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Dr. Laurie Green looks at how decades of discrimination fueled pivotal fight for civil rights

Posted: January 17, 2006

Many viewed the heightening unrest of the city sanitation workers' strike and conflicts stemming from the Civil Rights Act of 1964 for setting the stage for this act. But, according to University of Texas at Austin Assistant Professor Laurie Green, black Memphians had experienced severe racial strife on numerous fronts for decades before King walked with the city's sanitation workers whose "I AM A MAN" proclamation rallied males and females, poor and middle class during this historic struggle for equality.

"Blacks in Memphis had been battling for freedom from discrimination in all facets of their everyday lives for decades," said Green whose research is chronicled in an upcoming book on race, gender and freedom in the civil rights era in Memphis. "Memphis was dominated by corrupt, racist city officials since the 1930s and blacks struggled to overcome what many referred to as a "plantation mentality' that kept them relegated to menial, low-paying jobs."

Although issues of desegregating public services and gaining equality in the workplace were significant in Memphis, police brutality, poverty, censorship and harassment were part of blacks' everyday lives for decades. In the fall of 1940, for instance, Memphis city boss Edward H. Crump started what came to be known as the "reign of terror." His efforts were enforced by a brutal police force and sought to repress black Republicans, subdue labor activism and exert social control of migrants, Green said.

During World War II, when Memphis' manufacturing sector grew from just more than 27,000 to nearly 49,000 jobs in two years, many blacks were denied jobs in the burgeoning defense industry. Thousands of black men and women were bused each day from their homes in Memphis back to the rural farmlands surrounding the area and forced to pick cotton, considered a wartime necessity.

Black women, responding to ads calling on females to do their part for the wartime effort as "Rosie the Riveter," were turned away. In fact, most black women who moved from rural towns to Memphis quickly found the only jobs they could get were as servants in white households.

Photo of Dr. Green by Michelle Bryant; PHOTO on banner graphic courtesy of the Mississippi Valley Collection

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