Infamous Chairman of Memphis Board of Censors Wore Many Hats
By Charlie Lambert
Duck Hill, Mississippi is a tiny town in Montgomery County with a population of less than 1,000 thousand people. It is located off U.S. Highway 51 South between Grenada and Winona, one-hundred-thirteen miles south of Memphis. The first settler of European-American heritage was John A. Binford in 1834, who ran a slave-driven cotton plantation. In 1866, John’s grandson, Lloyd T. Binford was born there.
From that blessed event began a story of a man who defied his rural roots over his 89 years of life and became infamously famous in many ways. Even as a child he entertained ideas and schemes to enhance his image and fortune in and beyond Duck Hill.
At age 11 Lloyd cornered the fireworks market in Duck hill and sold them to the town at a profit. He borrowed one-hundred dollars from a man, that same year, without collateral or credit to fund another enterprise. Many years later Lloyd repaid his debt to the man by returning the favor and loaning the man twenty-five hundred dollars without collateral. How’s that for hedging your investments?
He quit school after the fifth grade to become a full-time entrepreneur. He was present at a train wreck near his home when he was sixteen and brought the injured crew home to nurse and feed them, bargaining for a railroad job in the bargain. He was hired as a clerk on the Illinois Central line at that young age and began his trek away from the cotton farm. In later years, young Binford was in two train wrecks himself, injured in the second to the point he was in bed for a year and carried a cane for eleven years. And then, there was the train robbery he encountered in 1888 when Rube Burrow robbed him, leaving him traumatized for life. Binford always wore a purple shirt when on train duty. He called it his “trademark” because it was uniquely his and made him stand out from the other employees.
Binford began writing his own encyclopedia as a teen but limited the topics to areas of his own interest: science, philosophy, religion, and politics. All his time while working the train routes was spent in that endeavor and in thinking up ways to improve his financial lot beyond family money and his meager salary. Finally, he decided to become a deacon in the Baptist church and at the same time managed to buy a racetrack and a few horses. He didn’t gamble himself but made a good profit off the bad habits of others. He was known as the “Sporting Deacon”. He was also a super salesman and over the course of his youth sold Bibles, celluloid collars, calling cards, diamonds, as well as his own manufactured wooden combs.
Binford ultimately got a job in an insurance company in Illinois in his thirties. He did not like living “up north” so he relocated back to Mississippi where he worked at various insurance companies from Prudential to one called Columbian Woodmen Life, based in Atlanta. Always a quick study Lloyd noticed the company was just plodding along without making much profit due to the rate structure it practiced. He began negotiating rates directly with policyholders instead of following the rates set by the BOD of the company. As a result the firm increased its profits many fold and began to pay dividends to its members. Binford was a hero and became a legend in his field.
In 1916 he moved to Atlanta and became President of the firm. The company charter required the President to live there. In a short while President Binford convinced the Board to throw out the old charter and adopt a new one that allowed the company to be run outside Atlanta. At the same time he used his family’s influence in Mississippi to help enact a law that allowed insurance companies to merge. By 1918 he changed the name of the Company to Columbian Mutual Life Insurance and moved the whole operation to Memphis. He even built the tallest structure on the Memphis skyline in 1921 and ran his business from the top (twenty-first) floor of the Columbian Mutual Tower. He was influential in helping build the Shrine Building nearby. His reign made him one of the most admired business executives and civic leaders in the city. It also made him even richer than he had imagined.
As President of Columbian, he sported around in a grand, big, black limousine with a chauffeur and went to Europe every year with his first wife, Hattie Nelson, to whom he was married in 1895. They had four children before her death in 1927. On his European excursions he purchased all manner of “souvenirs” to hand out to his clients and associates. Such things as calendars, watches, toasters, waffle irons, and automatic pencils that were square shaped (memorable). At one point he was spending over ten-thousand dollars annually on souvenirs and gifts.
By that time he had been befriended by Mr. E. H. Crump another powerful entity in Memphis business and politics. Binford had always hated Crump until he got to know him and realized they had a lot in common and eventually they became good friends. Crump was a schemer like Binford. Remember Lionel Barrymore in “It’s A Wonderful Life”? Either of them could have played that part !
Restless to try new things, Mr. Binford stepped down from the Presidency in the mid-twenties and became Chairman of the Board. He had things to do beyond sitting in a lofty tower all day. His health forced him completely out of the company in 1933. His recognition as a mover and shaker allowed him to involve himself in almost anything he chose. The world is always seeking bright, rich spokesmen for their enterprises. Binford was a natural and enjoyed being seen and heard through various platforms, many honorary or titular.
