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Was Memphis's Electoral Structure Adopted or Maintained for a Racially Discriminatory Purpose?

Kousser, J. Morgan (1992) Was Memphis's Electoral Structure Adopted or Maintained for a Racially Discriminatory Purpose? Social Science Working Paper, 807. California Institute of Technology , Pasadena, CA. (Unpublished)

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Two themes run throughout this chronologically organized, extensively documented paper: The first is the pervasiveness of racial issues and racial conflicts in Memphis from 1955 to 1971, the period on which the paper centers. The second is the interconnection between electoral politics and electoral rules. That these are central and tragic themes in southern history is precisely the point: Memphis has never entirely outgrown the worst parts of its southern heritage. The two themes imply one conclusion: The changes in Memphis's electoral rules in this period came about for racially discriminatory reasons. More particularly, the designated post and majority vote requirements were adopted primarily for the purpose of preventing African-Americans from enjoying a fair opportunity to elect candidates of their choice, and at-large seats on the Memphis City Council and School Board were maintained because of the same racially discriminatory motives. Key elements of the redrawing of election district boundaries in 1971were probably influenced by a desire to keep as many council seats as possible in white hands. In the mid- and late-nineteenth century, as in the mid- and late-twentieth, white political and business leaders in Memphis put down political threats from the lower social orders, especially African-Americans, by changing electoral laws. Events of more than a century ago are apposite because they show that similar "solutions" have repeatedly been applied to similar "problems" in Memphis, as elsewhere in the United States. If racially discriminatory purposes moved men of the 1870s and 80s to rewrite electoral laws, as historians have found, then we should at the very least be alert to the possibility of racial motivation behind later electoral laws. Particularly important were moves, first proposed by wealthy white Memphians a few months after the enfranchisement of blacks in Tennessee, to replace the ward-based local government with a five-man commission appointed by the governor. In 1879, after a terrible yellow fever epidemic, similar forces managed to convince the state to replace the local government with a "taxing district," whose officials were eventually to be elected at large. Thereafter, lower status groups held proportionately many fewer elective offices, although they were not excluded altogether until the passage of registration, secret ballot, and poll tax laws in 1889-90. There were no district elections for local government in Memphis from 1879 until 1967. Blacks were allowed to cast ballots, or, often, to have their nominal ballots counted, under the regime of E.H. Crump. After 1927, Crump's control was so complete that he did not need black support to survive, and he effectively ran the leading black politician out of town. Whatever corruption, violence, and degradation of the democratic process existed under Crump was not the fault of blacks. Indeed, African-Americans were much more often the victims than the beneficiaries of Crump's dictatorship, for the boss was a virulent racist who had those blacks whom he could not browbeat physically beaten, and who enthusiastically embraced the Dixiecrat party in 1948. By 1951, a smaller number of blacks were registered to vote in Memphis than there had been in 1914. It was in this environment that those whites who framed the electoral laws of the post- 1954period, and those blacks who opposed them, grew up. From 1909 through 1955, Memphis City Commissioners, except for the mayor, were elected without running for specific posts. The top four in a "free-for-all" race were chosen, and they then decided among themselves what departments each would head. Four members of the Board of Education were chosen by the same process. In 1955, however, black Baptist minister Roy Love finished fifth out of sixteen candidates for the school board, missing election by less than 6,000 votes out of 260,000 cast. Before the next municipal election, two local private acts, backed unanimously by the Shelby County delegation and passed as a matter of courtesy by the state legislature, required that each candidate for the Commission and Board of Education run for a specific post. This prevented black "single-shotting," a widely understood and often discussed tactic by which a politically cohesive minority can elect candidates of its choice, even in at-large elections. Statements made during this period, as well as the sequence of events, make clear the racial motivation of this change in electoral laws. The framers, however, forgot to include a majority vote requirement. When a strong black candidate, Russell Sugarmon, and four serious white candidates announced for an open seat on the Commission in 1959, Commissioner Henry Loeb, then and thereafter the leader of the segregationist forces in Memphis government, asked Gov. Buford Ellington to call a special session of the state legislature purely in order to pass a runoff law for Memphis. After Ellington declined, and an attempt to set up a local white primary was abandoned because of doubts about its legality, the vestiges of retiring Mayor Edmund Orgill's organization, both daily newspapers, Loeb, Commissioner Claude Armour, and several white civic organizations orchestrated a bandwagon for one of the white candidates, Bill Farris, who was elected. Sugarmon's threat to the white monopoly on political offices provided an unmistakable lesson on the necessity of including a runoff in the at-large, designated post scheme, and led to renewed attempts to pass such a law for Memphis. Even though Loeb and a unanimous city commission twice backed a runoff amendment, it failed to pass the legislature. In 1961-62, the Chamber of Commerce spearheaded an attempt to consolidate Memphis and Shelby County into one metropolitan government. Although the initial draft provided for district elections, the Charter Commission eventually proposed an all at-large plan. The one black on the ten-man Charter Commission, Lt. George W. Lee, protested, because he said that no black could win an at-large election in Memphis, and he was