The Compass of Power, Episode XII
Memphis is in the news this week because it was the scene of a depressingly familiar killing of a Black man by police officers. In a twist, the cast of this case is almost entirely Black. Of six officers implicated so far – a seventh seems to be in the wings – five were Black. This upends the narrative that has been running, in which White officers are accused of brutality with Black suspects.
But the Memphis story leaves in place the brutality.
Here at the Compass of Power we say you need to think about place, not just race.
The place today is Memphis.
Come with me as we explore the violent, death-strewn and musically brilliant history of a city on a hill.
That history, I would argue, reveals a culture in which the elite ruling class, faced with difficulties, frequently threw up its hands and left town. The underclass, especially those in civil service – people like police officers, fire fighters and health workers – were sometimes left to fend for themselves. When the bosses were in town, they had to follow political orders.
That dynamic has worked to Memphis’ advantage sometimes, but just as often wrecked huge amounts of suffering on the citizenry, especially the poor.
As always, I am expressing my own personal opinions here. I like to make note of that because politics make a lot of people twitchy. I am not proclaiming the one truth. I am not speaking on behalf of some larger group. If what you hear makes you twitchy, just remember you disagree with Adam Wilson, not the whole world.
The individuals wrapped up in this story are humans. There is a grieving family for the victim, and for those implicated in the crime, they face the end of their lives as they had lived before that fateful date.
This story is about politics, too. Because the nation has been debating where we should draw the line in allowing police to use force as a matter of policy. But to be clear, we are talking today about the incident in Memphis, not any of the other police use-of-force incidents that have made headlines.
To start, here are the basics of the Memphis case.
By all accounts Tyre Nichols, died three days after his arrest, due to the injuries sustained in a beat down by law enforcement. Five officers have been fired and charged with second-degree murder in the January 7 incident.
There were emergency medics on hand from the Memphis Fire Department, but footage of the incident appears to show that they did not attend Nichols with any sort of urgency. Three were fired this week for failing to meet department protocols.
To date, this case has not become a partisan political issue, no prominent Democrats or Republicans I have heard of actually think the first-responders involved did the right thing.
Vice President Kamala Harris is attending Nichols’ funeral.
And of the incident, former President Donald Trump said, “I thought it was terrible. He was in such trouble. He was just being pummeled. Now that should never have happened.”
How did it happen, then?
And it happened in 2023 – three years after the death of George Floyd sparked outrage and led to new police accountability laws.
I am pretty sure that every police officer in America knows that excessive force is under the microscope at the moment. They know, especially, that people are alert to unnecessary violence against Black men under arrest.
Yet, here we have eight first responders fired – and two others suspended – for just that.
You can never take the present and assume that it just appeared there. It is not random. So let us go back over the 200 year history of the city of Memphis, Tennessee.
Why Memphis is Memphis
This whole story starts with good ground.
The location of Memphis reminds me a bit of San Diego. Take one look at San Diego and you understand why the United States drew the border with Mexico just south of the city. We wanted what is an amazing natural harbor, easily defensible, on the Pacific.
The Mississippi River has been an American superhighway for centuries. The cities and towns along its banks and its tributaries can easily ship goods to the ocean, and from the ocean to other parts of the United States and back to the mother countries in Europe.
France, Spain and England all vied for control of the mother of waters at one point or another.
A lot of the Mississippi runs through some pretty flat territory. But where Memphis is now located, like San Diego, is a clearly defensible position along a critical waterway. It’s a bluff on a bend, above the river. Whoever controls that high ground controls the river for a good ways up and down stream.
The British claimed that their colonies stretched from the Atlantic Ocean to the Pacific. After the Revolutionary War, the newly-minted Americans mostly limited their political claims to the east Bank of the Mississippi – including what is now Memphis.
Those Anglo-American claims came with the caveat that this area along the Mississippi was still under the practical control of the Chickasaw Tribe.
