The Crump Machine and Memphis Police Revolt of 1943

Just like every other city employee of the day, Fire, Public Works, and Teachers, they knew working for the “Crump Machine “wasn’t easy. It meant you would be paid less than the national average wage, or what your counterparts made in Atlanta, Knoxville, Nashville or Birmingham. In the 20’s, 30’s and into the early 40’s, MPD Patrolmen worked 12-hour shifts with NO days off. Traffic Officers worked a different number of hours.  Like Firefighters Memphis Police Officers were subject to immediate recall back to work even when they were off duty.   They did this for free. 

For years, at least since 1909, E. H. Crump had used his Police Department to violently enforce his concepts of the “Plantation Mentality “, which was the way he ran Memphis.

Laurie B Green said it best in her book Battling the Plantation Mentality, (page 18) “Beaten into submission by police nightsticks and guns, the Negroes of Memphis are in a terrible predicament. ”

During this period, consequences for Black Memphians were dire for those who didn’t follow along. There were Christian Officers who knew it was wrong to take the sticks to citizens, especially African American citizens, but they did it or they would have been fired.

Mr Crump was only mayor for 3 two year terms from 1910-1915, but his grip on Memphis politics and the men who followed him was absolute. Even though we had several mayors between 1915 and 1928 who were not Crump Cronies, he controlled all voting commissioners; the current Mayor would only have one vote against the 4 commissioners who were all in place because of the Crump Machine.

The Crump Machine controlled all elected city and county government leaders as well as state employees and judges. At one-point Mr. Crump had 54 prominent attorneys on his payroll.   

Roger Bile’s said it best in his book, Memphis in the Great Depression, “Crump built a machine, dominated it during its existence and took it to the grave with him when he died

Police officers, Fire Fighters and Teachers were used, and I do mean used, for anything Crump wanted. They didn’t have a choice, you were “Voluntold” to do whatever he wanted you to do.  If that meant going into the neighborhoods with city trucks to pick up the Black voters and take them to several voting locations, (where they would vote the way Crump Machine told them to vote), you did it. Or if on your off time you were asked to collect poll taxes, you did it. You worked for the city; you had no rights.

MPD Sergeants and Lieutenants backed up Crump crony Poll Watchers to make sure that 75% of the votes from any voting location were for the Crump Machine backed candidate, it didn’t matter if they were Republican or Democrat.

Gerald Capers mentioned in his book Biography of a Rivertown, “Crump kept an index card on every citizen of Shelby County on how they voted or if they were for the machine. “

In the 30’s and 40’s Police Commissioner Joseph P. Boyle maintained a troop of snitches who would sell out their families for favors from the Crump Machine. The machine knew how everyone in Shelby County voted and if you were a city or county employee and you or your family didn’t vote right, you were fired.

From The Nashville Tennessean October 16, 1943 (page 2).

In 1935 E. H. Crump did away with “Civil Service” and instituted the “Crump Merit System”, of which MPD Officers and Fire Fighters said had no merit at all. Your political activity meant more than your worth as an employee.   That meant if you came in on your own time and did favors for the Crump Machine, you would be rewarded for your service or even promoted. Police and Fire were forced to give back a day and a half of their earnings each month to the Crump Machine war chest. We suspect other city employees did the same but so far, we haven’t confirmed that.

In 1930 Police Commissioner Clifford Davis fired 15 Fire Fighters, including 4 Captains, 1 lieutenant and the rest privates, for trying to re-start their Union. All were black balled and could not find a job anywhere in Shelby County. This was the Crump Machine’s way of punishment, by using them as an example to keep down those who remained like the Police Department, who were considering unionizing. Several times over the course of the following years Fire and Police tried to form a Union but were all fired by the Crump Machine. Job qualifications meant nothing during the Crump years.

The firefighters were:

Captain Spruce P Baker,  51, of 943 Lee Place 15 years on the department, Captain of Engine 19 Chelsea and Lambert.

Captain Cleve Atwell 41 of 721 Leath Ave, 15 years on the job, Captain of Engine 15  at 1010 Faxon and Decatur.

Captain J. P. Monaghan, 45 of 1575 Tutwiler member of the department 20 years.

Captain Alden V Jones, 51, of 2501 Avery Ave, 19 years of service.

Lieutenant C. W. Gardner 38, 519 Cambridge , 15 years service.

Private John Sloyan, 45, 1991 Court Ave, 6 years of service, Truck 5 at Third and Linden.

Private J.W. Dortch 32, 6 years of service, Truck 5.

Private John F Collins, 40, of 592 Jackson Ave, 10 years of service Company 13 at Broad and E Parkway.

Private Logan Hipp (Shifty), 35, 509 Pontotoc Ave. on and off the job  7 years on truck 5.

Private Stancil E Jones, 30 of 580 Josephine, 8 years on, Truck 5  son of Captain Alden V Jones.

Private Marion Sanders, 28,  of 765 Pearce Street, 6 years of service on Truck 5.

Private C. L. Pitts, 44, 200 Linden Ave..8 years on, Truck 5.

Private J. C. Roach, 28, 1456 Court Ave.7 years on the job.

