Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Women on the Verge

In the Jim Crow Memphis of 1963, an integrated group of women—six white and six black, including Maxine Smith, well known to many Memphians as the longtime executive secretary of the Memphis chapter of the NAACP—began to meet for lunch in each other’s houses. Their goal was to promote a dialogue between the races and to see what reforms they could bring about. After several meetings, the group decided to go public by brazenly having lunch in restaurants that refused to serve blacks. Their first target was the Wolf River Society, a members-only, all-white dining club in downtown Memphis. It was perhaps an ideal choice, as two members of the group were also members of the society. In any event, the lunch went off without a hitch, and thus the Saturday Luncheon Group, as the women called themselves, began doing their part to combat segregation in 1960s Memphis. 

The Saturday Luncheon Group is one of several activist groups that feature in Kimberly K. Little’s 2009 book You Must Be from the North: Southern White Women in the Memphis Civil Rights Movement. Little examines a cohort of middle- and upper-class white women in Memphis who worked in the 1960s and early 1970s to bring about social change in the city. For most of the women, the 1968 sanitation workers’ strike and especially the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. were the watershed events, after which they “could no longer ignore” the city’s racial problems. The activism of these women was rooted in their volunteer work and the religious teachings of their faiths. Through their involvement in the sanitation workers’ strike and its aftermath, as well as in their efforts on behalf of school integration in the early 1970s, these “wives and mothers” of Memphis worked to ease racial strife in their strife-torn city and coaxed the city’s white elite to at least think about being a bit more progressive-minded.

With the exception of Joan Turner Beifuss, the author of At the River I Stand, an exquisite account of the sanitation workers’ strike, the women who figure prominently in Little’s book, which was published by the University Press of Mississippi, were largely unknown to me. Marjorie Cherry, one of the founders of the Saturday Luncheon Group, moved to Memphis in 1958 from Charlottesville, Virginia, where she had protested segregation by sitting in the back of the town’s buses. Frances Edgar Coe was a Memphis native who was educated at Miss Hutchison’s School for Girls and then Vassar College. She served six terms on the Memphis Board of Education, voting consistently to integrate the schools at an accelerated pace and working to reduce the inequities between black and white children. Myra Dreifus was born in Flint, Michigan, in 1904; in 1936 she followed her husband to Memphis, which, Mr. Dreifus believed, offered the best prospects for his new jewelry business. In the early 1960s Myra Dreifus founded the Fund for Needy Schoolchildren, which sought to provide free meals to poor students in the city’s schools. Anne Whalen Shafer, who was born in Memphis in 1923, played an active role in the Memphis City Beautiful campaign, persuading the city to upgrade the infrastructure of black neighborhoods. As chair of the Memphis City Beautiful Commission from 1964 to 1966, Shafer promoted racial integration in the city.  In 1971 Dorothy “Happy” Jones founded the Memphis Community Relations Commission, whose immediate goal was to help the city through yet another period of heightened racial tensions following the death of a black man in Memphis police custody. The commission eliminated the pro-segregation practice of “blockbusting” and helped slow down white flight by changing the way the city annexed surrounding areas. Jocelyn Wurzburg, Donna Sue Shannon, Jeanne Varnell, Bert Wolff, and Margaret Valiant are among the other white women activists whose civil rights work is described in Little’s book.

The Vassar-educated Coe is perhaps the most interesting of the lot. As a member of the school board, she was an advocate of smaller schools, smaller classrooms, and smaller districts, as well as of art and music programs and services for children with special needs; she also believed that the city and county school systems should be consolidated. She was convinced that the key to improving education was to increase teacher salaries, which could be easily done, she explained, through a very small increase in taxes. While a student at Vassar, Coe worked at a settlement house in Poughkeepsie. In the 1930s she wrote for the society pages of the Commercial Appeal; she quit after the editors refused to allow her to write more substantive pieces on “women’s news.” In 1936 she helped found the Memphis Maternal Health Association, and in her work with the association she stressed the importance of birth control. In the 1940s she convinced the Memphis YWCA to integrate, served as president of the local chapter of Planned Parenthood, and was vice president of the Memphis branch of the League of Women Voters. She campaigned in 1948 for Estes Kefauver, whose election to the U.S. Senate that year helped end the political domination of Boss Crump. In the 1960s Coe led the Memphis chapter of the Economic Opportunity Act’s antipoverty program. In short, as Little tells us, Coe was “a mentor to numerous Memphis activists”—especially to Myra Dreifus—“and a central figure within the city’s civil rights community.” The city school system’s administration building is named after her.

