Otis San­ford traces twists, turns in Mem­phis pol­i­tics

The Commercial Appeal - - Books - ARAM GOUDSOUZIAN


Ev­ery Sun­day, read­ers of this news­pa­per learn from Otis San­ford, who ex­plains the lo­cal and na­tional po­lit­i­cal scenes in a pop­u­lar col­umn. Now they can learn even more. San­ford’s first book, “From Boss Crump to King Wil­lie: How Race Changed Mem­phis Pol­i­tics” (Univer­sity Press of Ten­nessee), ex­plains the trans­for­ma­tions in Mem­phis pol­i­tics over the course of the twen­ti­eth cen­tury.

San­ford is a former man­ag­ing ed­i­tor of The Com­mer­cial Ap­peal who now oc­cu­pies the Hardin Chair of Ex­cel­lence in Eco­nomic and Man­age­rial Jour­nal­ism at the Univer­sity of Mem­phis. The long­time re­porter also pro­vides reg­u­lar tele­vi­sion com­men­tary on Mem­phis pol­i­tics. He an­swered ques­tions via email for Chap­ter 16:

Q: In your day job, you are con­sis­tently an­a­lyz­ing the cur­rent po­lit­i­cal scene. What com­pelled you to take a his­tor­i­cal ap­proach for your first book?

A: I have al­ways been fas­ci­nated by po­lit­i­cal his­tory. And I have long wanted to con­nect the dots be­tween E. H. Crump and Dr. Wil­lie Her­en­ton, the two most sig­nif­i­cant po­lit­i­cal fig­ures in Mem­phis his­tory. I was con­vinced that there was a great story to be told by link­ing those two. I was also con­vinced that most Mem­phi­ans did not know the his­tory be­hind some of the key peo­ple who were lead­ers in this city, and I wanted to tell that story.

Q: E.H. Crump con­trolled Mem­phis pol­i­tics for a few gen­er­a­tions, but it is dif­fi­cult to as­sess his over­all im­pact. Was he a force for good? How should we un­der­stand his le­gacy?

A: In many ways, he was in­deed a force for good. He brought or­der and or­ga­ni­za­tion to a rather dys­func­tional city gov­ern­ment, he in­sisted on main­tain­ing a clean city, he im­proved the po­lice and fire de­part­ments, and — per­haps more im­por­tant — he lis­tened to the con­cerns of African-Amer­i­cans when no one else in city lead­er­ship even both­ered. He was also a gen­er­ous guy who loved to throw par­ties for Mem­phi­ans at his ex­pense. On the other hand, he was vin­dic­tive, self-cen­tered, and stub­born. If you crossed him, he came af­ter you ver­bally and some­times even phys­i­cally. But there is no doubt that un­der Crump, Mem­phis grew to be­come a ma­jor metropoli­tan city with fine ameni­ties.

Q: It is in­ter­est­ing to note the strug­gles for in­flu­ence fol­low­ing Crump’s death in 1954. Who were the re­form politi­cians try­ing to re­fash­ion Mem­phis gov­ern­ment? To what ex­tent were they suc­cess­ful?

A: The ma­jor re­form­ers dur­ing the lat­ter part of Crump’s dom­i­nance were civic leader Ed­mund Orgill, at­tor­ney Lu­cius Burch, and news­pa­per ed­i­tor Ed Mee­man. They fought the Crump ma­chine for years while push­ing for a restruc­ture of city gov­ern­ment con­sist­ing of a coun­cil-man­ager form of gov­ern­ment. They were un­suc­cess­ful dur­ing Crump’s life­time. But af­ter his death, Orgill be­came mayor at a time when the civil-rights move­ment was poised to take off in Mem­phis. He was seen as pro­gres­sive, but he was not will­ing to ad­vo­cate for school de­seg­re­ga­tion, and he only served one may­oral term, from 1955 to 1959.

