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:
- What do you know about the Klu Klux Klan (KKK)? What are your reactions to seeing this march?
- What do you think was the message in mixing a character dressed as Uncle Sam with Klan members?
- What does this footage imply about race relations in America during the 1920s?
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.
2. Display images of a political cartoon and an excerpt of an editorial printed in the Memphis-based newspaper The Commercial Appeal in 1923.
- Read the title of the cartoon. What year was it published and where? What is depicted? What is the symbolism of the hand and the message to “halt”? How is the artist challenging the presence of the KKK in his city?
- What does this editorial address? What does the author call for in regards to the violent actions of the KKK?
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.
- If you were a black teenager growing up in a segregated city, how do you think Jim Crow laws would have affected your daily life? Which of these laws do you think would have had the biggest impact on your life? Why?
- What do you imagine black life was like in segregated Memphis?
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.
- What are some of your observations and reactions to the photographs of Beale Street taken between 1939 and 1956? What are some of the street signs, businesses, and activities you see? What are some of the people in the photographs doing?
- How does this depiction of Beale Street compare with your conception of what black life was like in segregated Memphis?
- Beale Street bustled with clubs, restaurants, and hotels, many of which were owned and operated by African Americans. Do you think the activity along Beale Street might have also appealed to non-black audiences? Why or why not?
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.
- Based on this account, what did Elvis like to do when he visited Beale Street?
- When Elvis released his first single on Memphis-based Sun Records in 1954, “That's All Right,” it was a 1940s Rhythm and Blues song written and originally recorded by African-American Bluesman Arthur “Big Boy” Crudup. In what ways did Elvis’s song choice relate to his experiences on Beale Street?
- Much as the Commercial Appeal challenged racism in Memphis, how did Elvis resist racial norms by spending time on Beale Street and recording Rhythm and Blues music?
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.
Site 1: Ellis Auditorium, Corner of Poplar and Front Streets
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.
- While Elvis’s 1955 concert at Ellis Auditorium was a segregated event, the audience, made up of both white and black Memphians, filled the 12,000 seat auditorium to capacity. What might this imply about the appeal of Elvis’s music in the 1950s?
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.
- What did Otis Williams notice about the audience at his first concert in South Carolina? What had changed in the audience by the second concert?
- What does Otis Williams’s observation at the second concert suggest about the relationship between music and social change?
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.
Site 2: Currie’s Club Tropicana, 1331 Thomas Street
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.
- “Last Night” reached No. 3 on the Billboard Pop singles chart and No. 2 on the Rhythm and Blues chart – a list dominated by African-American artists. What does this chart success suggest about the song’s commercial appeal?
- How does the success of “Last Night” continue the tradition started by Elvis of challenging racial norms through music?
The Mar-Keys are part of a larger narrative of Stax Records, a Memphis-based label that continually challenged racial norms through music.
Site 3: Stax Records, 926 E. McLemore Avenue
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.
12. Play clip of Stax co-founder Jim Stewart discussing racial integration at Stax Records in a 2007 interview.
- How does Stewart describe race relations in the South during the 1950s and 1960s? How did Stewart’s upbringing influence his thoughts about race?
- What does he say was unique about the hiring policy at Stax Records?
- If you were a teenage musician in a segregated community such as Memphis, how do you think it might have felt to have a place like the Stax studio and the Satellite Record Shop in your town?
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.
- What might have been some of the challenges of belonging to a mixed-race ensemble in a segregated city?
- Building upon the example of Elvis and the Mar-Keys, how do Booker T. and the MGs advance the idea of challenging racial norms through music?
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.
- What language used in the Brown vs. Board of Education ruling allowed communities to draw out the school desegregation process, even after segregation was ruled unconstitutional?
- Given that the members of Booker T. and the MGs all attended segregated Memphis high schools, how do you think it felt for them to come to work at Stax?
Continue the Memphis Tour in Groups
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:
- Booker T. Jones, African American, Keyboard and Organ
- Steve Cropper, White, Guitar
- Donald “Duck” Dunn, White, Bass
- Al Jackson, Jr., African American, Drums
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:
- How does segregation elude clearly-defined lines on a map? Use the data on your map and information gathered from the various sites to explain your answer.
- What is radio’s importance within in a segregated community? How is a station like WDIA able to reach an integrated audience?
- Ask students to compare and contrast the pictures and descriptions of Messick and Booker T. Washington High schools. How do you think segregation factored into the quality of resources and education offered to black and white students?
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.
- What words would you use to describe this performance? What emotions do Sam and Dave convey?
- How has your understanding of this music changed since you have learned more about the Memphis community in which it was created? Students can refer back to their initial reactions which they recorded at the start of lesson.