Memphis has never had a large liberal white class. It is one of the most conservative cities in the country, certainly in the South, and one must keep in mind that the women who appear in Little’s book were to varying degrees part of the white establishment. It’s a wonder that any of them were sympathetic to black concerns. On the whole, they were a conflicted bunch. We see that, for instance, with regard to the sanitation workers’ strike. It is true that many of them acted in one way or another to support the striking workers. Myra Dreifus, for instance, whose Fund for Needy Schoolchildren had supported Henry Loeb in the 1967 mayoral campaign, now urged Mayor Loeb to “resolve” the strike and, in Ms. Dreifus’s words, “represent all of the people all of the time.” Margaret Valiant participated in the February 23, 1968, march—the “miniriot” that ended when policemen used mace to disperse the crowd; after the march, Valiant spoke to a largely African American audience at Mason Temple, affirming her support of the striking workers. On March 7—a day on which Mayor Loeb held one of his open houses—Joan Turner Beifuss led a group of white women to mayor’s office; the goal was to demonstrate to Loeb that not all whites supported him in his opposition to the strike. Yet some of the other women, such as Gwen Awsumb, who, by the way, was the first woman ever elected to the Memphis city council, and Marjorie Cherry, were decidedly less sympathetic toward the strike and were generally opposed to unions.

Little, of course, is aware of all that, and perhaps that is why she seems to feel a certain ambivalence toward her subject. Although she believes that the story she tells is a story worth telling, she is eager not to claim too much for her protagonists. The Saturday Luncheon Group, for example, “did not intend to turn the world upside down” but “merely” sought to improve communication between the races. Myra Dreifus and Anne Shafer were not interested in “pathbreaking” social movements and had no “radical political consciousness”; instead, their activism was grounded in “less politically charged” programs and organizations. At the end of her book, Little offers this assessment of the group of activists whose work she has documented: “These women do not warrant the term ‘radical,’ because they did not seek an overhaul of the entire system that created a racial hierarchy in which white citizens enjoyed more privilege than their African American counterparts. However, their contributions to Memphis’s race relations proved essential to the easing of racial tensions.” When appraising the activism of elite white women in Memphis, one must keep, it seems, the proper perspective.

Monday, May 14, 2012

From Memphis, with Love

Wanda Rushing is in love with Memphis, and thank God for that. A city that has been “typically marginalized by scholars and underestimated by its own residents” is actually, as her 2009 book, Memphis and the Paradox of Place: Globalization in the American South, argues, a dynamic, innovative, and creative place, a place that has given the world not only some of its most popular and influential music, but Federal Express, Holiday Inn, and a host of nationally known products. Coppertone sunscreen, St. Joseph’s aspirin, Maybelline cosmetics, Cleo giftwrap, Di-Gel tablets—these are among the many “innovations” that originated in the Bluff City. What’s more, Memphis is an important node in the global transportation system and home to the world’s largest pediatric cancer research center. Whereas most who have written about Memphis have focused on the city’s problems, Dr. Rushing, who is a professor of sociology at the University of Memphis, is determined to show instead what should be evident to anybody who bothers to examine the city in the way she has chosen to do so: Memphis is a complex and interesting place with global and local significance.

The way she has chosen to examine her subject is no less important than her subject itself. As Dr. Rushing explains, most sociological studies today rely on abstraction and measurement, often “losing touch with real people in real places.” In contrast, Dr. Rushing uses an “interdisciplinary narrative case-study approach,” one that she believes is suited to identifying and understanding the multivalent and multifaceted dimensions of a complicated city such as Memphis. Drawing on sociological theory, historical sociology, and even literature, as well as her own “immersion in the richly textured life of Memphis,” Dr. Rushing examines a number of case studies—just to give one example, the history, destruction, and subsequent renovation and development of Beale Street and the surrounding area—and attempts to show how they are affected by, and in turn affect, the global and the local.

