Leading Liberal 

A new book about Lucius Burch reveals a man whose like we may not see again.

At a time when Memphis is afflicted with watery ideas and partisan political in-fighting, if you only buy one book this summer, you could do worse than Lucius: Writings of Lucius Burch.

Burch was a Memphis attorney and adventurer who died in 1996. An outspoken liberal, he fought against Boss Crump, defended Martin Luther King Jr., and befriended the NAACP. The "neophytes" who collected his writings and put out this book with publish-on-demand Cold Tree Press in Nashville -- Cissy Caldwell Akers, Shirley Caldwell-Patterson, Bill Coble, and John Noel -- did Burch and Memphis a service. At 425 pages, it may be a little too long, and the quality is uneven. But Burch had something to say. He led an incredibly full life. And he kept good notes and put his first-class education and wide reading to good use. His travel writings alone are worthy of Paul Theroux or Tim Cahill.

As a lawyer, Burch made good money, but he didn't spend it on box seats, fancy clothes, or a Destin condo. Practicing law, he wrote, "permits more freedom and is most conducive to living an expansive personal life." To him that meant a private plane, a castle in Ireland, hunting and fishing and scuba diving anywhere he wanted to go, and backpacking by himself for weeks at a time. He reasoned that all human motion by whatever means involved risk, and it was just a matter of calculating the odds.

There is a great story in this collection by Tom BeVier, a former reporter for The Commercial Appeal. It's called "The Most of the Buffalo Snort," the reference being to the Indian practice of getting everything out of the buffalo but the snort. When Burch crashed his private plane in a thunderstorm in Memphis in 1972, the city desk got a report that he was dead. BeVier was assigned to write his obituary. Burch survived, despite severe injuries, and he allowed BeVier to accompany him on a hike on the Appalachian Trail two years later. At the age of 62, Burch walked "the obituary writer" nearly to exhaustion and regaled him with stories. It's a kind of local journalism that is nearly extinct.

We can only hope that Burch's type of man and civic leadership is not extinct, but you have to wonder. He was a self-described secular humanist who made no secret of his reliance on reason over religious doctrine. Today's politicians and columnists who wear their Christianity like a badge would have no use for him, nor he for them.

Burch never strayed from liberalism, but some of his best friends were conservatives. No "red staters" versus "blue staters" for him. He delighted in telling the story of a legal adversary who called him a "super-serviceable son-of-a-bitch" because "if you ordered a carload of sons of bitches and the railroad parked the boxcar at your factory and you opened the door and only he stepped out, you wouldn't make a claim against the railroad for shortage."

A hardcore conservationist and namesake of the Wolf River nature preserve in Shelby Farms, he shot eagles for a bounty in Alaska as a young man. He did it not for sport but at the behest of the U.S. Biological Survey and the Territory of Alaska, which were being prodded by ranchers and fishermen who saw the eagle as a predator. What a shocker that would be to some of the less tolerant members of the Sierra Club. But Burch made no apology for it, and this book makes it clear that the range and depth of his youthful experience made him a better and wiser man.

There is not a word about organized sports in this volume, but Burch was a world-class sportsman in a different sense. He dove on shipwrecks in dangerous waters, rode horses on mountain trails above the timber line, and fly-fished for his dinner on solitary hikes in Switzerland. Our local society set grins from the covers of glamour magazines in their tuxedos and black dresses. Burch peers out from the cover of Lucius beneath a slouch hat and wearing an old coat.

In interviews with newspaper reporters, he often said that Memphis had fallen behind Atlanta and Nashville largely because of a failure of leadership, by which he meant not only politicians but leading citizens such as Nashville's "big mules." He was as fallible as anyone, of course. In "Why I Am a Liberal," he defended busing for school desegregation. Integrated schools, he believed, were essential if blacks and whites were to understand each other. "Few people now argue with the correctness of this concept," he said in 1970. Four years later 34,000 white Memphians begged to differ.

What a complicated, fascinating, vigorous man, and how lucky Memphis was to have him for so many years. n

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