Between the two giant pillars of Edward Hull Crump, the white Mississippian who established an enduring political dominion over Memphis in the early 20th century, and Willie Herenton, the five-times-elected black mayor whose seeming invincibility concluded that century, lies a tumultuous story worth telling.
And Otis Sanford, the former managing editor of The Commercial Appeal and now holder of the Hardin Chair of Excellence in Economic/Managerial Journalism at the University of Memphis, tells it with accuracy and grace in From Boss Crump to King Willie: How Race Changed Memphis Politics, hot off the University of Tennessee Press.
In a way unusual for a work of history, this book reads like a novel — its facts accounted for both in concise summaries of events and circumstances and in key moments that are rendered as scenes.
Among the latter is an account of how a chance encounter in 1991 between then Congressman Harold Ford and the Rev. Ralph White at a Union Avenue video store resulted in White's church, Bloomfield Baptist Church, becoming the venue for Ford's long-postponed "summit meeting" to determine the identity of a consensus black candidate for mayor.
Sanford follows up that revelation with choice reportage of the upstairs meeting at the church involving Ford, Herenton, and disappointed contender Otis Higgs while an auditorium of Herenton supporters, whose energetic wall-to-wall presence had basically called the congressman's hand, waited impatiently in the church auditorium to hear Ford's inevitable anointment of Herenton as the people's choice.
Sanford's book is a textbook case of how to handle the black-and-white realities of Memphis' political evolution with appropriate shadings of gray. His narrative concludes before the lengthy period, after Herenton's ascension to power, of the often grim public and private struggles for preeminence between the African-American mayor and the African-American congressman stemming from the implicit rivalry of these two monumental egos.
But that feud, after all, belongs to a different historical era, post-1991, which has been intermittently post-racial. Consider the overwhelming white support for A C Wharton, an African American, first as Shelby County mayor and, in 2009, as Herenton's immediate successor as Memphis mayor, or Steve Cohen's serial victories over black opponents in a 9th Congressional District that is at least two-thirds African American in population, and the comfortable win of Jim Strickland, another white, in 2015 over Wharton in a city whose increasingly black complexion is unmistakable.
Consider the consistent ability of white Republican candidates to prevail over black Democrats in all the Shelby County elections that have taken place in the 21st century, a period when the county at large, like the city, has had a majority-black electorate.
From the standpoint of Sanford's narrative, such anomalies might be regarded as signals of a modus vivendi between the two dominant races, of a political balance of sorts that required both the deconstruction of white supremacy and the liberation and triumph of an erstwhile black underclass. A viable new order may somehow have been achieved, though undeniable inequalities of various sorts persist and just plain differences endure.
Sanford's story is one of transformation — from an urban landscape under the domination of Crump, a de facto plantation boss whose quasi-benevolent attitude toward a black population enabled both his own immediate power and the stirrings of that population's own ultimate abilities and ambitions.
The giant-sized convulsions that belong to the intermediate stages of this saga — the strikes and assassinations and political showdowns — are not overlooked. They are covered in satisfying detail, as are the more nuanced encounters between winners and losers in the chess games of our political history.
Sanford, whose astonishing objectivity as reporter and analyst continues to be featured in his weekly columns in the Sunday CA, knows not heroes and villains. His characters, both black and white, are presented with all the roundness and complex motivations they owned as real live people.