As the title of her book indicates, Memphis is a place of paradox, and both place and paradox are themes that run throughout the book. The subtitles of her chapters, for example, refer to paradoxes of place, of identity, of power, of development, of innovation, of tradition. But far more than paradox, it is place that receives the most systematic and sustained treatment. Place is much more than just “geographic location and material form,” she tells us; place is defined by “networks of social relations, collections of cultural symbols and historical memories, and investment with cultural meaning and value.” Place is “uniquely situated in networks of global relations and cultural flows, as well as embedded in accumulated local history and culture. Hence, place mediates the impact of global and local processes.” Place, she warns, should not be confused with space—which is exactly what transportation officials did when they proposed to route I-40 through Overton Park. As a space, Overton Park was the logical path that I-40 should have taken; as a place, it was anything but.

Another prominent theme in Dr. Rushing’s book is the interplay between the global and the local. Of public spaces such as Forrest Park and the Benjamin L. Hooks Central Library, for instance, she writes, “Local and global changes”—and here she means our evolving attitudes toward race and community—“continue to shape understandings about the use of public spaces and the commemorative objects installed in them.” Of Overton Park and Shelby Farms, she writes that “place still matters and mediates the impact of global, national, and local processes on urban landscapes.” And Memphis music, which, as she rightly points out, was acclaimed globally long before it was celebrated locally, “shows that cultural innovation . . . can lead to an affirmation of the local significance of place and contribute to the transformation of global culture.” Similar statements can be found throughout the book.

I cannot say how successful Memphis and the Paradox of Place is as a work of sociology; I also do not know if Dr. Rushing succeeded in achieving what she set out to achieve (her claim, for instance, to use literature to illuminate her case studies is perhaps exaggerated). I can say that Memphis and the Paradox of Place is an excellent introduction to many of the events, developments, and issues that are important in the city. Race and poverty, labor and education, tourism and music; Forrest Park, the National Civil Rights Museum, and the Benjamin L. Hooks Central Library; Overton Park and Shelby Farms; transportation, the cotton trade, and entrepreneurship; St. Jude and UT-Baptist Research Park; Beale Street, urban renewal, and downtown renovation and development; the Cotton Carnival and the Cotton Maker’s Jubilee—those are among the subjects that Dr. Rushing takes up in her stimulating book.

Dr. Rushing would argue that Memphis, as a place, has been formed, and is informed, by history. Not surprisingly, then, a chief merit of the book is the way in which it situates the present in the past. Just to take one example, in the chapter on Memphis music, titled “Globalization and Popular Culture: Memphis and the Paradox of Innovation,” Dr. Rushing traces a line extending from the beginning of Beale Street in the nineteenth century to director Craig Brewer’s 2005 Memphis-centric film Hustle and Flow and its signature song, “It’s Hard Out Here for a Pimp,” which won an Academy Award. The early blues songs that used to be heard on Beale were met with an ambivalent reaction by both white and black Memphians, as was, one hundred years later, the success of “It’s Hard Out Here for a Pimp.”  

Memphis and the Paradox of Place is one of my favorite books about Memphis. Yet in some respects I find it hard get a handle on. There are numerous themes to digest—place, paradox, the local, the global, race, power, the “production of locality” (a concept devised by Arjun Appadurai, a cultural anthropologist at NYU) and the “disruptions” to that production. What’s more, not all of them are clearly articulated; I’m still not entirely sure, for example, what Dr. Rushing means by the “paradox of place.” The book’s organization is occasionally slack: in the introduction the author lists two purposes of the book, then in chapter 1, she announces that her project has five goals, only to state in the final chapter that the book has had a single “overarching concern” (“to show that place matters”). Speaking of the introduction and the first chapter, the former reads like a preface rather than an introduction, and the latter, like an introduction.

Still, the overall point of the book, which was published by the University of North Carolina Press, is clear. The devil may be in the details, but so is the delight, and those delightful details create a place, one that is idiosyncratic and persists despite the designs of globalization to homogenize or erase it. In short, as Dr. Rushing states succinctly and elegantly, place matters—and so does Memphis.

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Saturday Evening Memphis

In Memphis in the mid-1940s, ’Lonzo Locke was the most popular waiter at the Peabody, businessman Ike Myers was bringing Heifetz, Horowitz, and other classical music luminaries to the city, and the Commercial Appeal was pushing its Plant to Prosper and Live at Home program, whose goal was to demote cotton to secondary importance by encouraging farmers in the Mid-South to diversify, diversify, diversify.

