By Karanja A. Ajanaku, [email protected]
“From Boss Crump to King Willie: How Race Changed Memphis Politics” is the first book by veteran journalist Otis L. Sanford, who holds the Hardin Chair of Excellence in Journalism at the University of Memphis Department of Journalism. In this conclusion to an interview with The New Tri-State Defender, Sanford – a Sunday Viewpoint page contributor at The Commercial Appeal and a WREG-TV commentator – completes a reflective journey of Memphis marked by Edward Hull “Boss” Crump and Dr. Willie W. Herenton, who he calls “King Willie.” The two former mayors and political dynamos are, he asserts, the two most significant political figures in the city’s history.
‘If Crump had been alive, I don’t think Dr. Martin Luther King
would have been assassinated in Memphis.
“I don’t think the garbage strike would have lasted that long.
Crump would have figured out a way to resolve this thing
without it getting there.”
Otis L. Sanford,
reflecting on his research about Memphis political history
Karanja A. Ajanaku: One of the things that I think that the book will do is bring out characters – and I’m talking particularly from the African-American community – that a lot of the community never heard of or just barely heard of and had no way to put them in context. A.W. Willis (civil rights lawyer, businessman and the first African American elected to the Tennessee General Assembly since the 1880s) comes immediately to my mind. You interviewed his widow (Dr. Miriam DeCosta-Willis). What was that like?
OLS: She was very honest with me on a lot of things. … I don’t think she hesitated to say that A.W. (Willis, the namesake of the A. W. Willis Bridge) made some mistakes along the way. …
First of all, she thinks that it was a mistake for him to go against (former U.S. Rep.) Harold Ford in 1974 when he (Ford) was running his first congressional race against Dan Kuykendall and he came out publicly for Kuykendall. …I think looking back at it, it was a mistake. He didn’t have to say anything at all, because it certainly – and I think she even said it – didn’t help him. And it didn’t hurt Harold. …
Then Art Gilliam, who was writing a column (in The Commercial Appeal), blasted A.W. Willis in some pretty tough language. That I recount in the book. Yes, she was very honest with her assessment of that. Plus, he (Willis) was really upset when a lot of people in the black community did not support him for mayor in 1967. …
KAA: From his point of view, the man really did a lot (for African Americans).
OLS: He did. …He was the first African American to win a seat in the state legislature in modern times. He was part of that … legal group that said, “No, it’s time to make some changes around here. We’ve been trying to be slow and trod along the way Blair T. Hunt wanted us to do. …Or even (Lt.) George W. Lee wanted us to do. …But now it’s time to be a little bit more forceful.”
KAA: Right. Willis, H.T. Lockhard…
OLS: Ben Hooks…
KAA: Ben F. Jones.
OLS: And there might have been another lawyer involved, but it was that group. They are the ones that really said, “No, it’s time to stop asking and start demanding some things.” They did it. I think there’s a pivotal point in the book right after Edmund Orgill got elected mayor when H.T. Lockhard, who was then president of the local NAACP and sent those letters saying, “It’s time to integrate the schools. …And it’s certainly time to integrate the public parks and facilities.” Folks got into a panic.
KAA: Let’s talk about Lieutenant Lee.
OLS: Here’s a man that I see who was the closest thing to a brilliant guy in this town that we’re going to get. He was a brilliant orator. He had political skills up the wazoo. He was a World War I hero. He was a successful businessman. He knew how to navigate both the African-American community and the white community. He had white Republican leaders coming to him for help, and he accommodated them. At the 1952 Republican Convention, he seconded the nomination of a presidential candidate. This was a black man in Memphis, KA.
KAA: Right, right!
OLS: When he gets back to Memphis, he’s just another Negro not in city government; not in an appointed position. Not looked at, even though the newspapers paid attention to him … Especially the (Memphis) Press Scimitar, they had him in the paper all the time. But why wasn’t he on some board? Why didn’t he run for public office and get elected?
It was all because of racism, and I say it in the book. Brilliant man, great writer, and again a successful businessman and all of that stuff, but in segregated Memphis, he was not worthy enough for any mayor or anybody in elected office to appoint to some commission or some board or something like that. I think that’s a shame.
KAA: He sort of becomes the most visible character for me relative to coming up against a mindset that people had.
OLS: Yes, he did.
KAA: (And) there was this … (in the book) It just really jumped out at me…
“Black speakers at the (Douglas) park dedication included Reverend T.J. Searcy and Reverend T.L. Fuller. Addressing the concerns of white residents, Searcy said he hoped the Negros of Memphis would make Douglas Park ‘A place for high class recreation and not one for idle frolicking.’”
KAA: The keynote address was the part that got me….The keynote address was delivered by Judge J.M. Greer … who represented Crump (at the dedication)…
“Greer gave a lengthy speech, reminding his black audience how far they had progressed since slavery was officially abolished just 49 years earlier. Greer also acknowledged being born a slaveholder, and spoke fondly about a slave boy two years older than him who personally tended to his needs. ‘Out of this irresponsible menial condition the negro came into freedom with no property, no education, and with limited intelligence.’ Despite what he called progress, Greer still dismissed the notion that blacks were the equal of whites, and he said his audience should ‘always demand separation socially from the white race.’”
OLS: That jumped out at you, didn’t it?
