THE MEMPHIS SOUND: A CASE STUDY OF MUSIC AND INTEGRATION IN MID-CENTURY AMERICA
How has Memphis music culture provided one example of art’s capacity to challenge the racial boundaries that have so often structured American life?
In the early 1950s, Elvis Presley, the future “King of Rock and Roll,” would wander down to the Beale Street area of Memphis on breaks from his job as an usher at Loew’s Theater. Beale Street was a predominantly black part of Memphis. As a white teenager in a segregated city, Elvis was crossing a line. But he was enthralled by African-American life. Window-shopping for clothes at establishments like Lansky Bros. and expressing his love for the music he heard coming from black Memphis, Elvis was resisting racial norms. Beale Street had an energy he couldn’t ignore. With its rich musical history and bustling shops, many of them owned by African-Americans, that part of town had a vibrancy that appealed to many, both black and white. At the level of culture, it was impossible to segregate Memphis.
Memphis is just one example within a larger, national story about music and culture providing an alternative to the systems of segregation, official and unofficial, that defined American life during the 1950s and 60s. In large cities such as Los Angeles, Chicago, Detroit, and New York City, as well as smaller communities like Muscle Shoals, Alabama, music played a powerful role in breaking down racial boundaries. Segregation had been written into American law through legislation such as the 1896 Supreme Court decision Plessy vs. Ferguson, which established the mandate of “separate but equal” as a basis for the oppressive Jim Crow laws. And segregationist policies did not only affect the South. Prior to the 1954 landmark decision of Brown vs. Board of Education, states as far West as Wyoming and Arizona had school segregation codes. And blacks in northern cities like Boston, New York, and Philadelphia were denied certain job, housing, and loan opportunities.
This lesson will explore how Memphis, set against this backdrop, was one musical city that would change how America viewed race relations. The 1960s Soul music recorded in Memphis was a blend of black and white styles, combining elements of Country, R&B, Gospel, and Pop. And Memphis musicians like Elvis Presley, and later the Mar-Keys and Booker T. and the MGs, became powerful examples of a national trend wherein art and culture challenged racial norms. One turning point occurred in 1957, when siblings Jim Stewart and Estelle Axton founded Satellite Records and soon changed their company’s name to “Stax.” Stewart and Axton, both white, established their headquarters on McLemore Avenue in a predominantly black Memphis neighborhood. They made a decision to open their studio and offices to any person with talent, regardless of skin color; like Presley’s refusal to hide his love for African-American culture, these were bold moves in a city that was still widely segregated.
The musicians who performed and played on Stax recordings were no strangers to the effects of a city divided by skin color. In the mixed-race ensemble Booker T. and the MGs, all of the musicians had graduated from segregated Memphis schools. But music brought them together across institutionalized color lines. When Booker T. and the MGs released their breakthrough hit “Green Onions” in 1962, there were still many restaurants in the South where the band could not sit down together for a hamburger – even with a hit song at No. 3 on the Billboard Pop singles chart.
In this lesson, students embark on a “walking tour” of Memphis, using the city as a case study through which to view complex race relations and integration issues that affected communities across the U.S. While plotting points of historical interest on a map, students consider how artists such as Elvis, the Mar-Keys, and Booker T. and the MGs resisted social norms through their music and performances. Listening to oral history from Stax owner Jim Stewart, students explore how an integrated record label operated in the middle of a segregated community and was able to create a unique and powerful Soul sound that signaled a shift in race relations in America.
Video pages: Booker T and the MGs - Green Onions (1967) | Sam and Dave - Hold On (1966) | Jim Stewart - Racial Integration at Stax (2007) | Otis Williams - Segregation in the South (2006) | Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Harry Belafonte - The Merv Griffin Show (1967) | Images from Beale Street (1939-1956) | Ku Klux Klan march in Washington D.C. (1928) | The Mar-Keys - Last Night (1961)
Upon completion of this lesson, students will:
Set up the room with eight sites using Handout 1: Walking Tour Locations. Sites 1-3 can be placed close together at the front of the classroom. These three locations will be visited as a class before breaking up into groups to visit Sites 4-8.
Play video clip of Stax artists Sam and Dave performing “Hold On, I'm Comin'” in 1966, backed by Booker T. and the MGs. Ask students to privately reflect upon the artsists' performances and the emotions conveyed during the song. Have students jot down their reactions. [Note to teacher: Students will return to these initial reflections at the end of the lesson.]
1. Show the class archival newsreel footage of a 1925 Ku Klux Klan march in Washington D.C. in Washington, D.C. where, according to the New York Times, an estimated “50,000 to 60,000 white-robed men and women marched.” Ask students:
Explain that the first branch of the KKK was founded in 1866 in Pulaski, Tennessee by a small group of Confederate veterans who violently opposed Reconstruction policies. By the 1920s, there were 4 million members nationwide.
The Commercial Appeal took a bold stand and, in 1923, it won the Pulitzer Prize "for its courageous attitude in the publication of cartoons and the handling of news in reference to the operations of the Ku Klux Klan.”
How might The Commercial Appeal, a newspaper in a city with an estimated 10,000 Klansmen, be taking a risk in criticizing the activities of the KKK?
3. Despite some institutions like The Commercial Appeal taking a stance against racist extremism, many cities in the South remained a deeply segregated into the 1950s and 60s, including Memphis. Distribute Handout 2: Systems of Segregation and direct students to Part 1: Jim Crow Laws. Students can read over this section individually, or you can invite student volunteers to read it aloud.
