Newcomers to the area might find themselves riding along the Bill Morris Parkway and wondering, “Who’s he?” Old-timers will likely know him well. But even among those who are aware of the former Shelby County Sheriff and Shelby County Mayor, there are few who know the whole story.
Now, at age 86, he’s published an autobiography that tells of a remarkable life that put him in the middle of history more than once. He and his wife, Ann, were friends with Elvis Presley for one thing (she knew the budding singer at Humes High School). And in 1968, Sheriff Morris took James Earl Ray into custody for the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
Although the title is somewhat immodest — Bill Morris: A Legendary Life
— it remains true that he did much to shape lives and institutions in Shelby County. He grew up in stark poverty in Mississippi with, he says, a severe inferiority complex, did a stint in the Army, and studied journalism at then-Memphis State University.
But he was a natural salesman and would go on to join the Jaycees, whose 800 members had some political clout. They backed him in a run for sheriff (“I had to learn how to spell sheriff,” he cracks), and he won in 1964, one of the youngest in Tennessee history and one who hadn’t been in law enforcement.
But he felt it was a virtue not to have baggage. That would be tested in short order. A month in, he gave an assignment to one of his officers who said, “I need to think about that. I need to go talk to Mr. Paul.” That was Paul Barret, an influential businessman and county leader. Morris replied, "That's fine. Why don't you go ahead and do that today? Because you don't have a job here anymore. Maybe he can get you another one somewhere else."
In 1964, African American officers couldn’t arrest white suspects, nor could they even ride with white officers. Women in the department weren’t paid the same amount of salary for the same jobs men held. Morris got those policies changed and would go on to initiate many community projects. “We became a community-based cooperative,” he says, “on behalf of all the citizens — black and white — in Shelby County.”
From 1978 to 1994, Morris served four terms as Shelby County Mayor, traveling to sell Memphis as a tourism destination and a business opportunity. He tried a run for governor in 1994, losing in the Democratic primary to Phil Bredesen.
When Ann was 61, she had a massive stroke and Morris devoted his life the next 19 years to her care until she died in 2016.
The book, written with Darrell B. Uselton, is available on Amazon. The authors will hold a book signing at Novel bookstore on Thursday, March 28th from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m. For more info: billmorrisbook.com