Memphis’s present police scandal ranks at or close to the highest by way of severity in comparison with others in over the past three years. In January 2023, metropolis prosecutors indicted 5 cops for second diploma homicide for the savage beating and dying of Tyre Nichols. They have been working beneath the infamous SCORPION (Avenue Crimes Operation to Restore Peace in Our Neighborhoods) unit. In September, a federal grand jury indicted the officers for violating Nichols’s civil rights. Earlier, President Biden had introduced that he was “outraged and deeply pained” by the incident. 

Eighty-three years in the past, starting on October 25, 1940, Memphis had one other police abuse scandal which, by some measures, was much more egregious. In distinction to 2023, nonetheless, the federal authorities made no protest. The catalyst was the election of J.B. Martin as Shelby County Republican social gathering chair. Martin’s South Memphis Drug Retailer was one of many largest of its sort owned by African People. He had later acquired the Memphis Pink Sox and was the president of the Negro American [Baseball] League. 

In a lot of the solidly Democratic South, the election of an African American as an area Republican chair was an empty honor, however not so in Memphis. In that metropolis, black votes nonetheless mattered due to a long-term association between Democratic Boss E.H. Crump and the Shelby County GOP. Crump allowed African American voting so long as the Shelby County GOP backed his political machine in essential primaries.

However Martin, who needed to construct a reputable opposition social gathering, had different concepts. On October 11, he organized a multiracial rally of over one thousand for Republican presidential candidate Wendell Willkie. Martin was taking a chance however it was not unreasonable. Nationwide polls confirmed a decent race and the GOP had carried Tennessee as not too long ago as 1928. Even when Willkie misplaced statewide, a nationwide victory would possibly put a robust protector within the White Home.

Crump, nonetheless, was not about to let an upstart black Republican imperil his alliance with President Roosevelt. He had loyally supported FDR since 1932 and, in return, had netted Memphis tens of millions in federal {dollars}. Crump demanded that Martin resign and shutter GOP headquarters or he would “police” his drugstore. When Martin remained defiant, officers started to look every patron together with kindergarteners. In line with one report, they “ran their arms over little clothes and poked into the pockets of knickers.” 

Crump then prolonged the “policing” to incorporate Elmer Atkinson, one other black Republican chief who owned a poolroom and taxi stand. He claimed (with none proof) that Atkinson and Martin had conspired in a “dope enterprise.” In the meantime, G.A. Lengthy of the Beale Avenue Baptist Church, together with different black Republicans, obtained an nameless letter threatening bloodshed for “speaking social equality.” Lengthy reaffirmed his Republicanism and questioned how “any Negro within the South with good sense can afford to vote for the Democratic ticket.” 

In the meantime, Crump fumed that Martin and his allies have been “spreading concepts of social equality” and that “Negroes would possibly as effectively be taught their locations.” On the pretext of eliminating “undesirables,” Commissioner of Public Security Joseph Boyle arrested sixty-five individuals on suspicion of carrying unlawful weapons, a broadly outlined class that included penknives. Martin lamented that “native influential individuals are completely afraid to assist me in my case” and that Crump was making an attempt to place “me within the workhouse and I couldn’t stand that.” The strain turned so insufferable that each Martin and Atkinson fled the town.

FDR’s Division of Justice ignored Martin’s pleas. It refused to prosecute Crump although the top of the Civil Rights Unit appeared keen. When Martin briefly returned in 1943 to throw out the primary ball at an All-Star Sport of the Negro American League, three detectives entered his field, arrested him, and whisked him off to a holding cell. He was then ordered to depart city. The Division of Justice, discovering no “violation of federal legislation,” rejected Martin’s request for a brief return to settle his affairs.

Crump by no means suffered any penalties for his systematic suppression of an opposition social gathering. His ties with FDR remained cozy, and he helped to engineer Harry Truman’s victory over Vice President Henry Wallace on the 1944 Democratic conference. At this time, his native status, although considerably tarnished, is basically intact. A serious Memphis thoroughfare bears his identify as does “Crump Station,” one of many metropolis’s 4 most important police items. In contrast, few keep in mind Martin’s lonely stand free of charge speech.


David T. Beito

David T. Beito is an emeritus professor of historical past on the College of Alabama and obtained his Ph.D. from the College of Wisconsin. His educational analysis covers a variety of matters in American historical past together with civil rights, tax revolts, civil liberties within the New Deal interval, the non-governmental provision of infrastructure, and mutual assist.
His books embody From Mutual Support to the Welfare State: Fraternal Societies and Social Providers, 1890-1967 and T.R.M. Howard, Physician, Entrepreneur, Civil Rights Pioneer (co-authored by Linda Royster Beito).

His most up-to-date guide is The New Deal’s Warfare On the Invoice of Rights: The Untold Story of FDR’s Focus Camps, Censorship, and Mass Surveillance.

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