An Unseen Light: Black Struggles for Freedom in Memphis, Tennessee

By Chism, Jonathan | The Journal of Southern History, February 2019 | Go to article overview

An Unseen Light: Black Struggles for Freedom in Memphis, Tennessee


Chism, Jonathan, The Journal of Southern History


An Unseen Light: Black Struggles for Freedom in Memphis, Tennessee. Edited by Aram Goudsouzian and Charles W. McKinney Jr. Civil Rights and the Struggle for Black Equality in the Twentieth Century. (Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 2018. Pp. [viii], 414. $45.00, ISBN 9780-8131-7551-5.)

Published fifty years after Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s assassination in Memphis in 1968, this timely work provokes contemporary reflection on the ongoing freedom struggle. It includes contributions from scholars from multiple disciplines who have studied different aspects of the Memphis struggle. The editors begin with a discussion of Richard Wright, the notable black Harlem Renaissance author, who grew up in Memphis but moved to Chicago to escape racism. While Wright mentioned his dark encounters with racist white people in his literature, he failed to take note of the "lights" in Memphis (p. 3). This essay collection sheds light on black Memphians' pursuits of equality, through their establishment of thriving black churches, businesses, and civil rights organizations as well as their popular artistic productions. Chronologically arranged, the chapters trace significant moments and figures in the long freedom struggle from the Reconstruction period to the present.

Many of the early chapters discuss black Memphians' experiences with and responses to racial oppression during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. For example, Brian D. Page examines the Memphis Massacre of 1866, which occurred after white Memphis police officers assaulted black Union army veterans and sparked a riot in South Memphis during which forty-six black people died and multiple black women were victims of sexual assault. After the massacre, many of the new black migrants who came to Memphis decided that cooperating with the white Memphis establishment was the safest way to gain autonomy to establish strong black institutions such as churches and businesses. Elton H. Weaver III investigates the burning of the National Tabernacle of the Church of God in Christ (COGIC) on December 8, 1936. COGIC was the largest black Pentecostal denomination in Memphis and in the United States. While city officials concluded the fire was accidental, Weaver contends that white arsonists likely caused the fire. First, they despised that the denomination's founder, Charles Harrison Mason, promoted interracial fellowship. Then, just two days before the building burned, James Deik, a white COGIC minister, openly preached against segregation on the Memphis radio. Another important event in early-twentieth-century Memphis, discussed by Darius Young, was the lynching of Ell Persons, a black woodcutter unjustly executed for the murder of a white Memphis teenager. The lynching ignited prominent black Memphis leaders such as Robert Church Jr. to embrace protest activism. It was a precursor to the formation of the Memphis branch of the NAACP, which played instrumental roles in the black freedom struggle in Memphis throughout the twentieth century.

The book also examines the Memphis struggle during the years of the modern civil rights era of the 1950s and 1960s. Aram Goudsouzian stresses the centrality of Memphis to James Meredith's March against Fear in 1966, a major milestone in the national struggle, as Black Power became a popular slogan during the march. …

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