Elizabeth Gritter: Black Voting Power Rose Up in Memphis

Roundup: Historians' Take

Elizabeth Gritter, Ph.D., teaches U.S. history at Middle Tennessee State University, and her scholarship focuses on civil rights and black political efforts in Memphis.

Fifty-three years ago, four black men in Memphis ran for public office in a campaign that would have a transformative effect on the city and the state. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. spoke at a rally on their behalf, and their bid attracted local, state and national media attention, including from The Tennessean.

The men ran on the “Volunteer Ticket,” so named because of Tennessee’s nickname as the “Volunteer State.” Benjamin L. Hooks, who later became executive secretary of the NAACP, ran for juvenile court judge, and Russell B. Sugarmon Jr., who later became a judge, ran for public works commissioner. Two ministers ran for the school board.

Unlike most black Southerners, black Memphians could vote, and local leader Maxine Smith spearheaded voter registration efforts on behalf of the city’s NAACP branch in the late 1950s. In Memphis, no African-American had been elected to public office in modern times. Local black women and men saw the Volunteer Ticket as not only a political campaign but a civil-rights effort. Undeterred by white opposition, they mobilized for the office seekers through neighborhood organizations, rallies and get-out-the-vote campaigns....

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