The Spanish were actually the first to set up a Fort on Memphis bluff way back in 1795, after negotiating with the Chickasaws. But new international treaties were signed that same year, and Spain had to give up its claim. They literally dismantled the Fort picked it up and moved it across the river in South.
Then you have the Louisiana Purchase in 1803, and the French claims in the area evaporate.
Three rival cultural groups are left around this bluff above the Mississippi. The tribal nations. The planters from the Deep South. And the Scotch-Irish from the Appalachian Mountains.
None other than the archetypal warrior king, the Appalachian leader, conquering General and future American president Andrew Jackson himself set up Memphis.
Although Jackson, originator of the Trail of Tears, fails modern standards for relationships with American Indian tribes, the truth is he did a lot of negotiations with the tribes. He did not just attack them at every turn.
Specifically, it was General Jackson who negotiated the purchase of the land between the Tennessee and Mississippi rivers from the Chickasaws in an 1819 treaty – 23 years after Tennessee was admitted to the union as a state.
Within months, Jackson, along with planter John Overton and Revolutionary War General James Winchester, established a city in this newly-purchased land on the all-important bluff.
They named it “Memphis” after the river-port capital of Ancient Egypt, which should give you some idea of how they were thinking about this new area. It was part of a future Empire.
The fact that it’s in Tennessee is merely an extension of the border between Georgia and North Carolina on the other side of the Appalachian Mountains. It’s the 35th parallel – representing the convenience of distant map-makers, not on-the-ground reality.
More practically, Memphis is across the river from the future state of Arkansas because the Mississippi provided a natural boundary for the new territory acquired through the 1803 Louisiana purchase.
Because it was designed around parallels and international treaties, Tennessee was not drawn around a single regional culture. It is a political unit with two cultural capitals.
One is Nashville. Nashville is the capital of the culture found in the eastern part of the state, where we have the Appalachian Mountains, and the Appalachian culture. Really all the names for this culture a bit confusing. Because they are not limited to the Appalachian mountains. They are also known as the Scotch Irish. But it’s no longer an ethnicity.
Whatever you call these folks, they actually tried to found their own state called Franklin shortly after the American Revolution. They petitioned for admission as a state with their capital in what is today Johnson City, Tennessee, in the far eastern part of the state.
Their bid to join the new American union was blocked by planters from the Deep South culture. These are the folks who run large plantations, are infamous for the number of people they enslaved and the whiteness of their suits. The planters came up from Mississippi to control western Tennessee, and Memphis is the capital of that region.
Here’s the challenge for the planters when it comes to Memphis. They were a rural elite. That may be hard for us to get our heads around today, when we expect elite people to live in big cities and vacation on the mountains they buy.
But the planters were the reverse of that. More like Donald Trump and Mar-a-Lago. Or more accurately, they were like the shows you see on BBC like Downton Abbey or Pride and Prejudice. The old English aristocrats lived on large estates in the country and their wealth was represented in owning land.
That’s the planters, who very consciously modeled themselves after English gentry. They saw cities as places to go and have fun and have services rendered to them like banking, shipping or mercantile warehousing for their products.
The planters lived on their plantations. They were not much for living in cities or for running cities. To this day, Southern cities are smaller than their northern counterparts, and they elect members of the minority party. (Sidenote: the South is urbanizing and that is huge the future of American politics and culture.)
But going back to 1819, for the next 200 years, Memphis is going to grapple with a contradiction. It was established as a new trading hub on the Mississippi by people who preferred not to live there. Time and again over the next two centuries the elites would run from Memphis when things got tough, leaving the underclass to run things.
That has resulted in a culture where the employees of Memphis, the civil servants of Memphis, are often left holding the bag. And they have run amok on occasion.
Memphis was a commercial success from the beginning. But who was doing the work? African Americans. So this city of the new Empire of the South has always had a proportionately large Black population. At first, they were both folks who were held as slaves and worked in the area on plantations, as well as free people with jobs or businesses in town.
Within 40 years, things had changed dramatically. The town went from idea to 40,000 people. The potato famine took hold in Ireland. We may think of the Irish as landing in the big northern cities like Chicago, Boston and New York, but they landed in the South as well.
