By Aram Goudsouzian, Ph.D.
The 1968 Sanitation Strike and assassination of Martin Luther King are defining events in the history of Memphis. Across the city, we are grappling with how to tell the story of those events, and how to understand their connections to our present circumstances. This fall I joined two professors from the Department of Journalism on one of those efforts, a project called Once More at the River: From MLK to BLM.
Roxane Coche is the driving force behind it. She conceived of the idea, recruiting me to teach a Fall 2017 course on the history of the civil rights movement in Memphis. In the spring of 2018, Joe Hayden will teach a course in which those same students interview activists in Memphis. Finally, Roxane and Joe will enlist student help and co-produce a documentary film that explores social justice movements in Memphis.
Roxane spearheaded our successful application for a Discovery and Development Grant from the University of Memphis and reached out to the National Civil Rights Museum, which offered to make contacts and house the video archive of interviews. We have since attracted more funding for the documentary project, including from the Benjamin L. Hooks Institute for Social Change.
This fall, I taught “Memphis and the Movement.” In my thirteen years at the University of Memphis, this was one of my most rewarding experiences. We were a mixed bunch: History majors and Journalism majors, undergraduates and MA candidates, men and women, young and old, black and white. We had four senior auditors and another senior citizen enrolled; they shared firsthand experiences in Memphis that stretched back to the 1960s. “Dr. Joe” was a frequent visitor in the back corner chair, while “Dr. C” hustled over whenever possible.
The students were ALL IN. They dove into the assigned readings, asked questions, drifted off on tangents, and argued with me and each other. Sometimes the material was raw, as we read about instances of grotesque violence or racist maneuvers. And because it was local, it was personal – we were talking about our city, our neighbors, our lives. At times, some students got angry, and others got uncomfortable. But those emotions were necessary and important.
The course was divided into three units. We started in the nineteenth century, as cotton and slavery transformed Memphis, and discussed the repression of African Americans during Reconstruction and Jim Crow. We then explored the city’s unique political landscape during the long reign of E.H. “Boss” Crump. Among our readings were excerpts from Stephen Ash’s A Massacre in Memphis, Elizabeth Gritter’s River of Hope, and Laurie Green’s Battling the Plantation Mentality.
The second unit centered around the civil rights era in Memphis, especially the sanitation strike. We read Michael Honey’s masterwork Going Down Jericho Road, giving the class an intimate, detailed, and comprehensive look at this watershed moment, which illustrated the promise of a movement that fused racial and economic justice, as well as the tragedy of failed city institutions, resulting in the circumstances that led to Martin Luther King’s assassination.
The final unit took us from 1968 to the present. We read historians, journalists, political scientists, and sociologists as we explored the ways that African Americans in Memphis staked claims to political power and cultural space, yet suffered from enduring, racialized issues of prejudice and poverty.
We took a class visit to the National Civil Rights Museum, where we got a first-class tour from Ryan Jones, and we visited Special Collections at McWherter Library, where Gerald Chaudron familiarized us with the Memphis Search for Meaning Committee records, an incredible archive on the sanitation strike. For their final project, the students selected and analyzed oral histories from this collection.
The best parts, we all agreed, were our special guests. I exploited as much local expertise as I could! My colleague in History, Beverly Bond, talked about black women in slavery and freedom. Daniel Kiel came over from the Law School and screened his film The Memphis 13, about the first graders who integrated Memphis City Schools. Before leaving for his new job at Colorado College, Anthony Siracusa taught us about nonviolent direct action and Rev. James Lawson. Journalist Emily Yellin presented her ongoing project of interviewing sanitation workers and their families. Steve Ross visited from Communication to show his film about the strike, At the River I Stand. Rhodes College professor Charles Hughes discussed Memphis music and his great book Country Soul, while Otis Sanford, the Hardin Chair of Journalism, recalled the election of Willie Herenton, as told in his new book From Boss Crump to King Willie. Finally, the crusading Wendi Thomas showcased her important project, “MLK50: Justice through Journalism.”
Wendi’s visit was the perfect transition to Joe’s spring course, Reporting Social Justice. Hopefully, we provided the students with the historical background and critical approach to enrich their interviews and articles. Look for Joe’s post on the Hooks blog later this spring!
Aram Goudsouzian is the Chair of the Department of History at the University of Memphis. He is the author of Down to the Crossroads: Civil Rights, Black Power, and the Meredith March Against Fear and the co-editor, with Charles McKinney, of An Unseen Light: Black Struggles for Freedom in Memphis, Tennessee.