Academic journal article The University of Memphis Law Review

Promotion without Progress

Academic journal article The University of Memphis Law Review

Promotion without Progress

Article excerpt

Promotion Without Progress Book Review: Otis Stanford, From Boss Crump to King Willie: How Race Changed Memphis Politics (Knoxville: The University of Tennessee Press, 2017).

I. Introduction

Boss Crump, a faithful segregationist, was one of the most powerful politicians in the South from the turn of the 20th century until after World War II. He was thrice-elected mayor of Memphis, elected and served as county trustee, and later served two terms in Congress.1 But, as we learn in Otis Sanford's new book, From Boss Crump to King Willie, Crump wielded most of his power from outside the confines of any one elective office.2 Crump's tenure is one bookend to Sanford's tale.

The other is Willie Herenton. Herenton dominated Memphis politics from the end of the 20th century through the first decade of the 21st century. He was the spitfire from inner-city Memphis who would rise to become the city's first elected African-American mayor and serve in that capacity for nearly two decades.

Sanford's first book is ambitious. The author chronicles more than 100 years of Memphis history, urban history, and American history. It is a book about the growth, change, and civil rights movement in a remarkable American city.

In the main text, Sanford's book chronicles the political leadership of these two former Memphis mayors, Mayor E.H. Crump (first elected in 1910)3 and Mayor Willie Herenton (first elected in 1991).4 Memphis is a large southern metropolis, with a long, complex racial history, situated on the mighty Mississippi River, a gateway for African-Americans migrating from Mississippi to all points North. E.H. Crump and Willie Herenton would both dominate Memphis politics for years, longer than anyone else in the city's history.5 Herenton was the longest-serving mayor in Memphis's history, serving in the top job in City Hall for nearly eighteen years.6 As for Crump, he was not Mayor for long before his ouster by state officials for his refusal to enforce prohibition in Memphis.7 Yet Crump exercised power in Memphis for four decades.8 All observers agree that Crump dominated Memphis politics from behind the throne until his death in 1954, many decades after he was forced from the formal office of the Mayor in 1915.9

Between the lines, Sanford's book raises some uncomfortable questions. By the time Sanford's narrative is fully spun, AfricanAmericans had largely won the struggle for electoral success. Today, for instance, African-Americans occupy more than 10,000 elected offices.10 Yet, the vast majority of African-Americans-the ones not elected-have seen little material change in condition.11 In fact, in a handful of areas, electoral success for some African-American leaders coincided with worsening conditions for large communities of African-Americans.12 Thus, one tough question that goes unanswered is whether the median African-American family saw any improvements from these electoral victories. Even tougher still is this question: if African-Americans have not seen any gains, who deserves blame? Part II of this Review introduces the reader to the leaders of Memphis that animate much of the book-Boss Crump and Willie Herenton. Part III recounts the major themes of the book. Part IV juxtaposes the book's accomplishments against a few of its shortcomings. Part V concludes by analyzing how the history recounted here squares with the current condition of African-American political and social progress.

II. Two Epochs, Two Epic Leaders

The author begins with the birth of Boss Crump in 1874.13 Sanford continues through the election of Willie Herenton, the first black Mayor of Memphis, elected in 1991.14 Although they led in entirely different eras, Herenton and Crump are, the author finds, kindred spirits.

A. Built for Leadership

Both were tall, hard-boiled men. They cut outsized figures and owned every room they entered.15 They both had sharp minds and stinging tongues.16 Herenton was well over six feet tall and slim, signaling his early years training as a boxer, a career he would give up for a career in teaching, politics, and government. …

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