Mayor Willie Herenton a dictator? Not even close.
I keep an unofficial indicator of Herenton's popularity by reading the letters to the editor in The Commercial Appeal. One day last week, the mayor got a "perfect" score. There were five letters, all anti-Herenton or anti-Memphis and all written by enlightened correspondents from one or another of our outlying meccas: Collierville, Covington, Olive Branch, Arlington, and Germantown. Not a Memphian in the lot.
Week after week, inspired by the latest "outrage" from City Hall, the general thrust of the letters to the CA is that Herenton is "power-hungry" and "lousy." This for a mayor who has been elected four times, rarely raises his voice, has no control over county government or the city or county school boards and only modest influence in Nashville, and is lucky to get his nominees for city director jobs past the City Council.
The last Memphis dictator died 50 years ago in an oxygen tent at his home on Peabody Avenue in Midtown. His name was Edward Hull Crump, known as either Mr. Crump to his admirers and loyal subjects or Boss Crump to his detractors.
He ran for office, including mayor and congressman, 23 times without a loss. And he took part in scores of other elections, usually dictating the results, until 1948, when his candidates for key offices were defeated.
For half a century he ruled the roost, pulled the strings, made the calls, controlled the black vote and patronage jobs, empowered his friends, and ripped his enemies with verbal invective that might be described as colorful if only it weren't so bullying and cruel.
He tried to "out" a brave Memphis newspaper editor, Edward Meeman, as a homosexual by having one of his minions -- Mayor James J. Pleasants, no less -- read the charge into a city legislative proceeding so it would be exempt from a libel suit.
He called a Senate candidate, Edward Carmack, a "donkey" and a "vulture" who had "no more right to public office than a skunk has to be foreman in a perfume factory."
He called the publisher of the Nashville Tennessean, Silliman Evans, a man "with a foul mind and a wicked heart," a Tennessean editor "a venal and licentious scribbler," and a columnist a man with a "low, filthy, diseased mind."
A Tennessee governor Crump did not like, Gordon Browning, turned Nashville into "a regular Sodom and Gomorrah, a wicked capital, reeking with sordid, vicious infamy."
Estes Kefauver, a United States senator from Tennessee and the Democratic vice-presidential candidate in 1956, was "a pet coon" and "the darling of the Communists."
Even at a time when political bosses were not uncommon in big cities, the rest of the country noticed what was going on in Memphis. The Washington Post wrote of Crump, "His violent tongue and cynical mind held sway over the lives of the people of an important city."
Crump did not tolerate criticism. In his book Memphis Since Crump, David Tucker writes that Crump forced a company to fire an employee who had dared to write a letter to the newspaper objecting to Crump-supported censorship of books and movies. The company knuckled under because it was a big vendor for one of Crump's annual picnics.
In his heavy-handed way, Crump was effective, and the population of Memphis increased from a little over 100,000 to nearly 400,000 during his career. When best-selling author John Gunther visited Memphis to do research for his book Inside U.S.A., published in 1947 (the year after Crump appeared on the cover of Time), he was talked into interviewing Crump by the great man himself. He later wrote, "He is a man of considerable erudition and, when he wants to turn it on, of the most persuasive and engaging charm."
And Gunther was forced to admit that "the great majority of citizens feel no threat to their liberties civil or otherwise; there is no atmosphere of tension or reprisal; people, by and large, get along." Memphis was known as America's Cleanest City and America's Quietest City. There were no motorcycles roaring up and down Riverside Drive in Mr. Crump's day and no movies that didn't meet the approval of a local board of censors. Nightclubs and hotels were lucky to have a dance permit, much less a liquor license.
Willie Herenton may be many things, but a dictator is not one of them.