During the civil rights era, Memphis gained a reputation for having one of the South’s strongest NAACP branches. But that organization, led by the city’s black elite, was hardly the only driving force in the local struggle against racial injustice. In the late sixties, Black Power proponents advocating economic, political, and cultural self-determination effectively mobilized Memphis’s African American youth, using an array of moderate and radical approaches to protest and change conditions on their campuses and in the community.
While Black Power activism on the coasts and in the Midwest has attracted considerable scholarly attention, much less has been written about the movement’s impact outside these hotbeds. In Black Power in the Bluff City: African American Youth and Student Activism in Memphis, 1965–1975
(University of Tennessee Press, 2016), Shirletta J. Kinchen
helps redress that imbalance by examining how young Memphis activists, like Coby Smith and Charles Cabbage, dissatisfied by the pace of progress in a city emerging from the Jim Crow era, embraced Black Power ideology to confront such challenges as gross disparities in housing, education, and employment as well as police brutality and harassment. Two closely related Black Power organizations, the Black Organizing Project and the Invaders, became central to the local black youth movement in the late 1960s. Kinchen traces these groups’ participation in the 1968 sanitation workers’ strike—including the controversy over whether their activities precipitated events that culminated in Martin Luther King’s assassination—and their subsequent involvement in War on Poverty programs. The book also shows how Black Power ideology drove activism at the historically black LeMoyne-Owen College, scene of a 1968 administration-building takeover, and at the predominately white Memphis State University, where African American students transformed the campus by creating parallel institutions that helped strengthen black student camaraderie and consciousness in the face of marginalization.
Drawing on interviews with activists, FBI files, newspaper accounts from the period, and many other sources, the author persuasively shows not only how an emerging generation helped define the black freedom struggle in Memphis but also how they applied the tenets of Black Power to shape the broader community.
Adam McNeil is a PhD Student in the Department of History at Rutgers University-New Brunswick.