It was not un­til the mid-1960s that true gov­ern­ment re­form oc­curred with the es­tab­lish­ment of a may­or­coun­cil form of gov­ern­ment. It al­lowed AfricanAmer­i­cans, for the first time, to win elec­tion to district coun­cil seats. Lu­cius Burch can be cred­ited with try­ing to fos­ter good race re­la­tions in Mem­phis in the late 1950s and early 60s, but the civil-rights move­ment was gain­ing steam faster than most of white Mem­phis could ac­cept.

Q: Per­haps un­sur­pris­ingly for a Com­mer­cial Ap­peal colum­nist, your book often re­flects upon the in­flu­ence of the press. How did Mem­phis news­pa­pers shape the city’s most im­por­tant po­lit­i­cal de­bates, such as those over the 1968 San­i­ta­tion Strike?

A: Mem­phis news­pa­pers have al­ways been pow­er­ful en­ti­ties with an abil­ity to sway pub­lic opin­ion and force po­lit­i­cal lead­ers to act a cer­tain way. Dur­ing the san­i­ta­tion strike in 1968, both The Com­mer­cial Ap­peal and Mem­phis Press-Scim­i­tar backed Mayor Henry Loeb, who re­fused to give in to any de­mand from the strik­ers. Both news­pa­pers re­fused to rec­og­nize the strike as a civil-rights is­sue.

The Com­mer­cial Ap­peal, in par­tic­u­lar, strongly crit­i­cized Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s in­volve­ment. The crit­i­cism was ex­tremely harsh af­ter an ini­tial march ended with vi­o­lence. The Com­mer­cial Ap­peal ed­i­to­ri­als ques­tioned Dr. King’s abil­ity to lead a peace­ful march in Mem­phis. Dr. King was de­ter­mined to prove the pa­per wrong. He re­turned to lead a sec­ond march, but was as­sas­si­nated be­fore it could take place.

Q: Harold Ford Sr. plays a huge role in the his­tory of Mem­phis pol­i­tics. In what ways did he fos­ter black progress?

A: Harold Ford made his­tory in 1974 when he was elected to Congress, rep­re­sent­ing Mem­phis. It was a stun­ning vic­tory over an en­trenched Repub­li­can in­cum­bent. The African-Amer­i­can com­mu­nity viewed Ford’s win as validation and a tes­ta­ment to a long strug­gle for po­lit­i­cal in­clu­sion, and Ford in­stantly be­came the most rec­og­niz­able politi­cian in Mem­phis. He also was great at con­stituent ser­vices, and that more than any­thing en­deared him to the black com­mu­nity. For years, he ran a well-oiled politi­cian ma­chine, and white politi­cians clam­ored to get their names on the Ford bal­lot ev­ery elec­tion cy­cle. The Ford dy­nasty lasted more than thirty years. But it is no longer ef­fec­tive.

Q: It is com­mon to hear that the 1991 elec­tion of Wil­lie Her­en­ton to mayor con­trib­uted to the city’s racial po­lar­iza­tion, but your book tracks how white politi­cians cir­cum­vented black po­lit­i­cal power in the 1970s and 1980s. In other words, re­gard­ing Her­en­ton’s elec­tion, did the white peo­ple of Mem­phis reap what they sowed?

A: The main fac­tor that led to Dr. Her­en­ton’s elec­tion was white flight from the city that started with the as­sas­si­na­tion of Dr. King in 1968, con­tin­ued with the an­nex­a­tion of White­haven in 1969, and re­ally took off af­ter the forced de­seg­re­ga­tion of city schools through bus­ing in the early 1970s. As the white city pop­u­la­tion de­creased and the black pop­u­la­tion in­creased, it was in­evitable that the quest by African-Amer­i­cans to take the mayor’s of­fice would be­come a re­al­ity.

Aram Goudsouzian chairs the his­tory de­part­ment at the Univer­sity of Mem­phis. His most re­cent book is “Down to the Cross­roads: Civil Rights, Black Power, and the Mered­ith March Against Fear.”

For more lo­cal book cov­er­age, visit Chapter16.org, an on­line pub­li­ca­tion of Hu­man­i­ties Ten­nessee.

news­pa­pers have al­ways been pow­er­ful en­ti­ties with an abil­ity to sway pub­lic opin­ion.

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