joined by virtually every black community leader. Black and AFL-CIO opposition, conjoined with that of the county political organization and some middle-class whites who were afraid of higher taxes, defeated metro government soundly. Frustrated at their inability to pass such regulations as the runoff law, Memphis's civic leaders put a "home rule" amendment on the November, 1963 ballot. Although black leaders opposed it, fearing that it would facilitate the passage of discriminatory provisions, it was too difficult to rally the community against such an abstract, seemingly harmless proposal, and it passed. Dispirited by their defeat in 1959, blacks in 1963 ran no candidates for mayor or commissioners, but only for less visible at-large posts on the board of education and for a vacant city judgeship. A formalized bar association primary, publicized for weeks in the newspapers, conducted with city voting machines, and continuing for several rounds until one white candidate received a majority, kept the judgeship safely in white hands and once more demonstrated for all to see the usefulness of the runoff in preserving a white monopoly on offices. In the mayoral contest, a majority of blacks rejected the endorsee of most black leaders, Bill Farris, and instead voted for a shrewd and contentious "populist" candidate, William B. Ingram. Black candidates for the Board of Education once again proved that, no matter how non-controversial and seemingly well qualified a black could not be elected in an at-large election in Memphis, even if he were endorsed by one of the daily newspapers. In 1965-66, leaders from the Chamber of Commerce and other governmental reformers renewed their effort to replace the commission form of government with a council-manager or council-mayor. Having learned several lessons from the 1962metro loss, they involved black, labor, and Republican leaders from the beginning. The most controversial issues, which badly split the "Program of Progress" ("POP") committee of 25 members, were whether to replace at-large elections wholly or in part with district contests and whether to include a runoff provision in the new charter. Throughout the discussion, the issues were treated primarily as racial controversies, and everyone agreed that it would be much more difficult for blacks to be elected under at-large systems and with runoffs. Black leaders, who preferred all or the vast majority of seats to be elected by districts, almost unanimously opposed the 7 district, 6 at-large final plan, and accepted it only reluctantly, as at least better than the current all at-large system. Had the POP charter included a runoff requirement, they would almost certainly have opposed the whole charter in the referendum, so the POP committee finessed the issue. The City Commission put the runoff question on the August primary ballot and the POP charter on the November general election ballot, partly for fear that black opposition to the former would spill over to the latter, and partly because they thought that whites would be more likely to accept some districts in the POP plan if they knew that the runoff would keep the vast majority of council seats white. The voters accepted (although they did not frame) both the runoff and the POP charter. In the 1967 elections, the new system worked almost exactly as designed. The widespread view that no black could possibly win in an at-large runoff destroyed the first campaign for mayor by a black in Memphis's history and discouraged any serious African-American candidacy for an at-large city council seat. Black candidates won two solidly black council districts, placed third in another that was 38% black, and eked out a victory in a 47% black district against a weak white opponent. Whites won 10of 13 council seats, and their favored candidate in the runoff, Henry Loeb, beat Mayor Ingram by gaining the "white backlash" vote in a very racially polarized election. White incumbents also swept the school board seats, which were all still elected at large. The board, all-white from the 1880s until 1970, despite the growing proportion of black students in the school system, had thrown nearly every possible impediment in the way of integration. By 1969, in the wake of the garbage strike and the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., blacks, in a militant mood, launched a massive school boycott. To split the black leadership and end the boycott, a majority of the school board promised to appoint two blacks as interim "advisers" and to press the legislature to allow at least some school board members to be elected by districts, which everyone agreed was the only way to elect a black to the board. After some jockeying in the 1970legislature, it was agreed that the board would use the same seven districts as the City Council, and that two other members would be elected at large. Winners for every seat would have to be elected by a majority. Everyone assumed, of course, that the at-large members would be white. Again, blacks leaders accepted the compromise as at least better than the status quo. In 1971, there was another, rather half-hearted attempt to consolidate Memphis with Shelby County. Because of continual annexations, 91% of Shelby's people lived in Memphis as it was. Again, blacks opposed metro, this time because they did not want to add white flight suburbanites to a city in which their proportion and influence were increasing. Metro failed again. After that vote, the City Council reapportioned itself, significantly decreasing the black proportion in the district with the highest proportion black that was currently represented by a white councilman. Inter-district transfers put more blacks in an overwhelmingly black district and more whites in an overwhelmingly white district. To sum up in one sentence: Memphis politics has been racial politics, and Memphis's election laws were the most effective weapons in maintaining white political power for so long.

Item Type:Report or Paper (Working Paper)
Group:Social Science Working Papers
Series Name:Social Science Working Paper
Issue or Number:807
Record Number:CaltechAUTHORS:20170828-165240217
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Usage Policy:No commercial reproduction, distribution, display or performance rights in this work are provided.
ID Code:80882
Deposited By: Jacquelyn Bussone
Deposited On:30 Aug 2017 17:58
Last Modified:03 Oct 2019 18:36

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