Academic journal article The Journal of Southern History

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

Academic journal article The Journal of Southern History

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

Article excerpt

River of Hope: Black Politics and the Memphis Freedom Movement, 1865-1954. By Elizabeth Gritter. (Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 2014. Pp. [vi], 355. $40.00, ISBN 978-0-8131-4450-4.)

The city of Memphis looms large in American history for two reasons: it is home to Elvis Presley's Graceland, and it is where Martin Luther King Jr. was gunned down while supporting the garbage workers' strike in April 1968. However, as Elizabeth Gritter illustrates in her work River of Hope: Black Politics and the Memphis Freedom Movement, 1865-1954, this New South city was also significant for its racially and politically progressive ways and for being "on the cutting edge of black political mobilization in the Jim Crow South" (p. 1). Building on the work of Michael K. Honey, who has written two indispensable studies of civil rights in Memphis, River of Hope looks at African American political activism through the lens of the "Tong civil rights movement'" of the twentieth century (p. 1). Gritter spotlights the lives of two significant and prominent Memphians--Robert R. "Bob" Church Jr., a nationally known and extremely influential black Republican (and half brother to perhaps his more famous sibling, Mary Church Terrell), and Edward H. Crump, a white Democrat and the longest-serving political boss in United States history--whose lives just so happened to intersect at the right historical moment. Using the political trajectories of these two Memphis men, Gritter argues for an expansion of the definition of black political agency during the early twentieth century, a time when many historians focus more on the declension of black rights than on black political influence in certain quarters of the South.

For most of the first half of the twentieth century, African Americans held firm allegiance to the party of Abraham Lincoln, while southern white politicians continued to embrace the Democratic Party line. Yet, as Gritter demonstrates, politics in Memphis were not always this black and white. Crump, for example, while a Democrat, appealed to Memphis blacks with token job opportunities and public services, as well as outright bribery (stereotypically and almost laughably with watermelon), for their votes. Although Church, a Republican, rejected the Booker T. Washington style of black accomodationism, he did work with white leaders like Crump, leading some black Memphians to question his political motives. …

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