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River of Hope: Black Politics and the Memphis Freedom Movement, 1865–1954

by Elizabeth Gritter

Availablecloth$45.00s 978-0-8131-4450-4
Civil Rights and the Struggle for Black Equality in the Twentieth Century
380 pages  Pubdate: 02/17/2014  6 x 9  30 b&w photos

One of the largest southern cities and a hub for the cotton industry, Memphis, Tennessee, was at the forefront of black political empowerment during the Jim Crow era. Compared to other cities in the South, Memphis had an unusually large number of African American voters. Black Memphians sought reform at the ballot box, formed clubs, ran for office, and engaged in voter registration and education activities from the end of the Civil War through the Brown v. Board of Education decision of 1954.

In this groundbreaking book, Elizabeth Gritter examines how and why black Memphians mobilized politically in the period between Reconstruction and the beginning of the civil rights movement. Gritter illuminates, in particular, the efforts and influence of Robert R. Church Jr., an affluent Republican and founder of the Lincoln League, and the notorious Memphis political boss Edward H. Crump. Using these two men as lenses through which to view African American political engagement, this volume explores how black voters and their leaders both worked with and opposed the white political machine at the ballot box.

River of Hope challenges persisting notions of a “Solid South” of white Democratic control by arguing that the small but significant number of black southerners who retained the right to vote had more influence than scholars have heretofore assumed. Gritter’s nuanced study presents a fascinating view of the complex nature of political power during the Jim Crow era and provides fresh insight into the efforts of the individuals who laid the foundation for civil rights victories in the 1950s and ’60s.

Elizabeth Gritter is assistant professor of history at Indiana University Southeast.

A fascinating—and original—exploration of the life and activities of an important if under recognized civil rights leader. Gritter places Robert Church’s story in a broader context marked by the evolution of civil rights politics in one unusual southern city. She carefully reconstructs Church’s many organizations, initiatives, and challenges, demonstrating that he was a dedicated Republican committed to advancing black interests locally and nationally through the party of Lincoln. In so doing, the author demonstrates that electoral politics mattered. -- Eric Arnesen, George Washington University

River of Hope: Black Politics and the Memphis Freedom Movement, 1865-1954 is an outstanding, innovative work that shows how black Memphians politically mobilized their community during a time in which many believed that southern blacks were without political power. Elizabeth Gritter explains how Memphis blacks voted in large numbers and resisted the Jim Crow system through political action that led to the election of black public officials in the city in the 1960s. This fine book brings an important new understanding of how the Civil Right Movement shaped Memphis and the American South. -- William Ferris, author of The Storied South: Voices of Writers and Artists

Elizabeth Gritter documents the seminal role politics and voting played in the black freedom movement in Memphis. River of Hope illuminates an important dimension of the segregation era and provides a definitive account of a critical phase of African American political and social movement history. -- Michael Honey, author of Going Down Jericho Road: The Memphis Strike, Martin Luther King’s Last Campaign, and Southern Labor and Black Civil Rights: Organizing Memphis Workers

[A]n outstanding contribution to the fields of African American, civil rights, and American political history. -- American Historical Review

River of Hope is impeccably researched and accessibly written. -- Journal of American History

Gritter's work is quite readable and a significant addition to the ever-expanding and increasingly nuanced literature on the civil rights movement. 'Long civil rights movement' may be a well-wom phrase, but Gritter's work shows that it is not an incorrect assessment of early-twentieth-century black political activity in Memphis. -- Journal of Southern History

What [Gritter] does extremely well is demonstrate the diversity in the political practices and tactics black political leaders utilized to try and obtain some social and economic advantages for African Americans in a southern city before 1954. -- Journal of African American History