4. Play the video “Images of Beale Street, 1939-1956” featuring photographs of Beale Street and music from B.B. King’s “You Upset Me Baby,” a song that reached No. 1 on the Billboard Rhythm and Blues chart in 1956.
5. Beale Street’s music and magnetic energy appealed to white Memphians as well. Its history as a musical center was deep and included visits from Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Ella Fitzgerald, Muddy Waters, B.B. King, and many more. In the 1950s, a teenage Elvis Presley often wandered around Beale Street, drawn to the music and fashion there. He shopped at Lansky Bros., a clothing store that had dressed many famous black musicians, including B.B. King.
Display the following photo of Lansky Bros. and a quote by owner Bernard Lansky. Invite a student volunteer to read the quote aloud about the first time he met Elvis.
6. Distribute Handout 3: Map of Memphis. Tell students that they will be taking a “tour” through Memphis, stopping at several sites to explore segregation, race relations, and music. In this lesson, Memphis will serve as a case study to explore the power of music to transcend race and break down social barriers. The class will explore the first three sites together before breaking up into groups to explore additional locations. The first site is an auditorium where Elvis Presley played his first big show in Memphis to a sold-out audience in 1955.
7. Direct students to locate the Ellis Auditorium at the corner of Poplar and Front Street on their maps. Invite a student volunteer to come forward and read aloud information about Site 1.
8. Play a clip of Otis Williams of the Motown vocal group The Temptations as he discusses performing a concert in the South, at a venue similar to the Ellis Auditorium.
Ellis Auditorium was used by both white and black audiences. Other musical venues were more clearly delineated for either black or white audiences. The chitlin’ circuit, a name derived from the soul food item “chitterlings,” was a network of all-black clubs throughout the U.S. where African-American performers appeared during and after segregation.
9. Direct students to locate Currie’s Club Tropicana at 1331 Thomas Street on their maps. Invite a student volunteer to come forward and read aloud information about Site 2.
“Chitlin’ circuit” clubs across the U.S., including the Tropicana, catered specifically to African-American audiences. When the Mar-Keys were touring the “chitlin’ circuit,” why do you think club owners and audiences might have been initially reticent towards a white band appearing there?
10. Play audio clip of “Last Night” recorded by the Mar-Keys. Tell students this song was released in 1961.
The Mar-Keys are part of a larger narrative of Stax Records, a Memphis-based label that continually challenged racial norms through music.
11. Each student should find Stax Records at 926 E. McLemore Ave on their maps. Invite a student volunteer to come to the front of the class and read aloud the information about the record label.
What role did Stax play for musicians in Memphis? What does Mar-Keys member Wayne Jackson attribute Stax with providing him as a young musician?
12. Play clip of Stax co-founder Jim Stewart discussing racial integration at Stax Records in a 2007 interview.
13. Booker T. and the MGs became one of the best-known bands to record for Stax Records. Play clip of Booker T. and the MGs performing “Green Onions” live in 1967. Tell students that the band, which included Steve Cropper and Donald “Duck” Dunn originally of the Mar-Keys, along with Booker T. Jones and Al Jackson, Jr., first recorded this song at Stax in 1962.
14. All of the members of Booker T. and the MGs had graduated from segregated high schools in the Memphis area. Refer students back to Handout 2: Systems of Segregation and have a student volunteer read aloud Part 2: Brown v. Board of Education.
15. Break students up into small groups to engage in a “walking tour” of the remaining five sites. They will be moving through segregated Memphis from the perspective of one of four members of the integrated Stax band Booker T. and the MGs.
At each site, students should identify the location on their maps. They will read about the site and discuss what emotions their assigned band member might have felt at that site in the 1960s. (For example, band members may feel welcomed, excluded, threatened, inspired, conflicted, etc.)
Booker T. and the MGs band members include:
16. After the mapping exercise, students will return to their seats. Walking through each site, poll the class for their reactions: If your group was either Booker T. Jones or Al Jackson, Jr., the two African-American musicians, how did this site make you feel? What were some of your observations about the site? Pose the same question to the groups who went through the exercise as Steve Cropper and Donald “Duck” Dunn, the two white musicians.
Discuss as a class:
17. Once again, play the video clip of Stax artists Sam and Dave performing “Hold On, I'm Comin'” in 1966. Explain to the students that Booker T. and the MGs are the backing musicians in the video.
Play the first four minutes of a 1967 interview with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. on the Merv Griffin Show.
Discuss as a class:
Arts and culture, specifically music, were at the forefront of breaking down racial barriers in the 1950s and 60s. In a one-page written response, students will identify a contemporary work of art, whether it be a piece of music, a movie, a play, a painting, a photograph, or a television series that they feel is at the forefront of breaking down a racial, social, or gender barriers within society today. In their written response, students should include the following:
Assign students to research the specific contributions of one pair (or group) of individuals related to Stax who were mentioned in this lesson. Students may select from the following list, or the teacher can assign individuals.
College and Career Readiness Reading Anchor Standards for Grades 6-12 for Literature and Informational Text
College and Career Readiness Writing Anchor Standards for Grades 6-12 in English Language Arts and Literacy in History/Social Studies, Science and Technical Subjects
College and Career Readiness Anchor Standards for Speaking and Listening for Grades 6-12
Core Music Standard: Responding
Select: Choose music appropriate for a specific purpose or context.
Analyze: Analyze how the structure and context of varied musical works inform the response.
Interpret: Support interpretations of musical works that reflect creators' and/or performers' expressive intent.
Evaluate: Support evaluations of musical works and performances based on analysis, interpretation, and established criteria.
Core Music Standard: Connecting
Connecting 11: Relate musical ideas and works to varied contexts and daily life to deepen understanding.