Watkins Overton had been the longest-serving mayor of Memphis when he had been called back to office in 1949. Overton was easily reelected to a four-year term in 1951. Once again, Overton was thwarted by the personal pique of Edward Hull Crump. A majority of the city commissioners fired Stanley Dillard, whom Mayor Overton had appointed director of the city’s department of personnel. Naturally, the mayor was outraged and he once again resigned his office in a fury.
Clearly, things were changing in Tennessee. Senator Kenneth McKellar, eighty-three years old and ailing, had carried Shelby County in the 1952 reelection race but had lost statewide to Congressman Albert Gore. Governor Gordon Browning, a battle-tested veteran of Tennessee’s political wars, had been beaten by thirty-two-year-old newcomer Frank Clement. The trifecta of Clement, Kefauver and Gore ushered in a new political era in the Volunteer State.
In Memphis, the most significant political change occurred on October 16, 1954, when eighty-year-old Edward Hull Crump died at his home on Peabody Avenue. Almost immediately, the cogs and wheels of the machine Crump had so meticulously put together over 50 years began to falter and fall apart.
The Nashville Tennessean and its publisher Silliman Evans had been a harsh critic of the Crump machine. Evans envisioned himself as a kingmaker in Tennessee politics and had been the most vocal backer of Estes Kefauver in the 1948 election and Albert Gore in 1952. Yet Evans barely outlasted Crump, dying alone in a hotel room in Texas of a heart attack while visiting to attend the funeral of fellow publisher Amon Carter, for whom he had named one of his sons. The new publisher of the Tennessean was Silliman Evans Jr. who would continue to support those candidates backed by his father. The Tennessean referred to the 1955 mayoral campaign in Memphis as the first “free” election in a half century with Crump consigned to his grave.
In the prelude to the mayor’s race before any candidate had officially declared, Edmund Orgill, speaking before a women’s group, advocated for the council–manager form of government for Memphis and pointed to how former mayor Watkins Overton had bickered with commissioners and resigned his office. The businessman pointed out “you have seen Overton twice get crossways with the others on the City Commission.” Since the death of E. H. Crump, Orgill speculated the problems would only get worse.
“Prior to his death in October, Mr. Crump ran Memphis,” Orgill said bluntly. “He selected the commissioners, rode herd over them, kept after them, and saw that they did a good job, along his lines. And it was pretty good.” Yet Edmund Orgill told the ladies, “The way the city employees in Memphis – – – and it’s not different from other commission – – – governed cities – – – the way the employers are obliged to go out and campaign and work their ears off in every way for the officials in power is a crying shame.” Orgill pointed out in the council–manager form of government, government employees usually had civil service. Some of the women in the audience beamed when Orgill said “there is no reason why a woman shouldn’t serve on the Council of a city like Memphis.” “And I think under council–manager, women will be more likely to enter politics,” he added.
When asked by one of the women if the group pushing for the council–manager form of government had any “Negro members” Orgill said there were several. “I’d like to have more negro members, and we will have,” Orgill said confidently. Another woman asked, “What do you think of having a negro member on the Council?”
“That is a matter that will take care of itself. In Nashville, I think, there are two negro councilmen. In Richmond, a negro was elected to the first council.
“I feel that there are, in the city of Memphis, a good many negros who would make good members of our city council. They would have the same right to run as they have now,” Orgill stated.
Watkins Overton, widely rumored to be mulling over yet another political comeback, was recovering from an operation in early May of 1955. Overton was certainly the best-known of any possible mayoral contenders, including the incumbent, Frank Tobey. If anything, the former mayor was even more distinguished looking than ever. White-haired, bespectacled, with coal black bushy brows hanging over his glasses like drapes, Watkins Overton looked the part of a statesman. Overton informally started the 1955 mayoral campaign by appearances at various organizations and service clubs promoting a change in the city government. Considering his own experiences as mayor, it could hardly surprise anyone Overton favored a “strong mayor” rather than the present system which he criticized because the mayor had to have the approval of the city commissioners. Nor did Overton support the manager–council form of government promoted by many of the self-named “good government” types in Memphis.
“I don’t think the people of a growing city want a hired expert brought from another town to run our city,” Overton told the members of the Memphis Catholic Club. “I believe we should elect our own mayor and he should be subject to you and responsible to the people.
“He ought to have the authority to run the city right and employ responsible men to head the departments, and if he doesn’t do a good job you can elect someone else.”
Speaking to forty-five members of the Tuesday Nighters, a club composed of businesswomen, Overton charged, “Commission form of city government is antiquated and obsolete.” “Every city larger than Memphis has abandoned it. Under the commission form, the mayor has no real executive authority. He cannot represent the people in planning for the future,” Overton said.
“I do not think the people want any imported city manager brought in to run our city. To employ a city manager means that we have lost faith in the people to choose their own chief executive,” the former mayor told the businesswomen. Overton noted both Tennessee’s state government and the federal government operated under a chief executive and legislative body.
