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An Unseen LightBlack Struggles for Freedom in Memphis, Tennessee$
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Aram Goudsouzian and Charles W. McKinney Jr.

Print publication date: 2018

Print ISBN-13: 9780813175515

Published to Kentucky Scholarship Online: September 2018

DOI: 10.5810/kentucky/9780813175515.001.0001

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“You Pay One Hell of a Price to Be Black”

“You Pay One Hell of a Price to Be Black”

Rufus Thomas and the Racial Politics of Memphis Music

(p.228) “You Pay One Hell of a Price to Be Black”
An Unseen Light

Charles L. Hughes

University Press of Kentucky

The life of Rufus Thomas traces many of the broader historical trajectories that defined African American experiences in Memphis in the twentieth century. Born to Mississippi sharecroppers, Thomas moved to the city as a child and soon began performing on Beale Street, where he witnessed its heyday as the “Main Street of Black America.” He became one of the first deejays on WDIA, the pioneering all-black radio station that brought the music and politics of black Memphis to a national audience. He was the first artist to record hits at both Sun and Stax Records, putting him at the center of Memphis’s musical revolutions—and their transformative effects on world culture—from the 1950s through the 1970s. Later in life he became the self-proclaimed “Mayor of Beale Street,” one of the most recognizable and eloquent advocates for the city and its cultural heritage. Beyond his international fame as a musician, Thomas reflected other political and economic trends through his decades-long work in a local textile factory, his family’s extensive involvement with the NAACP, and his long commitment to education and community improvement. By putting Thomas’s life and career in its full, rich context, this essay offers a new way to illuminate the struggles and accomplishments of black Memphis in the twentieth century.

Keywords:   Memphis, Rufus Thomas, WDIA, Beale Street, Mayor of Beale Street

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