Women of the Tennessee and Memphis Civil Rights Movement

Memphis, Tennessee is one of the stomping grounds for the Civil Rights Movement. Before the sanitation strike and before Dr. Martin Luther King’s arrival in Memphis regarding the sanitation workers’, we must learn from the women who initiated for his arrival to help.

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Women were not as direct and bold as far as the Civil Rights Movement around the United States but in Memphis, Tennessee they were. Take for example Julia B. Hooks, Maxine Smith, Mary Church Terrell, Meharry Medical College graduates Francis M. Kneeland, Josie Wells and Emma R. Wheeler, and other black women who help bring the Civil Right Movement in Memphis to the country’s attention.

Maxine Smith, who was prominent in the betterment of the public-school system in Memphis helped desegregate public school because she was rejected from Memphis public higher education school University of Memphis. After that ordeal, Maxine Smith decided to join the Memphis chapter of the NAACP. Maxine Smith went on to become the executive secretary in 1962. Maxine Smith organized student marches including the one called “Black Monday” which lasted from 1969-1972. Black Republicans and Democrats worked tirelessly to get black men elected in the city elections of 1959, but they met a crushing disappointment when black voters did not respond as expected. In March 1960, Smith and the Memphis NAACP shifted their support to local sit- ins by Lemoyne College students who first targeted the segregated public libraries. The national office was not yet on board with sit- in tactics, but it soon bought into the Memphis movement.35Beginning in 1961, Atkins- Smith helped lead the desegregation of local public schools. She and Vasco were among the individuals designated to drive thirteen black children to school on the first day and then to pick them up. When she was involved in the Memphis garbage strike, she was injured and jailed. Native Memphian Mary Eliza Church- Terrell was prominent among black women who used social and civic clubs to promote black uplift and racial equality and to gain women’s suffrage.

Women in Memphis Civil Rights Movement was all about gaining socioeconomic equality and human rights for African Americans in poor, urban neighborhoods. Black women in Tennessee used their financial resources to support the struggle for civil rights. They organized clubs like the YWCA founded by Sallie Hill Sawyer, Ethel Benson Beck, Harriett Hale, Julia Hooks, Josephine Groves- Holloway, Saint Mary Magdalena L. Tate, Lula Crim, and Mrs. W. D. (Anne) Weatherford. These women also were prominent in organizing the Girl Scouts chapters and welfare centers in Memphis. Black women attended anti- lynching seminars like the Southern Women and Race Cooperation Conference which was held in Memphis in 1920. Women in Memphis advocated for so many causes that helped build up the Civil Rights Movement to what it is today even after the law passing to end segregation and discrimination in the workforce, schools, and transportation. After, the 1940s black women had even more visible roles in the Civil Rights Movement in Memphis. Roberta Church, who was a well- known politician, in 1952 became the first black woman to win the executive committee seat for Tennessee Republican Party.

Black women in Tennessee and in Memphis increasingly gained support from communities because of their continued activism. In January 1954 a Memphis bus driver moving a resistant black woman to the back to accommodate more white riders, exclaimed, “There is still segregation in Tennessee.” A few days later a Memphis bus driver pulled a pistol on another defiant black woman, telling her, “A nigger on my bus gets off at the back door.”22 These women involved their neighbor-hood clubs. Willa McWilliams, for example, with others of the Bluff City and Shelby County Council of Civic Clubs in northeast Memphis began protest the segregated city bus system. Women were prominent among Tennessee delegates attending the NAACP national conventions, which inspired their activism, and aft er attending the Tennessee NAACP Statewide Conference in Memphis in September 1959, they returned home fi red up against Jim Crow.23The most insulting Jim Crow practice in Tennessee was the segregation of downtown lunch counters, restaurants, theaters, water fountains, restrooms, parks, public recreational facilities, city auditoriums, employment, and the like—anything to remind working middle- and upper- class African Americans that they all were “blacks,” devoid of standing and without full citizenship. Even in the black churches, women received subordinate positions in the institutional leadership. Women did much of the hard work; men became leaders and spokesmen to the outside world. Most churches excluded women as deacons, trustees, and ministers. Even the First Colored Baptist Church of Nashville, with its great civil rights legacy and liberal theolog y, did not ordain women ministers until 1980. In heavily black west Tennessee, the NAACP held the leadership position in the civil rights movement, but by the early 1960s the SCLC had preacher- dominated chapters in Chattanooga, Knoxville, Memphis, and Nashville. Women were heavily represented on the membership rosters of these organizations, but the Congress of Racial Equality, the Fellowship of Reconciliation, and smaller grassroots organizations, which shared civil rights projects in Tennessee cities, included fewer local black women.

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