By June there were rumors Watkins Overton had “lost interest in returning to the position of Mayor of Memphis” according to a report written by Clark Porteous of the Press-Scimitar.
“Not so,” Overton retorted.
Porteous reported while the former mayor had somewhat slowed his efforts to convince voters to change the city’s form of government, it was due less to lost interest than having been slowed down by two hernia operations. Clark Porteous informed readers Overton was feeling better and was “beginning to act like a potential candidate” once again. The newspaper reporter noted Overton had gone to downtown Memphis “for the first time in more than a month” where he had lunch at the Peabody Hotel with a group of CIO labor leaders. The union leaders had been invited by the former mayor who Porteous reported had “picked up the check” for his guests.
Overton intended to give a speech promoting the “strong mayor” form of government over television station WHBQ sponsored by the Citizens’ Committee for Mayor–Council Government. Asked whether he would announce his candidacy, Overton hedged. “I’m just starting to get out again,” Overton insisted. “I’m definitely very much interested in running for mayor. The committee is still operating. I intend to get more active now.”
In his fifteen-minute televised speech, the former mayor replied directly to Edmund Orgill. Overton scoffed at the notion “a mayor elected by the people might become a dictator” as Orgill seemed to believe. “My answer to Mr. Orgill is that there is no danger of our mayor being a dictator so long as he is elected by the people, and responsible to the people.”
Contacted by reporters following Overton’s television address, Edmund Orgill calmly replied, “I think the record shows that entrenched political machines run things in the large cities are under the so-called ‘strong mayor’ form of government.
“These political machines get a large part of their support from the gambling and racketeering elements. In reality, the mayors in these cities are nothing more than puppets dancing to the tune of some political boss operating behind the scenes,” Orgill stated.
Edmund Orgill said he was personally “opposed to changing our form of government until we change to the one which is regarded as best by most students of municipal government.”
There were some reminders of the old Crump machine in Overton’s television speech. Sitting behind the former mayor was Shelby County Trustee Riley Garner, who had been supported by Crump. Also sitting on the speaker’s stand was Judson McKellar, the nephew of former Senator K. D. McKellar, Crump’s warm personal friend and political partner.
It was becoming increasingly clear there was no doubt Watkins Overton was intending to run again for mayor when he issued a public blast at incumbent Frank Tobey who was pushing construction of a plant to produce steam power. Overton denounced the move as injurious to consumers and the Tennessee Valley Authority. Overton felt Frank Tobey and the incumbent mayor’s “great love of publicity” had caused him to fall into the “trap” set by opponents and critics of TVA.
By mid-June, Watkins Overton confirmed his interest in once again occupying the mayor’s office. Frank Tobey, who had become mayor following Overton’s resignation from the office in 1953, had already indicated he would be seeking a full term in his own right.
Watkins Overton became an open candidate for mayor of Memphis once again at the end of August 1955. The former mayor immediately fired off a barrage of charges, accusing Mayor Tobey and Commissioner Joe Boyle of “preparing to set up an enormous slush fund and arguing about how big it should be.”
“Mayor Tobey should tell the people why he needs such a big campaign fund if he and his ticket merit reelection on their record,” Overton thundered. “What does he intend to do with all this money?”
Frank Tobey dismissed the former mayor’s accusations as “ridiculous.”
Overton came out for consolidation of the Memphis – Shelby County school system, improving expressways in the city and maintaining TVA-supplied power.
Joe Hatcher, longtime political columnist for the Tennessean, noted the many “strange angles” of a race between Mayor Frank Tobey and former mayor Watkins Overton. “Strangely, the Crump dictatorship may not be the real issue,” the veteran columnist wrote. Hatcher opined should Overton be returned to the mayor’s office, it “would undoubtedly mean the complete demolition of the old Crump machine as far as the outside world is concerned.” Hatcher emphatically stated, “The Tobey administration is a Crump-dictated regime without question, and its expected fight to hold together as a unit will be a fight to maintain the power of the old machine.” Yet Frank Tobey had managed to earn a “reputation of having maintained a certain independence of thought even after his promotion to the mayor’s office.” Still, Joe Hatcher seemed puzzled, admitting Tobey had shown not the slightest reluctance in accepting the “entire four-man commission with obvious weak points even when ruled by the hand of Crump.”
Yet it was impossible to get away from the fact Watkins Overton’s sixteen years as mayor of Memphis had all been accrued while E. H. Crump was the overlord of Shelby County. “Twice he broke with the boss, or vice-versa, and left the office,” Hatcher recalled. Hatcher reminded his readers, “And while in office Mayor Overton was all the way a Crump machine lieutenant, as ruthless and unbending as necessary.”
Joe Hatcher, admittedly not unprejudiced where the topic of Crump was concerned, concluded “there is no real clear-cut issue between” the two mayoral candidates “over the one-man rule” of Memphis. Lastly, Joe Hatcher wrote, “So whatever the public issues, it may well be that the breaking of the last shackles of a dictatorship will be the primary, fundamental principle behind the campaign after all.”