Alumnus Otis Sanford’s book explores political, racial history of Memphis

Posted on Jun 1 2017 - 10:01am by Sarah Smith

“From Boss Crump to King Willie” by university alumnus Otis Sanford dives into the complex history of Memphis politics and how race has influenced the swing of the vote, decisions of the city, and the society that has been built as an outcome.

Edward Hull Crump grew up in Holly Springs, Mississippi and became a dominant Democratic politician who fought to rise to the top of the Memphis political ladder, eventually becoming mayor.

Crump was an advocate for African-Americans, although at times it was hard to see if that was for personal gain or for compassion for the black community. He was a true politician – everything he did was for keeping up an image.

otis sanford

Photo courtesy: The Commercial Appeal

Crump’s reign was during a particularly heated time when segregation was at its height. Sanford explores the period when desegregation began to take place. Much of the white community fled Memphis for surrounding areas.

After Crump, racially-charged politics remained at the forefront. In fact, there were paternalistic Memphians who would do anything to keep African-Americans out of office and law enforcement positions.

Throughout the years things ebbed and flowed. Circumstances grew particularly hard for African-Americans after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. in Memphis on April 4, 1968. 

It wouldn’t be until the ’90s that Memphis would see its first black mayor, Willie Herenton, who would serve five terms as the mayor of Memphis.

“King Willie,” as Sanford calls Herenton, did much for the African-American community. African-Americans didn’t have to prove anything anymore.

“From Boss Crump to King Willie” is an interesting enough read for anyone wanting to learn about the political, racial history and diversity of Memphis.

Sanford’s writing style often lacks a hook to keep the reader’s interest. This book is slow, and at times just flat-out boring. Some subjects seem to lack relevance, despite the important subject matter covered in this book.

Sanford’s experience as a journalist isn’t showcased very well in this book. His research and interview skills were wonderful, but reads more like a column and remains fairly opinionated even with research and interviews. In all circumstances, Sanford’s voice as a person and as a writer were present.

Overall, Memphians and civil rights history buffs are likely to enjoy the book more than the average reader looking for an engaging read, which this book so many times fails to be. It is for a mature reader who can force themselves through lackluster moments.

“From Boss Crump to King Willie” is a good read for history buffs and civil rights enthusiasts, but it is also a good book for Memphians and locals of the area to understand the importance of race in a place close to home.