We learn those details from a profile of Memphis published in the November 16, 1946, issue of the venerable weekly the Saturday Evening Post. In the 1940s and 1950s, the Post ran a series of articles on “America’s most colorful cities.” I have to wonder what counted as “colorful” in the eyes of the editor. Not unreasonably, Brooklyn was profiled, as was Los Angeles; but so were Minot, North Dakota; Burns, Oregon; and the standard by which all American cities are judged, Peoria, Illinois. Will it play in Peoria?

The twenty-third installment in the series (which ran to over one hundred installments) was devoted to Memphis. The article is every bit as “colorful” as its subject: “The old hot river-town, cotton-town, lumber-town blood begins to beat in her veins and she lifts her skirts up high and does a wild fandango down the Chickasaw Bluffs the way she used to do when Davy Crockett gathered her citizenry to the river bank for scandalous moonlight merrymaking around a keg of bourbon,” the author, one Harold H. Martin, writes about the annual Cotton Carnival. Mr. Martin wrote dozens of articles for the magazine over a twenty-year period, including one in 1949 about the Ku Klux Klan, which, the author hoped, was on its way out.

Mr. Martin presents the Memphis of 1946 as a well-behaved, hygienic city, thanks in no small part to the lordship of Edward H. Crump. A good deal of the article is about Mr. Crump and the purportedly salubrious effect he had on his adopted hometown, transforming it from a frontier saloon writ large to a tidy, quiet, and prim metropolis—tidy, quiet, and prim, that is, unless it happened to be the week of the annual Cotton Carnival, during which, as the quotation above makes plain, Memphis let down her hair and kicked up her heels. Martin begins his article with a description of the weeklong, all-hell-breaks-loose shindig, during which “the dark citizens perform a mad gyration they term the Jubilee Jump” and (gasp!) “somebody rides a horse into the lobby of the Peabody Hotel.”

Turning to the first page of the article, what immediately caught my eye was the lone photograph in the bottom left-hand corner. The photograph shows a black family sitting on Adirondack-style chairs along a covered passageway that runs in front of what appears at first glance to be a well-maintained apartment building but is actually one of the city’s five housing projects. A surprising photograph, really: one wonders how many other photographs of ordinary black folk appeared in the magazine that year. “Negro life in Memphis is not all Beale Street,” the caption reads. But even Beale Street is not all Beale Street anymore: Beale, according to Mr. Martin, “has lost its once-enchanting aura of murder, music, and mirth, and now resembles any other shabby street in the Negro section of a Southern town.”

Mr. Crump is certainly the central figure in the article, but Mr. Martin allows Crump’s adversary, Ed Meeman, the editor of the Press-Scimitar, a few words. Meeman worries that Memphis has forgotten that democracy, not bossism, is the law of the land.

The article devotes three full paragraphs to the city’s age-old cotton trade—“a peculiar business [that] is run solely on honor,” where deals are made over nothing but a cup of coffee at Doug Stamper’s Cotton Exchange Café. A large photograph shows cotton merchant Caffee Robertson examining a sample of cotton in the office of another trader, D. B. Fargason of South Front Street.

Mr. Martin presents a city and a city boss who were always on the lookout for corrupting influences from the eastern fifteen-sixteenths of the state. Crump is a sentry, a “watcher from the tower,” and “when he sees a gathering of poltroonery” in the state capital, he sounds the alarm, “and Memphis and Shelby County as one man rush to disperse the varlets with a fusillade of some sixty-odd thousand votes.” (Did I mention that the article was as colorful as its subject?)

Lately I’ve come under the spell of the mid-century American cultural critic Dwight Macdonald, who disparagingly classified the Saturday Evening Post as an example of what he called “Masscult.” Masscult is the enemy of High Culture, as its only standard is popularity. In that context, it is interesting to note that the articles in the Saturday Evening Post in the mid-1940s were often long, with long paragraphs and small type. Mr. Martin’s article on Memphis, for example, easily exceeds five thousand words. And I quite enjoyed the author’s purple prose. With my apologies to Mr. Macdonald, if this is Masscult, give me more of it.