In fact, the Irish often ended up killing one another in the Civil War, as those who would up in the Confederacy joined/were drafted into one army, and those that landed in the North joined/were drafted into the other.
And in the South, as in the North, the Irish gravitated toward government jobs, especially in law enforcement, fire-fighting brigades and the military.
In Memphis, the portion of the population that was Irish went from one in ten to nearly one in four residents by the eve of the Civil War, when about 22,000 people lived there. At the same time, it was home to 3,000 Black people – say a little over one in 10 people.
Civil War Memphis: Scum and Villainy
Tennessee seceded and joined the Confederacy in 1861, but it was never wholly under confederate control. As Tennessee Appalachians battled each other in raids and skirmishes in the east, Memphis in the planter portion of the West was taken in the great battle of Memphis the next year, 1862.
Being a Southern city under Northern control during the Civil War caused at least two major things to happen.
First, trade kept right on humming. That is the function of Memphis. The South grew cotton, but you can’t eat cotton and they needed cash for every possible war supply. The North needed cotton, cause you can’t wear corn, but they had a lot of cash.
The North thought it would be good to draw the planters back into the fold by allowing them to sell their cotton – provided they swore an oath of allegiance to the North.
And they would allow traders in the North to buy that cotton, provided they also had a permit.
The result was that by within a year of being taken by the North, Memphis was a veritable hive of illegal and quasi-legal trade. Confederates took the oath and were lying, or just bribed Union officers and soldiers to look the other way or sell the permits. Payment was in gold, so whatever the South needed could be purchased through these cotton sales.
Northern traders were eager for this business, too, as cotton was hard to come by and easy to sell.
A visitor to the city in 1863 wrote,
“Every colonel, captain, or quartermaster is in secret partnership with some operator in cotton; every soldier dreams of adding a bale of cotton to his monthly pay.”
Another future president, Union General Ulysses S. Grant, attempted to crack down on this trade. But you can’t stop progress, and at least two of his restrictions were rolled back by higher-ups.
“I will venture that no honest man has made money in West Tennessee in the last year, whilst many fortunes have been made there during that time.”Ulyssess S. Grant
The second major thing to happen during the war was related to this overall fuzziness of legality. The Union allowed the city government to keep operating – BUT, no Confederate officers allowed.
So, having ensconced themselves in local government already, some Irish rose higher in the ranks. By the end of the war, something like 90 percent of the city police force was Irish.
There was considerable confusion about who was in charge of that police force, or any other part of government in Memphis. Was it the US army? The civilian government?
Or was it the Freedman’s Bureau?
The Bureau was created to help Black people transition in the post-slavery South. And, since it was a Southern City under Northern control, Memphis was comparatively safe for people escaping slavery.
From the start of the war to the finish, the Black population went from 3,000 to more than 20,000, and the population of Memphis went from 22,600 to about 40,000.
And while many of the newcomers were freed slaves, there were also many Black veterans of the Union Army. And they often acted as advocates for poor Black people, challenging both police and the Bureau on occasion.
Why would they challenge the Bureau established to help Black people? Because it sometimes seemed to be helping the people out of town – the planters.
In part, the local elite were kept out of power by the Union Army. But they were also literally out of town, on their plantations. They certainly wanted to push Black people out of town, too, back into the fields — as poor laborers.
It’s an archetypal port city. Like Tortuga and the pirates; Casablanca in the film, Mos Eisely in Star Wars.
So, to recap, we have a corrupt economic system, a planter class trying to re-establish the old order, the US Army still in town, an Irish civilian police force that feels like they just now got out of the gutter, an influx of freed Black people trying to escape the gutter, the Freedman’s Bureau influencing what was about half the city population, and Black veterans who don’t like the way any of those other groups are treating their fellows.
The Memphis Massacre of 1866
The explosive device thus assembled, all that was left was to light the fuse. This was done on May 1, when folks had an improvised dance party in a Black section of town. The city leaders – such as they were — didn’t seem to like this. The City Recorder, through what was not-quite the chain of command sent four cops to go tell them to knock it off. The folks doing the dancing, led by Black soldiers, said “no.” Other words were exchanged.
