The Edward T. Leech Story: The Fight for Free Speech in Memphis, Tennessee

July 20, 1918 would be a day in the life of Edward Leech that he as well as the world would never forget. In the summer of 1919 Memphis Press newspaper editor Edward T. Leech was sentenced to serve 10 days in jail for contempt of court. His crime was that he wrote an editorial critical of E.H. “Boss” Crump and his political machine. He did not mention any names, however Chancellor Israel H. Peres, a Crump crony, thought editor Leech was talking about him. 

During the Crump years every judge including state judges, department heads, prosecutors, public defenders, court clerks, law enforcement and most of the entire judicial system in Memphis was there strictly because of Crump. Editor Leech exposed the “Crump Gang” for pulling all the strings. Judge Peres fined editor Leech $10.00 and threw him into jail without due process, no right to an attorney, and no right to defend himself. That was the Crump way of doing things. 

Memphis was a town where the “Boss System” prevailed, where the political boss ruled with an iron hand and where most of the public officials served the boss, and not the public. As would happen many times during the Crump years, Memphis would be the laughingstock of the country. The Nashville Tennessean, Arkansas Gazette, and the Clarion Leger would take us to task on nearly every political issue. Every national newspaper carried this story and it was front page news in many major cities. The Nashville Tennessean stated on August 8, 1919, on page 7 in an article by E.C. Rogers, “ No American city is more boss ridden than Memphis, Tennessee. Ed Crump, notorious among American Political bosses is sovereign supreme.” This story was all about free speech and it hit home with all Americans. The major problem was that in Memphis, Tennessee, Memphians were not free. In an article in the August 4th , 1919 Evansville Press, former Memphis Mayor Harry Litty who was NOT a Crump crony or minion said “I was never happier in my life when I saw Leach here. I am glad. The world never gave a man a finer decoration than it has given this young man for his chance to show all of America that the heart and soul of American journalism is free and that it cannot be confined by any politician or quashed into shameful silence by any judge.”

The American press took Judge Peres to task and mocked him nationally. In an article in the Washington Times on August 14th , 1919, on page 1 editor Leech reported to jail on August 4th, followed by a brass band and more than a 50-car parade-like gathering of supporters. He left jail with the attention and admiration of an entire country. He gained the respect of the fine and decent Memphians who detested the “Crump Gang” and their shady dealings. While Leech was jailed, his supporters provided him with a new bed, a refrigerator box, a phonograph, electric fan, water cooler, a box of cigars, candy, bushel baskets of fruits, pies, canned fruits, preserves, a bottle of disinfectant, a thermos of coffee, and mounds of magazines and newspapers.

Of course, he could not have received these without the support of or despite the jailers because the response was overwhelming, and they were left with little ways to refuse such an overpowering public response. During his time in jail he received letters of encouragement and admiration from all over the United States. On August 14, 1919, he was released from jail to what would be one of the biggest celebrations ever seen in Memphis. Fireworks were heard all over the city. Former Mayor Litty spoke to a large crowd of supporters, including in attendance several nationally known newspaper editors who had experienced similar freedom of speech oppression in their work. His release was not only carried by the national wire and news services, but a national movie company was there to film it for the rapidly growing movie news service.

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