VOL. 132 | NO. 75 | Friday, April 14, 2017
Memphis’ Political History Reflects Changes With New Entries
By Bill Dries
There was a moment during the March unveiling of former Mayor A C Wharton Jr.’s portrait in the Hall of Mayors when the task of framing history gave way to the present.
Otis Sanford’s new political history of Memphis, “From Boss Crump to King Willie” is the latest in a set of definitive texts that offer a longer storyline of the intersection of race with politics.
(Daily News/Andrew J. Breig)
It came when attorney Ricky E. Wilkins talked about the importance of Wharton and his predecessor, Willie Herenton – the only two black mayors in Memphis history – to the city’s political present. Wharton attended the event; Herenton was noticeably absent.
“Whatever divisions that we may have had politically and otherwise, we need to figure out a way to get over and beyond because our children are literally dying on a daily basis,” Wilkins said in an appeal for black political unity in the present given the city’s problem with violent crime.
“I want to speak to this mayor and his wife and to all people of goodwill,” he said of Wharton. “Nothing is more important than us locking arms together, putting all of these degrees we have gotten that God has given us, and taking our place and leading our people out of the wilderness.”
Every author who has written part of the definitive history of Memphis in the 20th century has acknowledged and grappled with defining the specific role black voters have played in that history.
And one of the most difficult aspects of defining that role is that it is still moving, still changing and producing different results.
So when Otis Sanford was writing his new book, “From Boss Crump to King Willie,” he not only told the story of Herenton’s landmark election in 1991, he found himself going back to the start of the 20th century and the rise of E.H. Crump to explain the development of black political power over a longer arc.
“I think it surprised me to find out just how much loyalty Boss Crump had among African-Americans,” Sanford said.
“I knew going in that his political machine had been sort of fueled by African-Americans,” said Sanford, a former managing editor of The Commercial Appeal and holder of the Hardin Chair of Excellence in Economic-Managerial Journalism at the University of Memphis.
“You could argue that he exploited it … but the fact is African-Americans supported Boss Crump because he at least listened to them and gave them a little bit of something when other white politicians would do nothing.”
The assessment of Crump’s political dominance for a half-century is difficult to avoid.
In the preface to his 1980 book “Memphis Since Crump,” David M. Tucker wrote: “Black voters were as essential to the long rule of the local Crump political machine as they were the later victory of civic reform.”
When Tucker’s book was published, Harold Ford Sr. was six years into his service in Congress, Herenton had just become superintendent of Memphis City Schools, Wharton had just become Shelby County public defender and Otis Higgs was a year past losing a bid to upset incumbent Memphis Mayor Wyeth Chandler in the second and final match-up between the two.
“The civic reformers who rose to power in the 1950s discarded the old methods; instead, they invited blacks to join their civic reform organizations and share their faith in good government and urban renewal,” Tucker wrote. “For a time, blacks and white reformers worked together, but blacks grew tired of white moderation and deserted the civic reformers to pursue ethnic goals of their own community.”
Just beyond the publication of Tucker’s book were new chapters that changed the equation again. And in the process, those earlier chapters begin to look different as well, including Crump’s rise in early 20th century Memphis.
Crump’s political machine was enabled by black votes and patronage in a city where African-American citizens could vote, unlike their counterparts in many other cities and states. But Jim Crow policies in other aspects of civic life were a prominent fact of life for Memphis’ black citizens.
Sanford’s chronicle through several eras of Memphis politics is fueled by reading the papers of political leaders, well-known and obscure, as well as contemporary daily reporting of the city’s newspapers – all in the Memphis & Shelby County Room of the Benjamin L. Hooks Central Library and the Special Collections section of the University of Memphis library.
“The purposes of this book was to try to explain Memphis to Memphians,” he said. “My goal was not to write a history textbook and certainly not a case study. My goal was to do a historical narrative to try to explain this long, long struggle and how the political evolution of Memphis took place.”
It also took Sanford to familiar and basic texts about Memphis history, including William Miller’s 1964 biography, “Mr. Crump of Memphis.”
Miller noted that Crump denied courting and turning out the city’s black vote.
“But Crump favored Negroes voting,” Miller wrote. “He had seen enough of Memphis politics to know full well that the Negro vote was an important element in winning elections and that successful candidates traditionally had Negro support.”
When Crump died in 1954, there was no successor in an organization that had a lot of followers but no leaders, and some black political allies like Lt. George W. Lee and Blair T. Hunt.
“They asked for things but they never demanded things,” Sanford said. “Then you had young, black lawyers. They started to say, ‘No, we are not asking; we are demanding because the Supreme Court has said we have a right to this. That created a lot of tension in town.”
And it created turnover when those attorneys were displaced by political figures like Harold Ford Sr. in the 1970s.
“Harold Ford took the best of the Crump technique and used it to benefit himself and his family and to benefit the black community,” he said. “They were thrilled when he was elected to Congress and he built a machine that worked for black folks.”
But Sanford judges Ford’s flirtation with the 1983 mayor’s race – a race that Ford ultimately never entered – as a disappointment to black voters.
“They always wanted a voice in City Hall and they wanted a black person to be mayor and they wanted that person to be Harold Ford,” Sanford said. “The timing was always wrong there.”
And a 1982 special election to fill the vacancy created by the resignation of Memphis Mayor Wyeth Chandler a year before Ford might have run in the regular election was a key culprit.
The special election, which Dick Hackett won in a runoff, is “a crucial moment in Memphis politics” by Sanford’s definition.
Less than 10 years later, Ford was a midwife of sorts for Herenton’s insurgent bid to upset Hackett and become the city’s first elected African-American mayor once Ford decided to back Herenton over Otis Higgs.