An Unseen Light: A New Book on the Black Freedom Struggle in Memphis

This post is part of our blog series that announces the publication of selected new books in African American History and African Diaspora Studies. An Unseen Light: Black Struggles for Freedom in Memphis, Tennessee was recently published by University Press of Kentucky. 


The authors of An Unseen Light: Black Struggles for Freedom in Memphis, Tennessee are Aram Goudsouzian and Charles W. McKinney Jr. Aram Goudsouzian is Chair and Professor of the Department of History at the University of Memphis. He is the author of several books and articles on the history of race, culture, and politics in the United States. His books include Down to the Crossroads: Civil Rights, Black Power, and the Meredith March Against Fear (Macmillan Publishers); King of the Court: Bill Russell and the Basketball Revolution (University of California Press); Sidney Poitier: Man, Actor, Icon (University of North Carolina Press); and The Hurricane of 1938 (Commonwealth Editions). Charles W. McKinney Jr. is the Neville Frierson Bryan Chair of Africana Studies and Director of the Rhodes Institute for Regional Studies at Rhodes College. He is the author of Greater Freedom: The Evolution of the Civil Rights Struggle in Wilson, North Carolina  (University Press of America). He has written several articles and book chapters that address the history of grassroots struggles for civil rights organizing. He has a B.A. from Morehouse College and a Ph.D. from Duke University. Follow him on Twitter @kmt188.

During the second half of the nineteenth century, Memphis, Tennessee, had the largest metropolitan population of African Americans in the Mid-South region and served as a political hub for civic organizations and grassroots movements. On April 4, 1968, the city found itself at the epicenter of the civil rights movement when Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated at the Lorraine Motel. Nevertheless, despite the many significant events that took place in the city and its citizens’ many contributions to the Black freedom struggle, Memphis has been largely overlooked by historians of the civil rights movement.

In An Unseen Light, eminent and rising scholars offer a multidisciplinary examination of Memphis’s role in African American history during the twentieth century. Together, they investigate episodes such as the 1940 “Reign of Terror” when Black Memphians experienced a prolonged campaign of harassment, mass arrests, and violence at the hands of police. They also examine topics including the relationship between the labor and civil rights movements, the fight for economic advancement in Black communities, and the impact of music on the city’s culture. Covering subjects as diverse as politics, sports, music, activism, and religion, An Unseen Light illuminates Memphis’s place in the long history of the struggle for African American freedom.

“This rich collection covers a broad range of topics pertaining to the African American freedom struggle in Memphis, Tennessee. One of its greatest strengths is the breadth of the essays, which span a long period from the end of the Civil War to the twenty-first century. An Unseen Light is a valuable addition to civil rights scholarship.”—Cynthia Griggs Fleming, Professor Emerita of History at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville

Keisha N. Blain: What type of impact do you hope your work has on the existing literature on this subject? Where do you think the field is headed and why?

Aram Goudsouzian and Charles W. McKinney Jr.: The assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. dominates the memory of the Black freedom struggle in Memphis – in one way or another, most histories of Memphis revolve around 1968. Yet this iconic moment built on a longer, bigger history of Black struggles for freedom, and those struggles would continue after King’s death. In An Unseen Light, we hope to interrogate this rich history of African Americans in Memphis, beyond the murder of Martin Luther King Jr. It is not a comprehensive history. But there are intriguing stories, profiles of compelling people, and portraits of a city that suggest both remarkable progress and unfinished agendas. And as we look back, we hope that they provide some lessons to carry us forward.

While it has been long recognized as a major epicenter of Black life, history, and culture, Memphis remains one of the more under-researched major cities in the United States. It nevertheless possesses a rich history worthy of critical intellectual scrutiny. Starting in the second half of the nineteenth century, Memphis became the most populated – and most vibrant – metropolitan area for Black people in the entire Mid-South region. It was home to dynamic Black responses within a paternalistic political culture, including one of the nation’s largest and most active chapters of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). It nurtured the headquarters of the Church of God in Christ (COGIC), the biggest Black evangelical denomination in the country, and a large constellation of civic and community organizations. Beale Street served as an iconic center of Black culture.

We hope that An Unseen Light situates Memphis alongside other cities in the critical conversation about the nation’s African American experience. It builds on the work of a generation of historians of Memphis – many of whom are contributors to our volume. With essays by both established historians and up-and-coming scholars, we seek to enrich, deepen, and complicate our understanding of the city by employing many of the lenses that are informing how historians approach the larger Black freedom struggle: an emphasis on a “long civil rights movement,” an appreciation for the centrality of women and gender, a focus on local movements and grassroots activism, an examination of the interplay between politics and culture, and a determination to avoid a triumphalist narrative that wraps America’s history of racial inequality in a tidy box.

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Keisha N. Blain

Keisha N. Blain

Keisha N. Blain, a Guggenheim and Carnegie Fellow, is Professor of Africana Studies and History at Brown University. She is the author of several books—most recently of the National Book Critics Circle Award finalist Until I Am Free: Fannie Lou Hamer’s Enduring Message to America (Beacon Press, 2021) and Wake Up America: Black Women on the Future of Democracy (W.W. Norton, 2024). Follow her on Twitter @KeishaBlain.