The Great Depression & WW II
Memphis political boss Edward Crump

Memphis political boss Edward Crump

Edward Crump, known as Boss Crump, was in firm control of Memphis politics when the Great Depression began. Crump wasn’t always serving in an elected office, but if he wasn’t in office, then one of his supporters was. Few politicians were elected to statewide office during this time without the support of the Crump political machine. Dig Deeper: What is a political machine?

Crump first ran for Memphis mayor in 1909 as a progressive. He wanted to bring honest and efficient government to the city. Crump also disagreed with the state’s prohibition against liquor, and refused to enforce the law in Memphis. His reasoning was that the voters of Memphis didn’t support it, so he wasn’t enforcing it.

This stance forced him to resign when the Tennessee Supreme Court ruled against him for not enforcing the law. The next year Crump ran for County Trustee and won, serving in the position for eight years.

In that election, Crump developed a technique for registering voters that served him well over the next three decades. Firemen and police officers were taken off duty and used to transport people to register to vote—25,000 voters were added to the voting roles in the 1916 election.

Crump assembled a coalition of old-time Democrats, local civic and social groups, and groups of African Americans to vote his way. He arranged to pave streets in the black parts of town and to develop a new park for African Americans in order to get the support of the West Tennessee Civic and Political League, a group of black residents.

During the Great Depression, a city commission was established to help fund temporary employment for out-of-work people and to give food and clothing to needy people. After the 1937 flood of the Mississippi River, Crump pushed for a flood control project for the county. He and other Tennessee lawmakers were influential in persuading the federal government to invest $9 million in the project.

Crump and other Memphis politicians were happy to bring New Deal money to their communities. However, they did not support any major changes to the social order. For example, Memphis was a center of cotton buying and selling. It also had other industries related to cotton. Crump supported New Deal agricultural programs to help the cotton traders, industries, and large farmers. These new programs did little if any to help the many poor -tenant farmer-s and -sharecropper-s who worked land owned by large farmers.    

The Crump organization used charity events, such as children’s day at a football game, and rewards, such as parks, to keep voters happy. Occasionally they might use tougher tactics. For example, Frank Thompson, a local undertaker, criticized Crump. For the next few months, all his hearses and ambulances were trailed by police officers who would give the drivers tickets for the least traffic infraction.

By controlling the vote-counting process in Shelby County, Crump could affect state elections. Official returns from Shelby County were never turned in until all the rest of the state’s voting had been recorded. This gave the impression, probably a correct one, that Shelby County officials were just waiting to see how many votes to assign to their favored candidate.

In 1942, E.W. Carmack, running for a U.S. Senate seat from Tennessee, had a 20,000 vote lead going into Shelby County. By the time Shelby County vote totals gave 48,000 votes to his opponent and 7,000 to him, he lost the election.

Crump supported all of Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal projects. And Roosevelt and his campaign manager, James Farley, made note of Crump’s alliance with labor and black groups. They used this model in the 1936 and 1940 elections, persuading African Americans in the South to vote Democratic instead of Republican.

By 1939, Crump had accomplished all of his goals for Memphis, set when he first ran for office. He had gotten flood control, pushed private utility companies into public ones, and gotten the state legislature to allow counties to decide whether or not they wanted liquor sold there.

Although he would still be influential in Memphis politics until his death in 1954, Crump lost a lot of his power in 1948 when he opposed the election of Harry Truman as president. He supported a group of Democrats who formed a new party called the States’ Rights Party.

This group opposed Truman’s proposed Civil Rights laws which would have abolished the poll tax and increased penalties against lynching. Crump’s coalition fell apart as African Americans voted for Truman instead of with Crump. He was not able to put the coalition back together.

For more information on Crump, click here

Picture Credits:
Photograph of Boss Edward Crump.  Courtesy of the University of Memphis Special Collections

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