Though the Memphis Massacre is virtually excluded from U.S. history education, it has had a long-lasting impact on civil rights, including a direct correlation to the passage of the 14th Amendment.
“I think yes, we can draw a very direct line from the Memphis Massacre to the 14th Amendment,” said Tim Huebner, a history professor at Rhodes College. “It was very clear [after the massacre] that the federal government was going to have to have a more active role in order to prevent such episodes of horrific death and violence.”
The Memphis Massacre cemented the belief the South could not be trusted to uphold new civil rights laws after the Civil War. So, not only was the 14th amendment submitted for ratification the same year as the massacre, but the federal government increased the intensity of its Southern occupation during Reconstruction. Ironically, the malicious acts of the white mobs in Memphis produced greater protections for Black rights for about a decade.
The first historical marker created to publicly remember the event was only erected in 2016 – not by the city or state, but the NAACP. Listeners may find themselves wondering why this history was never taught in school. Besides some very specific college courses, virtually no curricula across the nation, even in Tennessee, contain even the smallest mention of the massacre. The answer to this question is a complex, multifaceted one. Bill Carey, an author and reporter in Nashville, has an idea as to why.
“Tennessee may be the single worst state in the country in terms of teaching its own history,” he said. “I have a theory that hugely important things that happened immediately after wars are always overlooked… I have a feeling if the Memphis Massacre happened in 1891, it would be in the standard [curriculum].”
Listen to our final episode of this season of Civil Wrongs “Why don’t we know this history?” for a fuller picture of why the Memphis Massacre has been overshadowed in the pages of history.
Cover art credit: Ephraim Urevbu
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