Private Joseph P Miley,48 of 958 Nefler Ave. 22 years on the job.

W Russell Kenan, 29, of 1431 Mc Millan Street, assistant driver. 6 years.

If as a police officer you arrested someone and that person was a friend of Joe Boyle, Chief Seabrook or The Crump Gang, they were UN arrested. If you were a friend of Crump’s and he wanted to reward you because he owed you a favor, it didn’t matter if you were a plumber or a cotton grader who knew nothing about the police department, you were made Chief.

Carroll Seabrook went from grading cotton to grading police officers even though you had never been one. If you think that went over well with the rank and file, it did not. It caused horrible internal strife among officers.  No knowledge, skills or ability were required for appointment to a Command Leadership position by E. H. Crump. Chief Seabrook and his boss former courthouse janitor, now Fire and Police Commissioner Joseph Boyle, had never been in law enforcement and didn’t have a clue what it took to run a large police department. This didn’t matter because E. H. Crump was pulling the strings

Every day working with Seabrook was a day of conflict.   The Command Staff of the Police department were all seasoned police officers, but Seabrook would not listen to them. Of all of the past Police Chiefs, this guy did more damage to the moral of the department than any other Police Chief in the entire history of the MPD, and his boss Joe Boyle was worse. Seabrook fired and demoted any commander who disagreed with him.

Police officers and Fire Fighters have jobs that require different methods and tactics that the general public is not privy to.  It’s very similar to the military, you can’t command effectively if you don’t understand the job. If you violated an infraction and were suspended under Police Commissioner Boyle (who took ALL of his orders from Crump), you continued to work and were docked the time.

If you were a Police Officer, Fire Fighter or other City worker, the city paid your entire pension, 2/3 of your insurance, through Crumps Insurance Company of course, plus $40.00 a year for uniforms. The Fire Department’s uniforms were $50.

From Tampa Bay Times October 16, 1943 Saturday.

In Early October 1943, Police Chief Seabrook asked Police Commissioner Boyle to suspend Patrolmen C. C. Kettlebell and M. S. Nicholson because of their handling of a robbery claim.

Nashville Tennessean October 17, 1943 Sunday (pages 1 and 6) – Job Action

This action was just about all the rank and file could stand and on Friday October 15, 1943 the disgruntled officers and men of the MPD walked off their jobs for 1 hour, including 75% of the MPD day shift. For 1 hour there wasn’t a police car on the street. 150 men went to Police Commissioner Joe Boyles office to demand they get back Civil Service and higher pay and if they didn’t, they were going to strike. The afternoon shift and detectives carried on the momentum. If they weren’t given an answer by 9AM the next day they were also walking off the job. Boyle quickly reinstated the two suspended officers. The fire department was watching this whole thing go down because Boyle, who knew even less about the Fire Department, was also their top leader. The Fire Department consisting of 301 employees made no demands. The Police Department, who had 304 employees, wanted a raise from $165.00 to $200.00 a month, $300.00 for captains, 2 days off a month, and civil service reinstated. They also wanted a member of the MPD on the civil service board, but most of all, they wanted a new Chief.

As history would have it, Crump would only allow a meager increase to their compensation. Yes, it’s true that Watkins Overton was Mayor, but he was like everyone else and took his orders from Crump. Boyle blamed the lack of raises on the State legislature and was not in favor of getting a new Chief.

The Huntsville Times (Huntsville Alabama) October 21, 1943 (page 2)

Within a week they got a temporary form of civil service, a $15.00 monthly increase and shorter working hours to a normal 8-hour shift.  This would bring a patrolman’s salary to $180 a month plus two days off each month. Firefighters also benefited from the civil service and salary raise.

Knoxville News sentinel (Knoxville Tennessee) October 16, 1943

Fire and Police also had an additional 50% more of their salary added to their pensions. The rank and file weren’t happy but could live with it. During this time the Union auto workers at the Ford plant were watching to see if they needed to help the MPD. This thing could have gotten nasty had it continued.

Most of the problems associated with the Police Department were caused by Police and Fire Commissioner Boyle, but that’s another quite lengthy story for another time.

Being a Police Officer or a Fire Fighter back then took a special kind of person. The working conditions were terrible, and it was worse for Police than for Fire. These guys had endured a lot.


Resources

Gerald Capers’ book Biography of a Rivertown.

Roger Bile’s book Memphis in the Great Depression,

Laurie B Green’s book Battling The Plantation Mentality, (page 18).

The Nashville Tennessean October 16, 1943 (page 2)

Nashville Tennessean October 17, 1943 Sunday (pages 1 and 6).

The Huntsville Times (Huntsville Alabama) October 21, 1943 (page 2).

History of the Memphis Police Department, written by Eddie M. Ashmore and researched by Joseph E. Walk.

 

2 thoughts on “The Crump Machine and Memphis Police Revolt of 1943

  1. So interesting to be able to have so much history presented in such an understandable venue. Thanks from a Memphian from 1954 until 2010 and now a Mississippian.

  2. So interesting . So much work for all of us to learn the history of our city. Hopefully. In some way …. we can learn facts and history of our city and utilize to make our city safe, and be the great city again but better .

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