The four policemen, being clearly outnumbered, appeared to have tried to retreat. But one of them was shot – by himself when trying to draw his gun. When the officers called for reinforcements and reported that someone had been shot by the Black crowd, the Memphis Riots of 1866 were on.
You’ll notice that the Wikipedia entry for this is today labeled “Memphis Massacre.” And with reason. In three days of violence, the police force – assisted by other White locals – had burned every Black church and school in town. 46 Black people were killed, 75 injured, 100 robbed and five women raped. 2 White people were also killed, but if this were a battle in the Civil War, it still would have been called a “massacre,” given the disproportionate numbers.
I don’t want to say that nothing changed after that, because things did change on the national level. Those riots, which were very similar to others in New York and New Orleans, helped the northern liberals in Congress to push through the 14th amendment to the Constitution.
That amendment, adopted just two years later, declared that every person born in the United States is an American citizen – clearly including people who had been enslaved. And it said no state could abridge the rights of U.S. citizens without due process.
The riot/massacre also undermined the administration of Tennessee Democrat Andrew Johnson who had become president in the wake of Abraham Lincoln’s assassination.
Thus in a way, the bloodshed in Memphis helped elevate its former commanding officer Ulysses Grant to the White House.
However, as I often say it’s very, very difficult to change the culture of a place. And Memphis remained Memphis after the riot.
Foreshadowing Trye Nichols
I would think that even now you are seeing the connections to the Tyre Nichols case – a group of city cops being mercilessly violent with a Black citizen.
But there is also this question of who was in charge. Why the hell was the city recorder ordering police over into a combustible situation? And when assistance from the army was requested General Stoneman who is in charge of the local regiment declined and suggested that the local sheriff should get a posse together. That kind of confusion is what helped a fracas escalate into a multi-day massacre.
And I think that we should perhaps ask ourselves, is there a connection historically between that ambiguity and — as observers have noted – the way the police officers involved in the Trye Nichols case seemed to have thought they would be immune from consequences? They had body cameras on and didn’t seem to moderate themselves at all.
While the 1866 episode is probably the best corollary, when we can look at Memphis’s relationship with its police force and the underclass, there are several more incidences we should go over in quick order here.
Memphis’s Yellow Fever
For example, just 12 years after that there was a horrific yellow fever epidemic in Memphis
At this point in the 1870s Memphis is the second largest city in the South, next to New Orleans down the river. However, they’re still running on rainwater. There are no pooper pipes. No sewage. This enormous southern city, by the standards of its day, has no sewer system or water system.
A woman died on August 13th, 1878 and the Board of Health declared it yellow fever. Everyone with any money immediately left the city by Steamboat and train. In five days 25,000 people, more than half the population, gets out of Dodge. Meaning Memphis. They bugged out.
Who is left? Black people, German, Irish workers – poor people. They have to organize refugee camps the these sisters of Saint Mary’s hospital stays open and so does the Peabody hotel. All 55 police officers got sick, and 10 died. An estimated 19,000 people remained in town and more than 5,000 died of yellow fever that year. The epidemic came to an end when it finally got it’s so cold it seems to have killed off the epidemic.
But that’s after the epidemic had killed off the middle and upper classes in Memphis who once again found better places to be. Property tax revenue collapsed the city couldn’t pay its debts it lost its charter as a city and Memphis became officially according to the Tennessee State legislature a taxing district.
It takes a while, but they reform the city. They get much better at sanitation. They start drilling wells for drinking water. They get to elect their own leaders again. By the time we get to the turn of the 20th century Memphis is the largest hardwood lumber market and largest “spot cotton” market (whatever that may be) in the world!
it’s the era of industrialization in the South finally I mean the north had industrialized long before but now Memphis gets a Ford plant. It gets a Firestone rubber company plant. They build plows there. They have a DuPont plant to make gunpowder for the US army.
