Every city, I suppose, has its history of activism—even Memphis, whose history of activism was for many years dominated by the 1968 sanitation workers’ strike and is only now being explored in its rightful complexity. It wasn’t all that long ago that Ida B. Wells, for instance, was a largely unknown figure, and had it not been for the rise of area studies in the American academy over the past forty years, Wells might still be largely unknown. Even so, I doubt very much that most Memphians today know who she was.
One Memphian who did was a fellow named Coby Smith. A graduate of Manassas High School, Smith in 1963 was one of the first African Americans to be admitted to Southwestern (today, Rhodes) College. He left Memphis in 1966 for Atlanta, where he became involved in—and eventually frustrated with—the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). He returned to Memphis in 1967 with a “more radical disposition” and immediately founded, along with another Memphian named Charles Cabbage, who had also spent time in Atlanta, two activist organizations, the Black Organizing Project and the Invaders. In a 2010 interview, Coby Smith said of the young black activists in Memphis in the late 1960s that they worked in “the spirit of Ida B. Wells.”
Perhaps the most remarkable thing about the Black Organizing Project and the Invaders was that both were Black Power organizations. That Black Power had made its way from the urban megalopolises of the Northeast, the Midwest, and California to Memphis will come as a surprise to many—as it did to Martin Luther King Jr., who blamed an unexpected “Black Power element” for creating disorder in a march he led in Memphis about a week before his death.
We learn about Coby Smith and Charles Cabbage in a 2015 book titled Black Power in the Bluff City: African American Youth and Student Activism in Memphis, 1965–1975, by Shirletta J. Kinchen, a professor of Pan-African Studies at the University of Louisville and a graduate of the PhD program in history at the University of Memphis. As Professor Kinchen demonstrates in her impressive study, the work of Smith and Cabbage and of the Black Power movement in Memphis challenges the view of the city in the late 1960s and early 1970s as an “NAACP town.”
As did Black Power more generally, the Black Organizing Project wanted complete self-determination for the city’s black residents. The platform of the project demanded “community control over education, finances, politics, and land ownership.” As Charles Cabbage explained, the Black Organizing Project aimed to “stimulate in young blacks a sense of black identity, black pride, and black consciousness, to create in the blacks an independent spirit, to cease to be dependent upon and influenced by the white race.” That Professor Kinchen’s source for that quotation is an FBI memo is no accident. The FBI began watching the Black Organizing Project soon after it was founded. In addition, the Memphis Police Department set up a special unit to monitor the organization.
Black Power was able to gain a foothold in Memphis because the city’s black establishment and older generation had been unwilling or unable to make room for the young. At the time, many blacks in their late teens and early twenties found the approach of older figures such as Maxine Smith and Benjamin Hooks—both of whom occupy prominent places in the city’s postwar history—too incremental and mild-mannered. Young activists such as Smith and Cabbage refused to treat even Martin Luther King Jr. with the customary reverence. If Dr. King wanted to lead a march in Memphis, Coby Smith said, he needed to adapt and adjust to the particular needs and concerns of the city’s residents—needs and concerns that may be too urgent for the Atlanta preacher’s nonviolent ethic. “This is Memphis,” Smith said in reaction to the botched march led by Dr. King the week before his death. “The city belongs to people here.”
Smith and Cabbage, and Black Power generally, did not succeed—at least, not to the degree that activists such as Smith and Cabbage envisioned. In my view, the problem that stymied Smith and Cabbage at every turn was the same problem that stymies nearly all would-be revolutionaries: they had to act through or in tandem with existing institutions—the law, the NAACP, the War on Poverty, local churches, LeMoyne College, Owen Junior College, Memphis State University—and existing institutions are almost by definition too conservative to tolerate sudden and drastic change.
Nevertheless, as Professor Kinchen maintains, Black Power, despite being a comparatively “fringe” movement in Memphis, had an effect. In giving young black Memphians “a malleable and adaptive philosophy that traversed different sectors of life in the city,” it paved the way “for an increasingly radical Memphis after 1968 when even moderate organizations, such as the local branch of the NAACP, began to evoke the spirit of the Black Power movement.”