Friday, October 20, 2006

Infamous Memphis Censor Built Lincoln American Tower

Posted on Fri, Oct 20, 2006 at 4:00 AM

With all the news about the Lincoln American Tower — one of four downtown buildings heavily damaged or destroyed in last week’s downtown blaze — so far nobody has mentioned the building’s most famous — some would say infamous — tenant.

Lloyd T. Binford, president of the Memphis branch of the Columbia Mutual (later Lincoln American) Insurance Company, had the gleaming white tower built in 1925 overlooking Court Square. But insurance was just his day job; Binford made a name for himself here and across the country as head of the Memphis Censor Board, a job he held from 1928 to 1955. And what a censor he was.

Because he had once been robbed while working as a mail clerk on a train, he forbade the showing of any westerns that featured train robberies. He hated Charlie Chaplin, calling him “that London Guttersnipe” and “a traitor to decency and virtue,” so refused to allow theaters here to show any Chaplin movies. Because Binford disapproved of Ingrid Bergman’s affair with Italian film director Roberto Rossellini, her films were blackballed too. After all, the actress “was living in open and notorious adultery.”

He banned such classics as Rebel Without A Cause because, he claimed, it “promoted juvenile delinquency.”

More troubling, though, was Binford’s attitude towards blacks. Though insisting he was not a racist, he made film distributors here actually cut out scenes from movies that showed blacks and whites on an equal footing — such as a classroom scene in Curley (1947), for example, that happened to show black and white children attending a school together. “The South does not recognize social equality between the races,” he explained. Lena Horne’s segment was snipped completely out of Ziegfield Follies (1946), and he banned Imitation of Life (1934) and Brewster’s Millions (1945) because “they gave too much prominence to negroes.”

Binford made Memphis a laughing stock. National publications mocked our city, with Time magazine saying Binford had “been sniffing too many magnolias.” Movies he censored were called “Binfordized” and it’s a fact that Memphians saw films that were shorter than those shown in other cities, though they never realized what had been cut from them.

Nevertheless, he ran the Memphis Censor Board with an iron fist for almost three decades. He died in 1957, and is buried in Elmwood, but his lasting monument in Memphis is the Lincoln American Tower, where he had offices on the top floor.

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