Long before Mel Gibson’s Passion of the Christ, there was Cecil B. DeMille’s King of Kings. Released in 1927 and filmed partially in Technicolor, King of Kings was a silent movie depicting the life, crucifixion, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. I don’t know how many people watched King of Kings in theaters at the time; but I do know that none of them watched it in Memphis.
That’s because King of Kings was banned in Memphis by order of one Lloyd T. Binford, a life insurance executive, vice president of the Chamber of Commerce—and chairman of the city’s Board of Censors. The Board of Censors had been established in 1921 to protect Memphians from unwholesome or otherwise unacceptable movies and theatrical productions. It had full power to decide what Memphians could and could not see in their movie houses and performance halls. And its chairman for twenty-eight years—from 1928 to 1956—was Lloyd T. Binford. It was Binford who decided that King of Kings was unsuited for the citizens of the city. The movie’s crucifixion scene, he judged, was simply too graphic for public consumption.
So, too, did Binford ban, in 1947, the play Annie, Get Your Gun—in which appears a black conductor. “We don’t have any negro conductors in the South,” the public censor explained.
Binford can be taken as a symbol of the city’s mania for conservatism and the status quo, a mania that gripped the city’s leadership in the 1930s and 1940s. As Roger Biles argues in Memphis and the Great Depression (University of Tennessee Press, 1986), the New Deal programs of Franklin D. Roosevelt had little long-term, profound impact on the Bluff City. Business as usual, rather than a sea change in the way municipal authorities responded to the needs and aspirations of the city’s residents, was the order of the day. The New Deal and federal activism more generally were simply another set of circumstances in which the white power structure, led by Boss Crump, found ways to preserve and advantage itself. “For the better part of four decades,” Biles writes, “the boss opposed any encroachments on the traditional way of life in his community.” Rather than progressing, Memphis remained “provincial,” despite the experimental, unprecedented initiatives coming out of Washington. “Far from dismantling the city’s ties to the Old South,” Biles concludes, “the New Deal underwrote the Crump machine’s efforts at preserving them.”
Focusing as it does on a short period, Memphis in the Great Depression is compact, running to only 130 pages of text-proper. Biles of course draws from a range of sources—manuscript collections, public documents, and many familiar secondary works such as Gerald M. Capers’s Biography of a River Town (1939), John E. Harkins’s Metropolis of the American Nile (1982), and William D. Miller’s Memphis during the Progressive Era (1957) and Mister Crump of Memphis (1964). But he also draws upon a good deal of dissertations and theses, some quite intriguing. Among the latter are “The Development of Public Education in Memphis, Tennessee, 1848–1945” (David M. Hilliard, PhD diss., University of Chicago, 1946), “Land Utilization in Memphis” (Rayburn W. Johnson, PhD diss., University of Chicago, 1936), and “A Social History of the Negro in Memphis and Shelby County” (James H. Robinson, PhD diss., Yale University, 1934). A fourth can be listed: “Fifty Years of Politics in Memphis, 1900–1950,” by a Virginia Emerson Lewis (PhD diss., New York University, 1955). One can wonder about the interest in Memphis at that time at such decidedly non-southern institutions.
Writing as he was in the 1980s, Biles is to be commended for giving us more than a political history of the depression era. For a generation now, history has been social history, the history of marginalized peoples, and Biles must be counted as an early participant in that shift. He is frank in his acknowledgment of the discriminatory, oppressive treatment of the city’s black residents, and in more than one instance he calls out white supremacy by name. In summing up, for instance, the effect of the New Deal on the black population, Biles writes that “the New Deal supplied a modicum of relief, but always under the watchful control of the resident machine—a machine imbued with the ethos of white supremacy.” And his concluding chapter is a labor history in brief, an account of efforts by workers in the city to unionize. Those efforts, of course, failed, in large part because of the same conservative, backwards-looking bent that produced Lloyd Binford and the Board of Censors. “The city’s leadership—adhering to the old plantation mentality, by which benevolent owners took care of their grateful laborers—staunchly opposed any hint of such ‘radical’ notions as the closed shop or collective bargaining,” Biles writes. Or, as Boss Crump himself avowed, “We aren’t going to have any CIO n****r unions in Memphis.”