It starts attracting workers not only new immigrants to the United states but from around the South and from 1900 to 1950 the city which remember we’re talking about the 1866 rides had like 40,000 people by 1900 it’s 100,000 and by 1950 it’s going to be 400,000. Ten times the population in less than 100 years.
By now the South has entered the era of Jim Crow and the voting rights that had been given to Black Americans (in part due to the outrages of 1866 in Memphis) are being rolled back. There are lynchings in Memphis. So let us never think that race is not a factor in Memphis, past or present.
Boss Crump of Memphis
However, in Memphis blacks could vote. And that’s important because we now enter the era of EH Crump. Great name by the way, especially when you put in his nickname “Boss.” EH “Boss” Crump.
Crump effectively ran Memphis from 1911 to 1954. He convinced the state legislature or had a hand in hand in converting Memphis to a small Commission style of government. And Crump would be the Commission. He served two terms as mayor but usually work behind the scenes he controlled the Commission he controlled the jobs and the patronage and the contracts and through that was able to run the democratic machine in Memphis.
Machine politics get a bad rap these days due to their tendency to fiddle with elections, to hand out city money for favors, to hand out city jobs for favors. However, the thing that we often forget about machine politics is that it relied on voters. You needed to do something for the poor folks in order to win their votes and keep your people in power. That was true of Tammany Hall in New York and it was true of Crump’s organization in Memphis.
He worked closely with the Black community in Memphis to earn their votes. One of the things that his machine did is help pay those poll taxes that in other parts of the South kept Blacks from being able to vote.
And something he did for all of Memphis is work on that sewer system. He liked automobile safety regulation. He liked noise ordinances. He liked public schools OK. He apparently really built up the Memphis Fire Department.
It wasn’t all sunshine and progress. Memphis had the highest murder rate in the country in 1927. The Memphis Police Department made news by arresting Machine Gun Kelly in 1933. And in this period, in 1948, the first Black officers of the Memphis police Department were hired. About 120 years into City history, but still, ahead of much of the South.
The bottom line with Crump for our purposes is that he was a person clearly in charge. I mean “clearly” in a behind the scenes, unelected since. But you know what I’m saying. There was one person in charge, he called the shots for 40 years and that was huge for Memphis. It was a time of enormous growth.
Crump was highly influential in Democratic politics statewide and even at the national level being a supporter of Franklin D Roosevelt in the 30s and 40s. But in the post-World War II years his influence waned and he was mostly in control of Memphis.
Crump dies in the 50s, just before local boy Elvis Presley launches his music career bringing black music to White audiences nationwide.
In 1963 Memphis became a home rule city meaning that the people there could choose their own form of charter.
MLK and the Sanitation Strike
By this point who do you think is running that fancy new sewer system? Who’s picking up the garbage in Memphis? Mostly Black workers in the sanitation department. In 1964 the sanitation workers were unionized under the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, AFSCME. But the leaders of the city are not going to recognize this union. Crump didn’t like unions. Generally, leaders in the South didn’t like unions. Or having to cut deals with employees of any kind. That was the deal – either the bosses left town – like during the Yellow Fever—or they refused to take suggestions, like Crump.
In February 1968, two workers die in a garbage-compacting truck. The sanitation workers go on strike, including the sewer drainage workers. The trash builds up. Strikebreakers (mostly White) are brought in.
In March, Martin Luther King shows up and helps lead strikers in a march through downtown Memphis. Something like 22,000 people participate. There’s singing “We Shall Overcome.” But at some point Black men carrying signs iron pipes bricks (sort of kind of violent stuff for a nonviolent march) start smashing the windows and stealing things.
In come the Memphis police. They arrest 280 people, sixty of which are reported injured and most of whom are Black. In the midst of this a 16-year-old is shot and killed by a police officer. The mayor declares martial law and brings in 4,000 national guardsmen.
Does any of this sound familiar? I hope it seems a little bit like 1866 all over again because I think I can see some parallels.
