Watkins Overton had served in both the Tennessee House of Representatives and the State Senate before being tapped by Crump to run for mayor of Memphis. Edward Hull Crump, a former mayor himself, had painstakingly built a highly functioning political machine that permeated every layer of society in the Bluff City and the outlying area of Shelby County.
Crump had yet to fully consolidate his political power and thought Overton would be the strongest candidate to oust the incumbent mayor, independent Rowlett Paine. Overton won the election and within a year of taking office, Watkins Overton faced one of the most difficult crises ever to pummel Memphis: the Great Depression.
Overton demonstrated very real administrative ability during the Depression, albeit his task was made easier by the election of Franklin D. Roosevelt as president and the beginning of the New Deal. McKellar was in an ideal position to direct federal money to both Memphis and Tennessee and the senator was always in a generous frame of mind when it came to his home folks.
Proud and able, Overton frequently resented being depicted as a mere puppet for Crump. Still, Overton allowed himself to be used by the Memphis Boss when Crump was at odds with his political partner, Senator K. Crump at once realized it was a fight he could not win, a key factor in his decision to make amends with McKellar. Watkins Overton served throughout the entire Great Depression as the mayor of Memphis and had been in office twelve years when he finally openly broke with Crump.
At the heart of the issue was a disagreement between the two men over the purchase by the city government of the Memphis Power and Light Company. After dickering back and forth between the city and the Memphis Power and Light Company, an agreement was reached. Mayor Watkins Overton was duly praised by just about everyone when E. Crump issued a statement about an innocuous grocery store ordinance that had been unanimously passed by the City Commission earlier. When asked if the grocery ordinance represented a break between them, Crump referred reporters to Mayor Overton. Watkins Overton referred the same reporters back to the Memphis Boss.
Crump clearly commanded the loyalty of a majority of the City Commissioners and Mayor Overton knew it. The crux of the break was E. Crump had been a strong advocate of public power throughout his career and a fervent backer of the Tennessee Valley Authority. Eventually, the City Commission renegotiated the sale of the electric and gas properties owned by the Memphis Light and Power Company to the satisfaction of the Memphis Boss.
The mayor must not have liked what the examination revealed for he announced he would not run for reelection that fall. Crump prepared to board a train to take him to his annual respite in Battle Creek, Michigan, reporters wondered who would be the next mayor of Memphis. I will never raise my hand in the Nazi salute to any dictator. I still believe in Democracy. It was Crump who ran for mayor that year, although it was a bizarre process.
By voting for Crump, Memphians were in reality marking their ballots for Walter Chandler. Naturally, Crump won the election easily and Chandler was voted in as mayor by the City Commissioners after Crump majestically resigned his office. Watkins Overton resumed a private law practice and for some years remained in the political wilderness. It was E.
Crump who extended the olive branch to Watkins Overton when the Memphis Boss wondered if the former mayor might not enjoy being president of the Memphis Board of Education. Overton replied he would enjoy the work and the former mayor tackled the problem of local education with his usual zest. There was good reason to believe E. Crump actually regretted his earlier break with Watkins Overton. The Memphis Boss readily admitted Overton had been an excellent mayor and had administered local government quite well. Nor did Crump ever mention it in the years to come. For one who was commonly depicted as utterly unforgiving, E.
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Mayor Walter Chandler had hoped to cap his political career by winning election to the United States Senate in That presumed seventy-seven year old K. McKellar could be beaten or convinced to retire.
Watkins Overton, ‘Mr. Crump’s Mayor’
Senator McKellar showed no indication of slowing down or retiring. Chandler evidently hoped E. Crump would either convince McKellar to quit or withdraw the support of the Shelby County machine. As time has passed and Memphians by now barely remember his name, most have forgotten that he was the only twentieth-century Memphis mayor forced from office by the courts because of his failure to enforce state laws. In the end, however, the tall then-redhead triumphed.
The big question is how. How did Crump become one of the most powerful political figures in America?
How was he able to make his own name synonymous with the political fortunes of Memphis and Tennessee? How was this country boy from Mississippi able to build for himself a Southern political empire? It all began with business. The young man had talent, no doubt about it. And not just for making money. Having risen so fast in business, Crump began to dabble in politics.
This was the Progressive Era, when reformers across the country were attacking corruption in city politics and advocating more orderly, businesslike approaches to urban government. Crump cast his lot with the reformers, and in he was elected to the Board of Public Works as part of a clean sweep by the Progressives. At first the new board member kept a decidedly low profile. But appearances were deceiving.
- No illusions.
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Even at this early stage, he had begun laying the foundations for what followed. His first political aide was longtime friend Frank Rice, who would later become his de facto chief of staff. Rice was ideally suited for the rough-and-tumble world of ward politics; an organizational wizard, he knew exactly when to shake hands and when to twist arms. When there was dirty work to be done, Crump always knew he could count upon Rice to do it. Meanwhile, the rising politico was building a public image that would serve him well in the future.
He also came out strongly in support of another important Progressive cause of the times: public ownership of municipal utilities. Like most Progressives of the period, Crump advocated a shift to the commission form of government, whereby citizens elected individual department heads as well as the mayor. It was felt that this would make for less corruption and more efficient government. Since only the state legislature could change the city charter, the battle for commission government had to be fought in Nashville, not Memphis.
The legislature approved the proposal in early , thanks largely to the lobbying efforts of Crump and his colleagues. His boys knocked on doors, they made speeches, and they shook hands. Candidate Crump also made wide use of newspaper advertisements, the first time this had ever been done on a large scale in a Memphis election. A poor speaker, he reputedly never made a public speech during his entire political career, depending upon aides to handle these particular duties.