1927 marked the beginning of talking movie in Hollywood (Al Jolson’s “The Jazz Singer” from Warner Brothers) and some of the “talk” was not acceptable to everyone, nor were the sexual and violent plots enacted. Cities like Memphis felt there should be some way of keeping the smut off local screens. Mayor Watkins Overton agreed and his cohort, Crump, suggested a revised Board of Censors ( a City Ordinance had been passed in 1921 but didn’t encompass the type of films being shown in the late ‘20s) to review films before they were shown, with full authority to ban any that did not pass muster or to clip offensive scenes. Crump tapped Binford as the perfect leader of this new cause. Binford agreed to take on the task “temporarily” for six-months. He stayed twenty-eight years minus a four-year absence (1931-5) for health reasons!
I limit my comments on Mr. Binford’s censoring role and his reputation as “the most notorious censor in the world” (Binford’s own words) because this is a story about other aspects of his life. Every paper in the country had pictures and stories about him – even one in Africa. “Brickbats is all I get”, he was quoted as saying. Binford and his committee were not just looking for blatant sex and violence. His fatal hand included actors he did not like, personally, any film with Blacks being characterized as on a “socially equal” basis with Whites; or where Black and White children went to the same school; just the sight of Lena Horn or Eddie Rochester Anderson set him afire. Binford didn’t need a reason to ban a film; his whim was sufficient to make such decisions. If you wish to entertain yourself with the history of the Memphis Censor Board during its heyday, there is a wealth of information online, in the Hooks Library archives and in several books on the subject. His is a fascinating chronicle of power, stubbornness, and righteousness “on behalf of the movie-going public”. And he didn’t limit his oversight to movies. His wrath extended to prize fights, plays, opera, ballet, and anything else he could comment on to get his face in the news.
I do want to mention some of Binbord’s activities during his Memphis years. Do not forget, he was in his sixties when he took the censor job. That did not stop him from other civic and charitable activities. Among other things, Lloyd T. Binford participated in many the following endeavors up until the time of his death:
- Ran the Tri-state Fair for three years (1928-31)
- Had over one hundred-forty children named for him by appreciative mothers for his work on Censor Board and sent birthday cards/Christmas gifts to each one annually
- 4-H Club worker
- Future Farmers of America promoter
- Children’s early education program
- Mayor of Duck Hill, Mississippi
- Made “ Colonel” by two governors (Tennessee and Mississippi)
- Member Baptist Chamber of Commerce
- Played multiple musical instruments in Duck Hill Cornet Band (until the arrival of Jazz and Ragtime. He hated music after that due to its influence enhancing Black entertainers)
- Made perpetual donations to multiple charities and social causes
- Champion of souvenir-giving to everyone he met
- Headed Press Scimitar Goodfellows Christmas Giving Campaign
- Board Member of several banks
Binford married his second wife in 1937. He waited ten years to remarry and built her a residence at 1723 Peabody in Memphis, two blocks from Mr. Crump’s longtime home.
He worked on the Censor Board right up to his last illness. He contracted influenza in the winter of 1955 and it lingered through the spring and summer of 1956. His last effort was an attempt to ban a 1955 film called “Blackboard Jungle” from Memphis theaters. He thought it too risque to screen here, besides a Black actor, Sidney Poitier, was a teacher in a mixed race school in the photoplay. Anathema! His ruling was challenged by other board members and lawyers for the studio. He backed down at the last minute and promptly resigned from the Censor board, a sick, almost blind, old man. He died on August 27, 1956 at Gage Nursing home on Monroe in Memphis and is buried in Elmwood Cemetery.
SOURCES: City Ordinance setting up Censor Board 3-22-21, CACA 3-23-29, CA5-25-39, Evening Appeal 3-2-28, Press Scimitar 8-14-45, CA 5-18-89, Press Scimitar 10,-28-80, Hidden Memphis, Richard J. Alley, 2012, Berkeley Kalin, “Lloyd T. Binford” in John Harkins, Metropolis on the AmericanNile,1982,,American Historical Press, Mayor Crump Didn’t Like It, C.Wayne Dowdy, 2016, University Press of Mississippi.
THANKS: The staff at the Memphis Room at the Hooks Library for the excellent support they provided. They are a special, dedicated group.
FOOTNOTE: I plan to write a second article on Mr. Binford’s activities as Censor in Memphis because in researching this piece, I think I discovered a number of things that past treatments of his censoring activities do not delve into or are not treated. I also want to elaborate on the members of the Censor Board over the years, the men and women who worked alongside Binford in deciding the fate of films booked in Memphis. The Board was reappointed annually and had from four to seven members , as a rule. That’s twenty-eight different boards over Binford’s tenure. Finally, I want to comment on the post-Binford years when the Board was attacked by the courts, even SCOTUS, and by Hollywood, in general. The role Mayor Loeb played in helping preserve the Board into the 1970’s is very significant. Censor Boards today are almost non-existent.