphis and its impact on the city.

Presented By
Shirletta J. Kinchen, University of Louisville

The Memphis Red Squad and the Assault on the Movement, 1968–1976

This paper will examine the covert intelligence campaign by the Memphis Police Department’s (MPD) Red Squad—a counterintelligence unit—to monitor, harass, and disrupt the work of black and white youth activists in the city in the late 1960s and 1970s. In the wake of the 1968 sanitation workers’ strike and the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., the MPD feared that young African Americans inspired by black power ideology and rhetoric and white students radicalized by the Vietnam War would stoke discontent, create chaos, and encourage violence in Memphis. The paper draws on author interviews with participants in Memphis movement organizations, archival records, and, most notably, the case file from a four-decade-old lawsuit that accused the MPD of collecting political intelligence in violation of citizens’ constitutional rights. Given that Red Squad records are difficult to locate, this case file, which includes raw surveillance records that I will display during the presentation, provides a unique evidentiary basis. Red Squads such as Memphis’s worked with their more well-known counterparts in the Federal Bureau of Intelligence, military intelligence, and state investigative agencies to create a web of surveillance in which no target was too small, no threat too insignificant to merit attention. Driven by fear, the police saw threats everywhere and deployed the power of the state against those it perceived as enemies.

Presented By
Gregg L. Michel, University of Texas at San Antonio

Memphis since King

Three plaintiffs in the 1976 American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU)–Tennessee court case Kendrick v. Chandler included Chan Kendrick, director of the West Tennessee ACLU, Black Panther party leader Janice Payne, and Michael Honey, Southern Regional Director of the National Committee Against Repressive Legislation. In the wake of Dr. Martin Luther King’s assassination, white police took revenge on the black community for its militant strikes and organizing; police murdered 17-year-old Elton Hayes and committed many acts of violence against young black men. The police Red Squad also attacked demonstrators, blew up an organizer’s automobile, and worked with the FBI to tap people’s phones and photograph their activities. This paper not only explores the repressive aftermath of the King assassination from 1968–1976, but also details the gains made in that time by union, civil liberties, women’s, and black political power movements. We sued to stop surveillance and won; we made progress against racism and rallied against threats to civil liberties coming from the highest levels of the Nixon administration. This paper will also show that, beyond 1976, the city made great economic and political strides for civil and human rights. At the same time, deindustrialization, the loss of unions, and Republican rule at the state and national level took their toll, and Memphis now has the highest poverty of any city of its size. This paper draws closely upon Memphis labor and civil rights history and asks King’s question of 1968: Where do we go from here?

Presented By
Michael Keith Honey, University of Washington Tacoma

Session Participants

Chair: Jennifer Ritterhouse, George Mason University

Commentator: Dennis C. Dickerson Sr., Vanderbilt University
Dennis C. Dickerson is the James M. Lawson, Jr. Professor of History at Vanderbilt University. He specializes in American labor history, the history of the civil rights movement, and American religious history. Among his many publications are the books African American Preachers and Politics: The Careys of Chicago (University Press of Mississippi, 2010) and Militant Mediator: Whitney M. Young, Jr. (University Press of Kentucky, 1998). His current book projects include “Brother in the Spirit of Gandhi:” William Stuart Nelson and the Religious Origins of the Civil Rights Movement and A Short History of the African Methodist Episcopal Church, which is under contract to Cambridge University Press. He has served as President of the American Society of Church History and is a member of the editorial board of Wesley and Methodist Studies. He has received grants and fellowships to support his research and writing from the American Academy in Berlin, American Philosophical Society, the National Endowment of the Humanities, the Rockefeller Foundation, the American Council of Learned Societies, and the Louisville Institute.

Presenter: Michael Keith Honey, University of Washington Tacoma
Michael Honey is the Haley Professor of Humanities and teaches African American, labor and civil rights history and Martin Luther King studies at the University of Washington Tacoma. His latest book, To the Promised Land: Martin Luther King and the Fight for Economic Justice (W.W. Norton, 2018), surveys the story of King and Memphis and its meaning to the present day. He has authored five monographs of southern labor and civil rights history, taking the history from the era of slavery into the Memphis sanitation strike of 1968 and beyond. He is also editor of King’s labor speeches, All Labor Has Dignity (Beacon Press, 2011). His film, “Love and Solidarity: James Lawson, Nonviolence and the Search for Workers Rights” (Bullfrog Films, 2016), highlights nonviolence and King scholarship in relation to labor, immigration, and Dream Act students from Memphis to Los Angeles.

Presenter: Shirletta J. Kinchen, University of Louisville
Shirletta J. Kinchen is an Associate Professor of Pan-African Studies at the University of Louisville and her research focuses on the intersections of Black Power, local grassroots activism, black student and campus activism, and black youth politics during the Civil Rights and Black Power movements. She is the author of Black Power in the Bluff City: African American Youth and Student Activism in Memphis, 1965-1975.

Presenter: Gregg L. Michel, University of Texas at San Antonio
Gregg L. Michel, Associate Professor of History at the University of Texas at San Antonio, received a B.A. from the University of Chicago and an M.A. and Ph.D. from the University of Virginia. Dr. Michel's scholarly work focuses on movements for social change in post-World War II America, particularly in the 1960s and 1970s South. He is the author of Struggle for a Better South: The Southern Student Organizing Committee, 1964-1969, which examines the turbulent history of the leading progressive white student organization in the South in the 1960s, and most recently the essay "White Southern Students and University Reform in the 1960s," in Historians In Service to the South: Essays in Honor of Paul Gaston. His current work, from which this paper is drawn, focuses on government surveillance of civil rights and anti-Vietnam War activists in the South.