The Last Campaign: Overton vs. Orgill, Part III

By Ray Hill
The death of Edward Hull Crump on October 16, 1954, changed Shelby County and Memphis politics forever.  As Memphis was on the cusp of the first mayoral election without the influence of E. H. Crump in half a century, the contenders appeared to be set for the general election.  Mayor Frank Tobey had assumed office after his predecessor had angrily resigned from the mayoralty.  Tobey was set to face that same predecessor, Watkins Overton, in the November election.  Neither man would have been prominent in local politics without some affiliation with the late Memphis Boss.  Both had come to the office with the assent and approval of E. H. Crump.

Throughout history, there are constant reminders man does not control time nor the march of events.  On September 11, 1955, the race for mayor between Frank Tobey and Watkins Overton ended.  Mayor Tobey was at home when he suffered a heart attack.  The mayor was rushed to Baptist Hospital in Memphis where he slipped into a coma and died three days later.  The Tobey administration was thrown into chaos with the death of its leader.  The city commission was tasked with replacing Frank Tobey as mayor and elected perhaps the best possible choice available by calling back to service yet another former mayor, Walter Chandler.

Chandler was one of the most distinguished citizens of Memphis.  Like both Watkins Overton and Frank Tobey, Walter Chandler had been promoted by E. H. Crump.  Chandler was Crump’s personal choice to take his place in the U.S. House of Representatives in 1934 when the Boss decided to come home to Memphis.  Chandler worked hard at being the congressman from Shelby County and enjoyed his job.  Congressman Chandler did not much want to leave Washington, D.C. when the Memphis Boss summoned him to take the place of Mayor Watkins Overton who had resigned in 1939.  Chandler assumed office as mayor and served loyally and effectively until 1947 when he, too, resigned.  Chandler’s resignation was due to profound disappointment.  Walter Chandler had hoped to move up the political ladder; he had previously announced his candidacy for the Democratic nomination for governor in 1938 but withdrew when it became readily apparent United States Senator Kenneth McKellar was lukewarm to his candidacy.  Chandler had thought and expected McKellar to retire in 1946 when the senator was seventy-seven years old.  Mayor Chandler believed he would have Crump’s support for McKellar’s seat in the United States Senate.  McKellar had no intention of retiring and his friend and political partner E. H. Crump supported the senator’s reelection bid.  Chandler decided to leave political life and resume the practice of law.

Walter Chandler answered the call one last time and accepted appointment as the interim mayor of Memphis.  Watkins Overton was already off and running and it soon became clear that another candidate was moving forward to fill the vacuum left by the death of Mayor Frank Tobey.

Edmund Orgill had been one of those business and civic leaders who had boldly defied E. H. Crump during the 1948 campaign by openly supporting the candidacy of then-Congressman Estes Kefauver.  Crump loathed Kefauver, yet it had been the Memphis Boss who bore much of the responsibility, although inadvertently, for the congressman’s campaign for the Democratic nomination for the United States Senate being successful.  It had been Crump who had arbitrarily withdrawn his support from incumbent Senator Tom Stewart to back the candidacy of a local judge of the Circuit Court from Cookeville, Tennessee.  Much to Crump’s surprise, Senator Stewart insisted upon running once again and ran hard.  When it became quite clear Mitchell’s candidacy was going nowhere, Crump thought of switching his support back to Senator Stewart in an effort to stop the hated Kefauver.  The Kefauver campaign caught wind of the rumors about Crump dumping Mitchell in favor of the senator and publicly accused the Memphis Boss of proposing to do exactly that.  As they hoped, Crump promptly issued an angry denial and stuck with Judge John Mitchell who ran a poor third in the election.  Estes Kefauver won the Democratic nomination for the United States Senate with 42% of the vote.

The 1948 election saw Crump seriously challenged inside his own dominion of Shelby County.  Edmund Orgill was prominent and respected amongst Memphis business, civil and social circles.  The scion of one of the leading businesses in the Bluff City.  Orgill, along with attorney Lucius Burch, formed the nucleus of an effective and enthused group of folks who strongly and openly supported Estes Kefauver’s candidacy in Shelby County.  The group’s efforts were promoted by Edward Meeman, editor of the Memphis Press-Scimitar, who was one of the perpetual irritants to Crump’s rule of the Bluff City and Shelby County.  Meeman’s badgering of the Memphis Boss was so effective that then-Mayor James Pleasants had attacked the bachelor editor, inferring Meeman was a homosexual at Crump’s behest.  Pleasants never seemed to recover from what he had done and was serving as the Law Director for Memphis when he committed suicide at age forty-two.

The emergence of Edmund Orgill as a candidate for mayor was only natural.  Orgill announced he was running as an Independent and promptly took a leave of absence from Orgill Brothers, the family business.  Orgill also resigned as a director of Union Planters National Bank.  Edmund Orgill’s platform included civil service for city employees, consolidation of city and county services, as well as seeking home rule for Memphis.  Orgill said he would do his best to implement a “Little Hatch Act” for Memphis.  Edmund Orgill’s proposals were a far cry from the previous administrations dominated by E. H. Crump.

The day after Orgill’s announcement, Edward J. Meeman published an editorial endorsing the new mayoral candidate.  Meeman wrote Edmund Orgill was offering Memphians a “Program of Progress” for the future of their city.  In his announcement, Orgill had urged those who wanted to help to telephone him.  He gave his number at Orgill Brothers, which Meeman praised as “getting right down to business.”

