Civil Wrongs

Institute for Public Service Reporting

Civil Wrongs is a project of the Institute for Public Service Reporting in collaboration with WKNO-FM. Here, we analyze the present-day effects of historical cases of racial terror in Memphis and the Mid-South.

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Episodes

S2E4 Why don’t we know this history?
Jun 6 2023
S2E4 Why don’t we know this history?
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.
S2E3 “They violated my person”: Sexual violence survivors
Jun 6 2023
S2E3 “They violated my person”: Sexual violence survivors
The ruthlessness of the white mobs during the massacre extended to sexual violence. Multiple women were raped over three days, including five who were brave enough to testify to the congressional committee. It’s unsurprising; rape was used as a sadistic form of control over the enslaved. And with a bloodthirsty mob set loose on Memphis, it followed a pattern set for centuries to cement white dominance as Black women were just getting their first taste of freedom. Other societal norms would make it hard for these women to be heard: Black women were portrayed in media as overtly sexual and the idea that these women did not want to have sex would have been unbelievable to many white people. Rebecca Ann Bloom was one of the women raped during the massacre.  “I had just to give up to them. They said they would kill me if I did not. They put me on the bed, and the other men were plundering the house while this man was carrying on.”     Yet, investigators questioned the women’s testimony, suggesting they could have stopped their attackers if they wanted to. Like every other white perpetrator of the massacre, no one was ever convicted or even charged with a crime.  Today, Memphis still has problems with holding rapists accountable, a problem aggravated in recent years by massive backlogs of rape kits in Memphis and across Tennessee. And again, survivors are speaking out. Listen to our third episode of Civil Wrongs, “’They violated my person’: Sexual violence survivors” to hear the story of Samantha Shell, and why she had to wait 20 years before her rapist was arrested.
S2E2 “Memphis exploded:” Police brutality and the massacre
Jun 6 2023
S2E2 “Memphis exploded:” Police brutality and the massacre
The white mobs were led by a specific subset of people: Police officers who were mostly Irish immigrants. At the time, Irish immigrants were viewed as inferior to other white Americans. And with the emancipation of slaves just a year prior and the influx of Black people looking for jobs, Irishmen felt that their tenuous social status was threatened.  The environment for violence had been brewing for some time. As violence broke out, police shot at a group of Black veterans, believing themselves to be under fire. Today, the Memphis Police Department’s official history contains just a few words mentioning the massacre, or “riot” as it’s called. The massacre was the first widely reported act of state violence after the Civil War. Legislators warned more would follow if Black people weren’t protected. Indeed, the massacre turned out to be a blip on the radar of America’s long history of police violence over the course of decades. About 100 years later in Memphis – just a week before Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination in the city — police shot a Black teen named Larry Payne, who witnesses said had his hands up. Or even more recently, there was Tyre Nichols, a Black man whose fatal beating made international headlines for its cruelty. To understand the modern implications of police brutality, we take you to a symposium at the National Civil Rights Museum where national leaders and Nichols’ family convened to talk about solutions. We also take you to a Memphis City Council meeting, where activists pushed to pass reforms they hoped would reduce violent encounters between police officers and the community. Nichols’ family is continuing with its lawsuit against the Memphis Police Department. A criminal case against the officers is ongoing, too.
S2E1 Tragedy and Resilience: Stories of the Memphis Massacre
Jun 6 2023
S2E1 Tragedy and Resilience: Stories of the Memphis Massacre
A year after the Civil War, in May 1866, widescale violence erupted in Memphis. White mobs led by police brutalized the Black community, beating and shooting any Black person they could find, but especially targeting Black Union soldiers who had just been discharged. At least 46 Black men, women and children were killed, 75 others were injured, and at least five women were raped. Every single Black school and place of worship in the city was burned, and many homes were reduced to rubble. When word of the Memphis Massacre reached Washington, D.C., Congress launched an investigation. The 400-plus page report included statements from hundreds of witnesses, both Black and white, painting a detailed picture of the carnage. The massacre and its investigation would directly lead to the expansion of Reconstruction support for Black people, and the passage of the 14th amendment to the U.S. Constitution, one of the most important civil rights protections in American history.  But considering its critical importance to civil rights, why is the Memphis Massacre virtually unknown? What caused this outburst of violence, and how does the event still affect us today? In this Season Two of Civil Wrongs, we’ll be diving deep into the history of the massacre, the events leading up to it, its long-lasting legacy, ties to police violence today, its obscurity in school curricula, and much more.  You’ll first hear samples of what victims of this tragic event had to endure. It’s incredibly rare for the voices of Black men and women from this era to be written down. But the congressional report has a multitude of firsthand testimony and eyewitness accounts from Black people who managed to escape death. Take, for example, Allen Summers, a Black veteran who testified how he was shot and beaten nearly to death before a white doctor from the North was able to convince the mob to move on. The doctor and another Black man carried him to the safety of a nearby home, where his life was saved.  Many South Memphis homes like the one Summers was carried to were burned down during the massacre, but no structures in the Black community sustained as much damage as schools and churches. A coordinated effort was made by the white mobs to completely destroy every single place of education and culture that the recently emancipated Black community used. With places of gathering for the community turned to ash, it was the mob’s hope that Black families they couldn’t kill would leave the city. And while some understandably fled after the massacre, many thousands remained, and formed the foundation of the Black community Memphis has today.   Listen to the first episode, “Tragedy and Resilience: Stories of the Memphis Massacre,” to hear more stories of victims and survivors of the Massacre.