But Crump did not remain aloof; in fact, personal contact with the voter was perhaps the key ingredient in all Crump campaigns. His handshake is so hearty that no man can doubt his sincerity. He can cover more territory and be in more places at the same time than any man that ever entered the political game. But the Williams organization also had its share of back-slappers and ward heelers. When the ballots were finally cast and counted, Crump emerged victorious — but only by the slender margin of 79 votes.
There was some truth in the charges. Memphis was one of the few places in the South where blacks had not been disenfranchised. It was an old Memphis tradition for white politicians to capitalize upon the poverty and ignorance of black electors. Poll taxes were paid for them, and every candidate tried to provide bread and circuses, not to mention hard cash. Beyond that, dead men voted with astonishing regularity.
As a product of its times, the Crump Organization employed many of these tactics, in white as well as black neighborhoods. But when Williams demanded a recount, perusal of the ballots revealed a much higher incidence of fraud on the side of the Old Guard. While Crump was anything but a socialist, he did make significant improvements upon the structure of urban government, which won him wide popular support. Fire and police services were streamlined, parks were built, and health facilities were improved, all while the tax rate was being reduced. Memphis had no civil service as such, and virtually every employee from department superintendent to street repair worker served at the whim of the mayor and his staff.
Those who were merely lukewarm in their support were often asked to step aside, their places taken by organization loyalists. It was during this period that Crump and Frank Rice put together their famous card file on voters, one that would serve the organization so well over the next few decades. Eventually this contained the name and voting history of virtually every voter in Shelby County.
A New York City Tammany Hall stalwart who visited Memphis several years later rated the Crump system as the most comprehensive and efficient he had ever seen. It certainly produced results. On election days, the Crump organization kept a close record of how many of its supporters had actually cast ballots. As the day progressed, lists were drawn up of those persons who had backed Crump in the past and had not yet appeared at the polls. At that point, cars were sent from house to house, where earnest young loyalists cajoled and pleaded with residents to do their democratic duty.
No doubt there was always a certain amount of fraud and even intimidation involved in Memphis elections during the Crump era. But by and large such clumsy tactics were unnecessary. At a very early stage, the emerging Boss wisely discerned that he could make voter turnout a powerful political tool. He was able to mobilize many apathetic citizens on his behalf. His opponents, not as well organized, rarely mustered equal support.
But storm clouds loomed on the horizon. This was the Prohibition Era, but in Memphis, as in most large cities, anti-liquor laws were largely ignored. Mayor Crump made little attempt to enforce them, his theory being that a majority of Memphians opposed prohibition in the first place.
The state courts disagreed. An ouster petition was filed against Crump in accordance with a state law that called for the removal from office of local officials who did not enforce the ban on alcohol. The state supreme court upheld the ouster petition, and Mayor Crump resigned under pressure years ago, in February of But his ouster from City Hall also marked a dramatic shift in his political emphasis. From this point onward, the Crump organization became increasingly involved in state politics, as Crump realized just how much his control of Memphis depended upon his influence in Nashville.
Although its master was no longer mayor, the Crump Machine remained largely intact after the ouster. It retained its almost complete domination over Shelby County politics Crump himself was elected to the position of County Trustee in , and had the Boss been willing to force the issue, there seems to be little doubt that, from the outset, he could have installed a succession of puppet mayors in City Hall.
But Crump chose instead to allow his opponents to fill the municipal stage, albeit temporarily. For the moment, he had bigger fish to fry — in Nashville. In Tennessee elections during this period, three out of every four adults failed to vote. Between and , voter participation in state elections averaged a paltry 24 percent.
Voter apathy certainly played a role in a state that was still over 65 percent rural in Walking two or three miles to vote in a state where automobiles were not plentiful was also was a challenge for many. But by far the biggest factor in low voter turnout during this era was the poll tax. An institution in most Southern states during this period, the poll tax was employed specifically to disenfranchise African Americans. Voter participation nationally averaged around 64 percent; in the states of the old Confederacy, voter turnout averaged just 22 percent.
Indeed, in pre-Civil Rights era, the poll tax was the major weapon used by political leaders in the South to suppress the black vote, to insure that state legislatures remained lily-white. In Tennessee, however, the poll tax produced somewhat different results. Not that the state Senate and House were ever anything but percent white. A majority of black Tennesseans, however, were concentrated in Memphis, one of the few places in the South where African Americans voted — or were voted — regularly, with the encouragement and direction of Crump. So did thousands of white Memphians.
In fact, the efficiency of the Memphis Organization put from 50, to 75, votes into the pocket of Crump in every state election during these two decades.
Since voter turnout was so low in most other parts of Tennessee, Crump could exert a much stronger influence upon state politics than might otherwise have been the case. An organization that could dominate state politics, of course, could not be built overnight. This, in fact, required the better part of a decade, as the Memphis boss made alliances with rural courthouse bigwigs and all sorts of minor politicos across the state, and jostled for power with the then-dominant forces of Nashville newspaper magnate Luke Lea.
But Crump and his boys were playing their cards wisely. Before long they would cash in their chips. While Crump did not directly control Memphis politics in the decade after his ouster, his influence remained formidable. Witness what happened in the mayoral election, when his old rival Joe Williams squared off against newcomer Rowlett Paine.
Documentary explores 'Boss' Crump's stranglehold on Memphis politics
He could justly claim that the victory was his own, but he doubtless felt as if a brontosaurus was breathing heavily down the back of his neck. Even out of office, Crump continued to wield large blocs of electoral support. His secret? Obviously, he attracted many voters simply on the basis of his own record as a no-nonsense politician.