We have violence. We have police involvement. We have racial animosity. We have the army involved. Maybe what’s different this time is that we have clear city leadership. The mayor Henry Loeb is calling some of the shots. Not that that’s helping at this point.
In April, Martin Luther King comes back to give his Mountaintop Speech one of his greats. The next day he’s on the balcony of his hotel getting ready to go. A shot rings out. He’s hit in the neck and Martin Luther King, Jr. dies in Memphis, Tennessee.
More rioting ensues. the National Guard comes back. And not for the first time the middle and upper class of Memphis promptly move out.
It’s not just the riots and racial unrest that prompts the departure. There is also the move to integrate schools across the country. Memphis goes from being a 60-40 White/Black city in 1970 to 44-55 White/Black city in 1990, to a 27-65-8 White-Black-Hispanic city today.
Because it’s not only an economic crossroads, but a cultural crossroads, Memphis music scene remain strong having produced not only Presley but Jerry Lee Lewis, Muddy Waters, Johnny Cash, B.B. King, Isaac Hayes, Al Green, Justin Timberlake and Aretha Franklin.
Modern Memphis, Scorpion and Trye Nichols
In 2021 Memphis moved the remains of confederate general Nathan Bedford Forrest a Known KKK leader, out of a city park.
Also in 2021, Cerelyn Davis, who is Black, became the first woman to head the City Police Department.
Both moves happened under Jim Strickland, who was first elected mayor in 2015. He was the first white mayor in 24 years. He invested more money in the police force, whereas just the year before hundreds of officers had called in sick to protest a pay cut. He lobbied for more money for libraries and street work. All of which may have helped him get reelected in 2019.
Doesn’t this sound modern? Like a new Memphis? Libraries, racial integration, deposing the old Confederate legacy.
But maybe it wasn’t all that new.
In 2021, the same year that Davis became the first female police chief in town and they pulled out the memorial of Bedford Forest, they created a new police unit called “Street Crimes Operation to Restore Peace in our Neighborhoods,” or SCORPION.
Like much of the rest of America, Memphis was seeing a rise in violent crime. Scorpion was supposed to targe high-crime areas and issues like car theft and gang activity. Within four months, SCORPION made 566 arrests, 390 of which were felony arrests.
Strick and Davis were proud of this work and played it up a year ago. Strickland said the unit seized tens of thousands of dollars and over 250 weapons.
Now there are questions about how many of its members were involved in the death Tyre Nichols. Did the unit get too rough? Did its members feel they were above police protocol? That the people they stopped were unquestionably the worst of the worst?
To those questions I think we can add, “Does this sound unusual for Memphis?”
Knowing what we know now, would we be at all surprised to hear that the Irish-dominated police force of 1866 had created a special unit called “Scorpion” to keep high crime areas in check?
Would it be surprising to read in the history of Memphis that Machine Gun Kelly was shot by a special anti-gang unit named “Scorpion” in 1933?
Would we be surprised that is special unit of the Memphis police got out of hand in the 1960s sanitation strike?
I don’t think we would.
My read of the history is that perhaps the strongest and most enduring part of Memphis’ city government is the police force. That it remained a major part of the city even when it was occupied by the Union Army. Even when the entire elite class ran away during the yellow fever. Certainly during the social unrest of the Civil Rights Era.
That doesn’t mean that all Memphis cops are brutal. It doesn’t mean no progress has been made. I think the history shows that a lot of progress has been made, especially when it comes to racial equality in Memphis.
But it does mean the city should always be on alert for letting its zeal for crime control going too far.
And what is different this time, I think, is the swiftness and clarity of the punishment dealt out to officers who appear to have violated their oaths to protect the public safety. I don’t think we’ve seen this many definitive dismissals in any other high profile use of force case in the last two years. In addition to officers and emergency medics being fired, Scorpion was disbanded within weeks of the incident.
And the city that is seen more than its share of riots made it through this case without another 1866 or 1968.
So – Memphis has changed in a good way. But it will always be a little wilder than the rest. That’s my take.
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