KAA: Yeah. Because it sets the context for the cultural lock that people were in….They would never consider themselves “racists.” It was a way of life. So Lee and all others would be running up against that….
OLS: That happened in 1914. The whole issue around that Douglas Park is a hell of a story because most white folks didn’t want black folks to have a park, but it was Boss Crump that said, “Look, if they want a park, let’s give them a park,” and that actually endeared the African-Americans in this town to Boss Crump….
That judge (Greer) thought he was doing something good at that (dedication). The black folks who were there … some of them may not have liked it, but they weren’t going to make no big deal about it. They were just happy to have a park and to just move on from his comments. But you’re right. People like George W. Lee and to a great degree Blair T. Hunt, they were fighting up against that kind of mindset. That’s why I believe they wanted to move slowly.
OLS: “I’m a gradualist,” Blair T. Hunt said. …He thought that over time people will come to appreciate the Negro as someone who is worthy of inclusion. Well, if you’re going to sit up there and wait on it … It wasn’t going to happen.
KAA: It’s important to keep those guys in context, right?
OLS: Yeah, it is.
KAA: I wonder, and maybe even worry a little bit about some people from today who might look back at them and draw a conclusion that might be technically correct, but might not be contextually correct. I think it’s important then to tie it back into this whole mindset thing that we’re talking about….(and) there’s also that sort of inferior thinking thing, too, that we have to deal with.
OLS: It is, it is.
KAA: You talk a lot about the importance of the African-American electorate. …Whether you’re talking about then or you’re talking about now, it gets down to the importance of there being sort of a consolidated strong voting populous, right?
KAA: When I look at the book, I guess you could say a little bit during the Crump period there were some (consolidated voting) here, and then during the (1991) People’s Convention (that yielded Dr. Herenton as a consensus African American candidate for mayor). It seems like by and large…
OLS: It’s gone now. At least in my view it is. I tried to make this point with the epilogue, because the book actually ends … with the election of Dr. Herenton. I didn’t want to just leave it there completely. That’s why I wrote the epilogue. I could have made the epilogue even longer, but I didn’t want to come off as preachy.
I said, though, that I believe that after the ‘91 election – I think for the most part – African-Americans in this town said, “Well, we proved our point.” And so ever since then voter participation on local elections have been going down, down, down, down, down.
KAA: As you said in the book, we still have the nagging problems of poverty … violent crimes…Everybody’s affected by racial strife.
OLS: Exactly. We did what we had been trying to do for a hundred years. We got a black man elected mayor. That was not the end of it all. I think a lot of people thought that was going to be the end of it all.
KAA: Some people would argue that to solve a problem you have to make sure you know where the root of it is, right? Maybe it wasn’t a political root.
OLS: Or it’s almost like mowing your grass. You mow the grass, get it where you want it to be, but the grass is going to grow back up … Yes, they accomplished something amazing in 1991 with the election of Dr. Herenton, but that didn’t mean that they needed to stop. I think a lot of people stopped….
KAA: You said in the epilogue that your goal was to help Memphians understand themselves and to learn the lessons of history. Do you think you met it?
OLS: I like to think that people, after they read this book, will certainly know who a lot of people were…. At least I want people to understand who these people were….Beyond the names, I want them to understand just how steadfast and committed the majority of African-Americans were in this town to try to get some political parity or just some inclusion….
I want them to learn that you’ve got to be committed. You’ve got to be forceful and keep at it all the time, if you’re going to get some conclusion and effect change and effect public policy and get things going in the direction that it should be. You can’t be apathetic and just sit back. The majority of African-Americans, especially at the early part of the 20th century, were not apathetic. They were involved….
KAA: What do you want European-Americans to get out of the book? Is it the same?
OLS: It’s pretty much the same. I want them to understand the history, too. I didn’t write this book just for African-Americans. I want the Europeans in this town to understand their history, too, because most of them, they don’t know who Frank Tobey is. They see Frank Tobey Park over there by the fairgrounds. They have no idea who Frank Tobey is. I think Frank Tobey is one of the most significant Europeans in the book, even though he didn’t last very long as a mayor because he died….
I didn’t put it in the book, but I think I imply it. If Frank Tobey had lived, because he had a great relationship with both the Europeans and African-Americans in this town, he would have gotten reelected in 1955. I believe if he had lived, we might not have had a Henry Loeb, because the Crump team didn’t like Henry Loeb at all. Crump even said, “This man doesn’t have the temperament. He can’t get along with anybody, so I don’t want him part of my group,” and they kicked him off the park commission because of that….
I didn’t make it in the book, but I made a claim to my publisher and to another (person) that if Crump had been alive, I don’t think Dr. (Martin Luther) King would have been assassinated in Memphis.
OLS: I’m serious. I don’t think he would have been assassinated. I don’t think that the garbage strike would have lasted that long. Crump would have figured out a way to resolve this thing without it getting there. That’s what I believe. I’m basing that on the history.
Yes, I want Europeans to understand the history as well … have some understanding of what African-Americans had to go through here just to get some political parity…. Don’t get mad because African-Americans voted in a block in 1991 to put Willie Herenton in office. It wasn’t that they didn’t like (incumbent Mayor) Dick Hackett.
They supported him four years before, but now they thought it was time, time to flex some muscle here in ways that we hadn’t done before. I want white folks to understand that, too.
KAA: I enjoyed the book. I enjoyed the conversation.
OLS: Well, thank you.