- From Boss Crump to King Willie: How Race Changed Memphis Politics By Otis Sanford
Otis Sanford provides a sweeping top-down overview of the intersection of race and politics in Memphis, Tennessee, in From Boss Crump to King Willie: How Race Changed Memphis Politics. It focuses on the years between 1902, when Edward Hull Crump, the longtime white political machine boss of Memphis, first became involved in the city's politics, and 1991, when Willie W. Herenton was elected as Memphis's first black mayor. Sanford's work provides a synthesis that fills a gap in the historiography on race and politics in Memphis after the sanitation strike and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s assassination in 1968. In writing a book that is both memoir and academic history, Sanford, a former managing editor for the Memphis Commercial Appeal and a professor of journalism at the University of Memphis, provides his own invaluable perspectives and draws on secondary sources, newspapers and periodicals, personal interviews, court cases, government documents, and personal papers. [End Page 199]
Although valuable as a top-down synthesis, this book is relatively lightly researched and would have benefited from drawing on more scholarship. For instance, Sanford lists only fifteen books in his bibliography, which misses some key books on race and politics in Memphis, namely, all of Michael K. Honey's books, Marcus D. Pohlmann and Michael P. Kirby's Racial Politics at the Crossroads: Memphis Elects Dr. W. W. Herenton (Knoxville, 1996), and Sherry L. Hoppe and Bruce W. Speck's Maxine Smith's Unwilling Pupils: Lessons Learned in Memphis's Civil Rights Classroom (Knoxville, 2007). Although this reviewer recognizes that From Boss Crump to King Willie is partly a memoir, she found numerous places where there should have been more documentation, to the point of surprise that the University of Tennessee Press sanctioned the publication. It is a disservice to scholars interested in exploring Sanford's sources that the book neglects to provide so many of them.
It is thus unsurprising that the book contains some unsubstantiated claims and errors. For instance, Sanford incorrectly states that Eliehue Stanback ran for tax assessor on the Volunteer Ticket in 1959 (he ran as an independent). More serious, Sanford writes that the 1968 sanitation strike was the "first time in modern Memphis history" where "a demand for racial equality didn't spring from the black upper crust, the black clergy or the NAACP" (p. 110). This statement is not true. Michael K. Honey and Laurie B. Green, for example, have shown how black workers engaged in campaigns for racial justice in the labor movement. Sanford also leaves out black voter registration and other grassroots efforts of black women and does not sufficiently discuss the powerful Memphis NAACP. Also, he does not give an in-depth analysis of the influential black Shelby County Democratic Club, which mobilized black voters to support candidates who promised to meet its demands in local elections during the 1960s. Serious students of Memphis race and politics should thus consult this book in conjunction with other scholarship on the subject, including Wayne G. Dowdy's books and the reviewer's own River of Hope: Black Politics and the Memphis Freedom Movement, 1865–1954 (Lexington, Ky., 2014).
One other contribution that From Boss Crump to King Willie makes is its analysis of the relationship between Crump and the press; however, Sanford narrows his analysis to the white press and does not discuss many of Memphis's black newspapers. As a former journalist, however, he fittingly focuses on the media, a subject that scholars, at times, underemphasize.
Sanford may also have examined Herenton's long tenure as mayor in greater detail, but that will be up to future scholars to explore.