Robert A. Lanier – Memphis In The Jazz Age
160 Pages Softcover edition
Despite the title, this book does not delve into the musical history of Memphis, one of the top musical cities in our country. What the author does provide is, at times, a fascinating study of the political and social issues that impacted the city at a critical juncture, laying the groundwork for conditions that ultimately sparked the explosion of music that followed several decades later.
A retired judge, Robert A Lanier originally wrote the book in 1978, well before the advent of the internet. That meant he needed to comb through old newspapers, magazines, and microfiche to collect information and statistics that are utilized throughout the book. Also included are forty-plus B&W photos depicting Memphis landmarks in the 1920s as well as locals who figure prominently in the narrative.
During the decade under consideration, Memphis was a growing metropolis. The city’s medical facilities had become the best in the region, while business interests, spurred on by rising cotton prices, reached record levels by mid-decade. The city also battled a high murder rate in addition to a surprising number of deaths due to automobile accidents. The population was rapidly growing as many black Americans moved to the city in search of better opportunities. Another element that affected a number of aspects of life was the federal Prohibition law and it’s enforcement.
The central figure in Lanier’s narrative is Edward Hull “Boss” Crump, Jr, who served as mayor of the city from 1910-1915. After that, Crump set out to build a political machine while doing his best to stay out of the limelight. He proved to be a master at politics, quickly gaining a level of power that allowed him to be the power broker of the city, and a fair amount of Tennessee, for several decades.
As Lanier points out, Crump was not opposed to reaching out to black voters, who faced a variety of roadblocks to casting a ballot, including poll taxes and literacy tests. Crump and his party would work to get the voters registered, then pay the poll tax to remove that barrier. In 1923, Crump backed the mayoral campaign of J. Rowlett Paine in order to defeat a ticket from the resurgent Ku Klux Klan. The Klan managed to only win one judgeship, a defeat that severely diminished their political future.
The book details the various pieces of Crump’s machine, and the methods he used to maintain power. He handpicked candidates for many key city and county positions, then worked his magic to get them elected. Once in office, there was no doubt who they owed allegiance to. Crump also made a point of getting himself elected multiple times as a representative to the Democratic National Convention, a role that extended his influence to the national political sphere.
One chapter delves into the high murder rate in Memphis during the first half of the decade. Another chapter chronicles the career of Clarence Saunders, becoming a millionaire heading the Piggly-Wiggly chain of grocery stores. Another section, entitle “The Silent Minority,” examines the impact of black voters on city elections, which often found less than half of the eligible voters casting a ballot. Because of his ability to get his voters to the polls, Crump steadily increased his influence unabated.
Lanier offers a solid portrayal of a time of major growth in the city, and the people who had profound influence over the political and economic spheres. Their leadership laid that the groundwork for an environment that several decades in the future fostered a host of musical expressions that profoundly changed modern music forever.