What books should a newcomer to Memphis read to learn about the city’s history, people, politics, and culture? MLK50: Justice Through Journalism reporter F. Amanda Tugade, who joined the staff June 1, asked that question, so MLK50 editor and publisher Wendi C. Thomas reached out to her Facebook followers for help.
Here are their recommendations, with links to sellers. Also, check out Black-owned bookstores for these titles.
“A Brief History of Memphis,” by G. Wayne Dowdy, 2011. The local historian and archivist explores the vibrant history of Memphis.
“A Massacre in Memphis: The Race Riot That Shook the Nation One Year After the Civil War,” by Stephen V. Ash, 2013. The book explores the 1866 riot where Whites rampaged through Black areas, burning buildings and killing freed slaves. It gives a new perspective on post-Civil War Memphis and slavery.
“An Unseen Light: Black Struggles For Freedom in Memphis, Tennessee (Civil Rights and Struggle),” edited by Aram Goudsouzian and Charles W. McKinney Jr., 2018. An examination of Memphis’ role in Black history during 20th century America, including in regard to policing, the organized labor movement and civil rights.
“At the River I Stand: Memphis, the 1968 Strike, and Martin Luther King,” by Joan Turner Beifuss, 1985. An oral history project that began after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. This book is a detailed narrative about the 1968 Memphis sanitation workers’ strike.
“Battling the Plantation Mentality: Memphis and the Black Freedom Struggle,” by Laurie B. Green, 2007. Green delves into the black freedom movement through the lens of the 1968 Memphis sanitation workers’ strike, which culminated with the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
“Beale Street Dynasty: Sex, Songs and the Struggle for the Soul of Memphis,” by Preston Lauterbach, 2015. A look at the family of Robert Church, the South’s first Black millionaire, who built financial and political power during Jim Crow. It also provides insight into the unwritten rules between the races.
“Cotton Row to Beale Street: A Business History of Memphis,” by Robert Alan Sigafoos, 1979. Readers who have wondered how Memphis got to be what it is today will be helped by this book.
“Dying in the City of the Blues: Sickle Cell Anemia and the Politics of Race and Health,” by Keith Wailoo, 2000. The book focuses on one disease, sickle cell anemia, in one city, Memphis, to show the interaction between illness and race.
“From Boss Crump to King Willie: How Race Changed Memphis Politics,” by Otis L. Sanford, 2017. A veteran journalist’s in-depth look at how race figured prominently in the political evolution of Memphis, from the rise of longtime political boss Edward Hull Crump to the election of Dr. Willie Herenton, the city’s first Black mayor.
“Going Down Jericho Road: The Memphis Strike, Martin Luther King’s Last Campaign,” by Michael K. Honey, 2007. Chronicles the 1968 sanitation workers’ strike for better pay and working conditions. The workers’ struggles and ensuing strike brought Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. to Memphis where he was assassinated.
“Hellhound on His Trail: The Electrifying Account of the Largest Manhunt in American History,” by Hampton Sides, 2010. This award-winning bestseller tells the story of the 65-day search for Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassin. Lots of details even locals will find fascinating.
“Hidden History of Memphis,” by G. Wayne Dowdy, 2010. Everyone knows about Elvis and Stax Records, but do you know about the Memphis gangster who inspired one of William Faulkner’s most famous novels or the local Boy Scout who captured German spies during World War I? They and other hidden gems emerge in this book.
“100 Things to Do in Memphis Before You Die,” by Samantha Crespo, 2014. This guide will help you make the most of your must-see activities.
“It Came from Memphis,” by Robert Gordon, 1995. A look at the musical world of Memphis, and it’s not the usual suspects — Elvis, Sun, or Stax records. It focuses on artists such as Jim Dickinson, Alex Chilton, and bands like the Mar-Keys and Big Star.
“Memphis and the Paradox of Place: Globalization in the American South,” by Wanda Rushing, 2009. Using Memphis as a case study, Rushing looks at the issue of place in a globalizing age. She believes cultural and economic distinctions persist because of global processes, not in spite of them, according to information on the book on Amazon.com.
Memphis: In Black and White, by Beverly G. Bond and Janann Sherman, 2003. Memphis is featured as a microcosm of the American experience, with its racial tension, music and business successes.
