Robert R. Church Jr. and the Black Freedom Struggle in Memphis

robertchurch The following is a guest post from Dr. Elizabeth Gritter, Assistant Professor of History at Indiana University Southeast.

Robert R. Church, Jr., an under-recognized figure of the black freedom struggle, was born in Memphis, Tennessee, in 1885. The son of Robert R. Church, Sr., perhaps the first black millionaire in the nation, and the younger half-brother of Mary Church Terrell, the famed women’s and civil rights advocate, Bob Church, as he was commonly known, believed in formal politics as the key way for achieving first-class citizenship for African Americans. He believed that it was crucial to work in the two-party system and that the Republican Party held the most promise for achieving gains. He became the most prominent black Republican in the country by the 1920s and remained Republican until he died in 1952. He fiercely fought for the party to embrace civil rights stances, and his views were colored by the Republican Party’s actions for African Americans during the Civil War and Reconstruction, as opposed to black Americans of the younger generation, who, like many other African Americans, turned to the Democratic Party during the New Deal years of the 1930s.

Unlike most black southerners, black Memphians could vote and exercise political leverage at the polls after the end of Reconstruction and into the twentieth century. Reasons included state political conditions, skilled black leadership, a mobilized black public, and white machine politics. Edward H. Crump, one of the most dominant political bosses in U.S. history, began his political ascent by 1909, when he was elected mayor. The most powerful political figure in Memphis until he died in 1954, this white Democrat incorporated African Americans into his political machine. His manipulation of black votes has been commonly written about; less well known is that a two-way street existed in which black Memphians exercised political leverage. Gains that they achieved included better job opportunities, improved public services, and the election of their candidates of choice at the polls. They also used politics as a forum for speaking out for racial justice. In 1914, for instance, the Colored Men’s Civic League successfully pressured Crump to have Thomas Dixon’s play The Leopard’s Spots banned from showing in the city because of its negative treatment of African Americans.

For Bob Church, his background and wealth contributed to his desire and ability to use politics as a strategy for racial advancement. He grew up in a neighborhood that included black political officials, and he and his father were connected with Booker T. Washington, Ida B. Wells, W. E. B. DuBois, W. C. Handy, and other luminaries of black politics and culture. Church, Jr., inherited wealth from his father and used it to further his goals. He funded local black political campaigns, contributed to the Republican Party as a way of exercising influence, and refused to accept any political appointments, although offered two by presidents, because of his desire to independently exert political leverage.

Church served as a delegate to Republican National Conventions starting in 1912, and his rise to political heights really took off with his formation of the Lincoln Republican League in 1916 in Memphis. He mobilized black Memphians in a way that attracted regional and national attention, spurring him to form the Lincoln League of America in 1919, which brought together black Republicans from across the country in part as a protest against racial violence taking place that year. This league led to his further recognition by Republicans nationally, catapulting him to become the leading black Republican in the country in the 1920s; he met with presidents and took part in state and national campaigns for the Republican Party.

To be sure, Bob Church was not immune from opposition and criticism from both whites and blacks. He was sent a noose anonymously in the 1920s. He and black Memphians faced bombings during one campaign effort. Some black Memphians resented him because of his wealth and light skin. African Americans criticized him for the fact that Lincoln League of America officials received political appointments, leading them to think that the league had selfish motivations, and Crump turned against Church in 1940, leading to his exile from Memphis. Yet, Church was also widely praised and respected by African Americans and even some whites for his political work and ambitions.

Church, Jr.’s story is one that reveals significant formal political activity of black southerners during the Jim Crow era. Black southerners elsewhere, especially in urban areas, could sometimes politically mobilize as well. I do not mean to dismiss the opposition and disenfranchisement that African Americans faced after the end of Reconstruction. At the same time, it is important to recognize what African Americans could do politically within these confines and the gains that they made for racial advancement, providing an important foundation for the mass-based civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s.

For more information on Robert R. Church, Jr., and black political thought and activities in the Jim Crow era, see: Elizabeth Gritter, River of Hope: Black Politics and the Memphis Freedom Movement, 1865-1954, Civil Rights and the Struggle for Black Equality in the Twentieth Century Series, edited by Steven F. Lawson and Cynthia G. Fleming (University Press of Kentucky, February 2014). The book’s University Press of Kentucky web page provides additional information as well:

Comments on “Robert R. Church Jr. and the Black Freedom Struggle in Memphis

  • Thank you for this interesting post Elizabeth. I was wondering whether or not Memphis was singular in having a black population still exercising political power in this era or if this situation was replicated elsewhere in the urban South?

    • Throughout the Jim Crow era, there always was a small but significant number of African Americans who could vote in the South, particularly in urban areas. Black voter leagues developed, especially in the 1930s when Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal inspired increased mobilization by African Americans. Also, the U.S. Supreme Court’s Smith v. Allwright decision of 1944, which abolished the white primary, led to a significant increase in southern black voters. Memphis was a recognized leader of black political mobilization in the South into the 1960s. My book, especially the introduction, provides more details–in fact, I see Memphis as a case study for looking at this wider development of what black southerners could do in formal politics. I had hoped to provide even more details on southern black political mobilization elsewhere in the book, as I had done a lot of research accordingly, but am glad the ins and outs of black political activity could be explored through looking at Memphis.

  • I also enjoyed this post. I think your focus on his work within the GOP is particularly intriguing. And it’s the other half of a complicated story of Republicans debating between appealing to African American voters or going for white Southern votes, which began to pick up steam in the 1930s and 1940s.

    Thanks again for this–more folks should definitely know about Robert R. Church Jr.!

    • Thanks for these comments. My book indeed shows the tensions over time regarding white Republicans appealing for black votes versus going for white southern votes.

  • This is a great post, Dr. Gritter. While Robert Church and black history in Memphis offers a compelling story and important chapter of the black freedom struggle, this post also brought to mind another example from the South: Houston. Here I’m thinking of the fascinating stories about “community agency” that Bernadette Pruitt assembles in The Other Great Migration: The Movement of Rural African Americans to Houston, 1900-1941 (Texas A&M University Press, 2013). Pruitt, like Dr. Gritter’s excellent post, beautifully captures the struggles and triumphs of black Houstonians, from physicians and lawyers, to teachers and various proletariat laborers and how they carved out life, work, and meaning under inhospitable circumstances and built lasting economic, educational, and cultural institutions–some of which remain active in the Bayou City. Piecing together the local and national aspects of the black freedom struggle seems also to connect with the great work in Theoharis and Woodard’s essay collection Groundwork: Local Black Freedom Movements in America. It seems that in our classrooms we might effectively use this great scholarship for powerful comparative assignments and discussions.

    • Thank you! In fact I reviewed Pruitt’s book recently for the Journal of Southern History (it is not yet published) and found her work to be very impressive, gave a really great review.

      • One other thought: Pruitt talks about the black newspaper the Houston Informer in her book, and in fact I highlight that newspaper when discussing praise that the paper gave Robert R. Church Jr. and black Memphians for their 1927 electoral effort. Also, in 1958, a black woman, Hattie White, was elected to the school board in Houston. Here’s a brief article that I found with more information on her. Southern black electoral mobilization in the Jim Crow South is an area ripe for further research!

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