The Civil Rights Movement in Tennessee: A Narrative History

Article excerpt

The Civil Rights Movement in Tennessee: A Narrative History. By Bobby L. Lovett. (Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 2005. Pp. xxv, 483. Dedication, preface, note on terminology, illustrations, chronology, bibliographic essay, selected bibliography, index. $45.00.)

In the latter part of the twentieth century, Tennessee was the site of several pivotal events in the struggle for African-American civil rights. Students in Nashville organized the sit-in demonstrations that began in that city in 1959 and spread throughout the South. Nearly a decade later, violent racist reaction against the movement climaxed in Martin Luther King, Jr.'s assassination in Memphis. Initially undertaken as a biography of Tennessee's foremost civil rights attorney, Avon Williams, Bobby L. Lovett expanded the scope of his work to include the breadth of civil rights activism in the state. Primarily focusing on the period between 1935 and the present, Lovett recounts the many avenues taken by the state's African-American residents to secure equal rights.

In his introduction, Lovett identifies three distinct eras of AfricanAmerican activism in Tennessee. He discusses African Americans' post-emancipation attempts to participate more fully in the political process through such activities as forming schools and associations to "achieve [their] social, economic, and political goals" (p. xix). They faced increasing opposition, however, after the Compromise of 1877, when national authorities agreed to end federal supervision of the former Confederate states and allowed states to erect barriers to African-American participation in politics.

By 1881, African Americans strengthened their fight against racial segregation and limits to their political participation. Two Supreme Court decisions dealt them severe blows, however: a ruling that the 1875 federal Civil Rights Act was unconstitutional and the Plessy v. Ferguson decision of 1896, establishing the legal concept of "separate but equal." In response to such developments, African Americans formed civil rights organizations, including the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) in 1909-an organization that would become the driving force behind dismantling "Jim Crow" laws in the latter part of the twentieth century. …