Unlike a contest between Frank Tobey and Watkins Overton, both of whom had ties to the late Ed Crump, Edmund Orgill had come to notice by defying the Memphis Boss by supporting candidates opposed by the machine.  Edmund Orgill and Watkins Overton represented two very different visions for the future of Memphis.  Both campaigns did not lack money, but there were constant reminders of past associations throughout the campaign, especially those of former mayor Watkins Overton.

Kenneth D. McKellar, Tennessee’s longest-serving United States senator, was living in retirement in a suite of rooms at the Gayoso Hotel in downtown Memphis after having been defeated in 1952.  McKellar and Watkins Overton had worked together for the betterment of Memphis for decades and were personal friends.  The former senator’s nephew Judson was Overton’s campaign manager.  It hardly surprised anyone Senator McKellar was supporting his friend Watkins Overton.  McKellar wrote in a letter to Overton, “This note is merely to say I will support and vote for you in the upcoming municipal election and with real pleasure and satisfaction.”

Overton had begun practicing law as an associate with the law firm where McKellar was the senior partner, a fact the former senator noted in his letter.  “I can never forget that day in the long ago, when you came into our law office to begin there your professional life.  You were one of the most conscientious, able, modest, delightful and attractive youngsters in Memphis.”  McKellar recalled both of Overton’s wealthy grandfathers, Colonel John Overton and Napoleon Hill, were clients of the senator’s law firm as well as “two of the best citizens Memphis ever had.”  McKellar warmly recalled Watkins Overton’s administration as mayor and closed his letter by writing, “If you were a member of my family, I could not think more of you.  I am very proud of you and your former record as mayor, and wish you every success.”

Overton and Orgill had crossed rhetorical swords before.  Edmund Orgill, Lucius Burch and Edward J. Meeman had joined together to form the Civic Research Committee for Memphis to study local issues, which advocated a mayor–city council local government and lauded “city planning.”  Then-Mayor Watkins Overton had written a stinging letter to Lucius Burch, stating, “Your talk of wanting more efficient government is very thin camouflage; it’s easy to see through.  What you are trying to do is destroy Memphis’ present efficient government so you can take over.”  As to the CRC, Mayor Overton told a reporter from the Memphis Commercial Appeal, “As a matter of fact, it was conceived by Lucius Burch, Edmund Orgill and others as a strictly political move to discredit the city government, and to try and force city and county management on the people of this city.”

The members of CRC had intended to support Frank Tobey for mayor in the 1955 mayoral campaign, especially as it became more likely Watkins Overton would run.  While Overton was a veteran politician, Edmund Orgill was no stranger to politics.  Orgill had been prominently involved in campaigns in the 1948, 1952, and 1954 election cycles.  In January of 1955, Orgill had traveled to Washington, D. C. where he hosted a luncheon for the members of Tennessee’s Democratic members of the House of Representatives.  According to Congressman Percy Priest of Nashville, Orgill had wished to discuss possible legislation pertaining to the expansion of the North Atlantic Treaty.

Ed Meeman’s Press-Scimitar avidly promoted Edmund Orgill’s mayoral candidacy throughout the remainder of the campaign, while the Commercial Appeal sided with former mayor Watkins Overton.

Mayor Walter Chandler in speaking before the Public Affairs Council noted Memphians would have three choices as to their form of government on the November ballot.  Chandler proceeded to rap the “strong mayor” proposal supported by Watkins Overton in the head.  “If a Mayor’s a good Mayor, he’s a strong Mayor,” Chandler said.  “But you cannot have one man wise enough to run a great city like Memphis.”  Chandler told his listeners when a mayor could not agree with the city commissioners “it’s time for a change” and noted he had had no trouble during his own seven years as mayor of Memphis.

“A man’s got no business resigning and quitting in a huff and going home,” when meeting opposition by commissioner, Chandler said.  That was a direct blow to Watkins Overton, but Walter Chandler also pointed out the primary defect of the city manager–council form of government preferred by Edmund Orgill.

“The fact is, the manager is at the mercy of the council . . .  Sooner or later you have log rolling.”  That was supposedly the very evil the commission government was supposed to prevent.  “The manager is answerable only to the council,” Chandler pointed out, “and you’ll find some cities that have it that are very anxious to get rid of it.”

Walter Chandler favored neither type of government advocated by Watkins Overton or Edmund Orgill.  Chandler liked the mayor–city commission type of government best.

With a very late start, the Orgill campaign hurried to organize itself.  George W. Grider became manager of the Orgill for Mayor campaign.  Grider was a Navy veteran, a former submarine commander and a local attorney who would later serve on the Shelby County Commission, as well as a term in Congress.

As the campaign progressed, Orgill reminded voters of some of the aspects of Overton’s sixteen years as mayor of Memphis.  When Overton complained Orgill was slinging mud, the Press-Scimitar retorted, “If Orgill comes up with a shovel full of ‘mud,’ that’s Overton’s fault.  It’s his record.  Not Orgill’s.”

In the end, Edmund Orgill won a smashing victory over Watkins Overton.  Memphis preferred to look to the future rather than return to the past.  Edmund Orgill quite nearly won the Democratic nomination for governor in 1958.  Orgill remained prominent in the business and political life of Memphis until his death in 1982.

Watkins Overton died in 1958 from throat cancer, leaving behind his third wife and two small children, including a four-month-old son.