How does Memphis fit into the Civil Rights Movement? Memphis is a different city than most in the 1960s. To some degree Memphis is like a northern city. Unlike many of the bigger southern cities, there were no major racial confrontations or riots. Blacks had the right to vote and had some political power. However, in in 1968 all of a sudden there is a strike by sanitation workers that brings in major figures of the Civil Rights movement including Bayard Rustin, Roy Wilkins, and Martin Luther King Jr. They came to Memphis and fixed all of the problems... Well this is how the King-centric master narrative would like us to understand the situation.
The Memphis African American community has had the right to vote much longer than most African Americans in the South. Their political power came with some drawbacks, however. Mayor E.H. Crump who first came into power in the early 1900s established a system that allowed blacks to vote in Memphis as long as they voted for him. This created a de facto sense of paternalism between whites and blacks. At this time the NAACP also had the biggest control over the struggle for civil rights in Memphis. Unfortunately, they lacked the organizational capacities of other civil rights groups.
The church in Memphis became the place to organize against inequalities. James Lawson happened to be a minister in Memphis at the time of the Sanitation Workers Strike in 1968. Because of his connections to Martin Luther King Jr. through the organization of the workshops he created in Nashville to teach nonviolence, he was able to ask King, Bayard Rustin, a labor organizer, and Roy Wilkins to come to Memphis and bring their national attention with them. Meanwhile in Memphis, he organizes the Community on the Move to Equality, which was a group of over 100 African American churches in Memphis that came together during the Sanitation Strike to help organize their congregations.
King did come to Memphis to give a speech and lead a nonviolent march. Unfortunately the march turned violent soon after it began. Many critics decided that this meant the King was losing his control over people and that his message was not being heard. However, the reason for the violence may actually stem from the Black Power group in Memphis the Invaders. The Invaders espoused black power, self-defense, and direct violent acts. They came to the march looking to start something and they did not appreciate that Martin Luther King Jr. came to Memphis as an outsider.
Although Dr. King was assassinated in Memphis, this does not mean that the King-centric dominated Civil Rights Movement should rush to place the Sanitation Workers Strike along the same lines. There are many unique features about Memphis in the 1960s and the Strike has many different aspects to it. Just like all moments in the history and figures of the Civil Rights Movement, the history should not be limited just to make it fit into the master narrative.