“Memphis Since Crump: Bossism, Blacks and Civic Reformers, 1948–68,” by David M. Tucker, 1980. If you want to know about the Memphis of the 1950s and 1960s from a Black person’s perspective, this is the book.
“Mr. Crump of Memphis,” by William D. Miller, 1964. A biography of larger-than-life Memphis politician Edward Hull Crump, who dominated the Memphis political landscape as well as Tennessee’s for most of the first half of the 20th century.
“Race, Power, and Political Emergence in Memphis,” by Sharon D. Wright, 2000. The book looks at Black political behavior and empowerment strategies in Memphis.
“Respect Yourself: Stax Records and The Soul Explosion,” by Robert Gordon, 2013. This is the story of Stax Records, from its founding to its rise and eventual demise.
“Rising Tide: The Great Mississippi Flood of 1927 and How It Changed America,” by John M. Barry, 1997. A look at one of America’s greatest natural disasters and how it irrevocably changed the country and its politics. The flood upended close to a million people, including Memphians, and propelled hundreds of thousands of Black people to go north.
“Southern Labor and Black Civil Rights: Organizing Memphis,” by Michael K. Honey, 1993. This book chronicles the southern industrial union movement from the Great Depression to the cold war, using Memphis as a case study.
“The Founding of Memphis: 1818–1820,” by James Roper, 1970. A primer on the founding, planning, and establishment of Memphis.
“The Last Segregated Hour: The Memphis Kneel-Ins and the Campaign for Southern Church Desegregation,” by Stephen R. Haynes, 2012. On Palm Sunday 1964, at the Second Presbyterian Church in Memphis, a group of Black and White students began a “kneel-in” to protest the church’s policy of segregation. The protest continued for more than a year, eventually forcing the church to open its doors to Black worshippers.
“This Ain’t Chicago: Race, Class, and Regional Identity in the Post-Soul South,” by Zandria Robinson, 2014. Through interviews, the Memphis native illustrates how Black Americans are influencers of contemporary southern culture.
“Racial Politics at Crossroads: Memphis Elects Dr. W. W. Herenton,” by Marcus D. Pohlmann and Michael P. Kirby, 1996. Herenton was elected the first Black mayor of Memphis in 1991, “in one of the closest and most racially polarized elections in the history of urban America,”’ according to a description on the University of Tennessee Press website. The book is an “in-depth case study of that election, exploring the unique circumstances that produced the outcome.”
“Opportunity Lost: Race and Poverty in the Memphis City Schools,” by Marcus D. Pohlmann, 2008. The book examines why Memphis public schools students are “underperforming at alarming rates,” says a review on Amazon.com. “His provocative interdisciplinary analysis, combining both history and social science, examines the events before and after desegregation, compares a city school to an affluent suburban school to pinpoint imbalances, and offers critical assessments of various educational reforms.”
“The Struggle Over Black Lives Matter and All Lives Matter,” by Amanda Nell Edgar and Andre E. Johnson, July 2020 (can be pre-ordered). University of Memphis assistant professors of communications Edgar and Johnson compare and contrast the Black Lives Matter and All Lives Matter movements, exploring perspectives on the meaning of each. The book “highlights the motivations for investing in social movements and countermovements to show how history, both remembered and misremembered, bubbles beneath the surface of online social justice campaigns,” says a description on Amazon.com.
“Memphis: 200 Years Together,” edited by Karen GoLightly and Jonathan Judaken, 2019. This anthology “brings together the best local writers and scholars to cover the breadth and depth of Memphis history, politics, culture, business, music, food, religion, and art as does no other single book. It chronicles the triumphs and tragedies from the founding of Memphis to the present,” according to the publisher, Susan Schadt Press, website.
To suggest an addition to this list, email firstname.lastname@example.org and put “Memphis books” in the subject line.
This story is brought to you by MLK50: Justice Through Journalism, a nonprofit newsroom focused on poverty, power and policy in Memphis. Support independent journalism by making a tax-deductible donation today. MLK50 is also supported by the Surdna Foundation, the Racial Equity in Journalism Fund at Borealis Philanthropy, the Southern Documentary Project at the Center for the Study of Southern Culture, the American Journalism Project, the Community Foundation of Greater Memphis, and Community Change.