William Fineshriber, unlike other rabbis presented in this anthology, mixed the social justice message of Classical Reform with socialist inclinations. He pressed for action with the support of key elements of the Memphis power structure. Fineshriber's story again raises the question of the intertwining of events and movements. Although a dramatic lynching served as a catalyst, the rabbi's advocacy of black civil rights was linked inexorably with his concern for the rights of women and others who faced discrimination.
At the beginning of the twentieth century, Memphis "presented a strange paradox--a city modern in physical aspect but rural in background, rural in prejudice, and rural in habit," according to historian Gerald Capers.1 The yellow fever epidemics of 1873, 1878, and 1879 had decimated the city's population. Besides the losses due to death, many of its prominent and cosmopolitan citizens, including many German Jews, fled to St. Louis and other northern urban centers never to return. Between 1879 and 1890 the city went "bankrupt," surrendering its charter and becoming a mere taxing district. From the hinterlands of Tennessee, Arkansas, and Mississippi came the new Memphians, steeped in country mores, evangelical fundamentalism, and distrust for outsiders.2
Memphis gained renown as the "murder capital of the nation" as the homicide rate exceeded all other American cities with more than twenty-five thousand people.3 Violence fueled by devotion to the "lost cause," racism, and vestiges of the southern "code of honor" was commonplace.4