Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Love Story

Former Shelby County mayor Bill Morris is now a full-time caregiver.

Posted By on Wed, Feb 29, 2012 at 11:33 AM

Anyone with aging parents or a spouse battling illness or loneliness should be so fortunate as to have someone like Bill Morris in their life.

Morris was sheriff of Shelby County from 1964 to 1970 and Shelby County mayor from 1978 to 1994. Assassin James Earl Ray was his prisoner, and Elvis Presley was one of his running buddies. But for the last 14 years, Morris has spent nearly all of his time at his home in East Memphis taking care of his wife Ann, who suffered a series of strokes. When he attended the press conference to announce that the University of Memphis will join the Big East Conference, it was a rare public appearance and a personal triumph for the Tiger booster.

Sheriff Bill Morris with James Earl Ray
  • Sheriff Bill Morris with James Earl Ray

"I had a big life, but the biggest and most rewarding part came after I retired," he said when we met last week.

A big life indeed. William Noel Morris, 79, grew up poor in North Mississippi. After a year of junior college, he enrolled at what was then Memphis State University where he studied journalism. He knew the business from the inside out. As the youngest journeyman printer in Mississippi, he had spent countless hours putting out the Itawamba County Times.

One day, he decided to interview the most famous man in Memphis, Edward "Boss" Crump, also a Mississippi native.

"He questioned me more than I questioned him," Morris said.

The great man liked what he saw in the cub reporter and wound up not only giving him a story but also placing some badly needed advertising in the "Tiger Rag."

Journalism's loss was politics' gain. Morris was a natural at selling. He rapidly climbed the ranks through the Jaycees and in 1964 was elected sheriff. His most famous prisoner was Ray, who was in his custody from July through December in 1968. Ray confessed to killing Martin Luther King Jr., but, then as now, Morris believed he had helpers who were not prosecuted.

"History is not finished with the role that others played in the assassination," he said.

He was elected county mayor in 1978. The roles of politico and reporter were reversed when I came to see him during his second term. When a big idea had Morris by the ear, brevity and sentence structure were early casualties. I glanced over at press assistant Tom Jones for help. Jones smiled and turned his palms upward. I don't remember what I wrote, but between the mayor's babbling and my incompetence I'm sure we made a hash of things.

Morris and his wife were close friends of Elvis. Ann Norton (her maiden name) graduated with Elvis from Humes High School in 1953. "To a real cute girl," Elvis wrote in her yearbook. He was pale, pimply, and two years from stardom. Two pages of the yearbook are devoted to students deemed most athletic, best-looking, most likely to succeed, most talented, most popular, and so on. The future King of Rock-and-Roll got blanked.

Morris proposed to Ann on a Thursday, and they got married the following Saturday in 1953. "I borrowed $20 and a car," Morris said. He joined the Army, and they moved to South Carolina.

They have been married 58 years and have four children. Ann suffered a massive stroke when she was 61 years old. There was no warning. She was a vibrant woman with a background in nursing.

"I never looked back," Morris said. "We closed the chapter on the past 14 years ago."

He is with her, alone, for some 100 hours a week. She cannot walk or say too much, but they play cards, plan and share meals, and he takes her to doctor appointments in her wheelchair. He tries to create humor under the most adverse circumstances and smiles at the memory of the old days when people, himself included, thought he was a hot shot.

"She is the greatest trouper of all troupers," he said. "I make her as comfortable as I can. I never feel put upon. Little did I realize I was taking more than I was giving."

Last year, family and friends of Morris contacted me about helping him write a book. I was skeptical, knowing from personal experience that the market for Memphis history is limited. I had heard that he was a pack rat. But I was not prepared for his vast collection of pictures, papers, memorabilia, and articles. A picture is worth a thousand words. Morris is a storyteller supreme. To make a long story short, as he likes to say, we settled on a special feature in an upcoming issue of the Flyer's sister publication Memphis magazine. I hope you'll look for it.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Forbidden Words

Unspeakable: a slur for every letter in the alphabet.

Posted By on Wed, Feb 22, 2012 at 10:13 AM

In case you missed it, an ESPN editor was fired last weekend for using an ethnic slur in a headline about Jeremy Lin, the point guard for the New York Knicks whose parents are from Taiwan.

The offending headline about Lin's subpar game included the phrase "chink in the armor." Both ESPN and the editor apologized, and Lin said he was moving on.

"I don't think it was on purpose or whatever, but they have apologized and so from my end I don't care anymore," he said.

But like all things Lin, the story had legs.

At lunch on Monday, John Malmo predicted that the "c" word would take its place alongside the "n" word. Outside the realm of hate speech and anonymous rants, such words are considered acceptable only by special dispensation to artists, actors, authors of fiction, and members of the ethnic group in question.

Malmo was not defending the words. As co-founder of the Archer-Malmo advertising agency, he has made a nice living helping clients choose the right words and avoid the wrong ones. He was making a prediction that there would soon be a slew of unspeakable words for every group and practically every letter of the alphabet — a "d" word for Italians, a "k" word for Jews, an "h" word or "r" word for white rural Southerners, and so on. And he noted that this was odd given the anything-goes state of prime-time television and PG-rated movies.

Bearing him out, later that day this news was reported:

"The use of that term is appalling and offensive," Congresswoman Judy Chu said on MSNBC. "The 'c' word is for Asian-Americans like the 'n' word is for African-Americans."

Such controversies are nothing new.

In 1937, in his study The American Language, H.L. Mencken addressed the origins of euphemisms, forbidden words, and ethnic slurs in America.

"The English have relatively few aliens in their midst, and in consequence they have developed nothing comparable to our huge repertory of opprobrious names for them," he wrote.

His list includes several shockers as well as words that have long lost their sting such as canuck (the nickname of the Vancouver professional hockey team), yellow-belly, bootchkey, lime-juicer, squarehead, pretzel, hunk, harp, skibby, goose, buffalo, scowoogian, and herring choker.

"The effects of race antagonism upon language are still to be investigated," he wrote.

Some groups offered guidance to editors.

"If a Jew is convicted of a crime, he should not be called 'a Jewish criminal'; and on the other hand, if a Jew makes a great scientific discovery he should not be called an eminent 'Jewish scientist.'

"The Jews are not the only indignant visitors to American editorial offices. In Chicago in the heyday of Al Capone, the local Italians made such vociferous objection to the use of 'Italian' in identifying gunmen that the newspapers began to use 'Sicilian' instead."

Why Sicilians did not object is not known.

In 1930, The New York Times announced that it would capitalize Negro thereafter, yielding to pleas from what was then called the Association for the Advancement of Colored People.

Negro and colored were replaced, in our time, by black and African-American. The latter established a beachhead several years ago and it is now the description of choice for, among others, the state of Tennessee and the U.S. Census Bureau, along with Hispanic as opposed to Latino or Mexican.

Language, like morals, evolves. Mencken gives several humorous examples of 19th-century naughty words such as nerts, pregnant, bitch, stallion, castrate, nipple, prostitute, virgin, syphilis, and even leg. Writers, whatever their station, must be wary of both recklessness and political correctness. In Memphis and Shelby County, we are already in the realm of such awkward characterizations as "majority minority."

Many a reporter has been a click away from sending a story with an offensive word or characterization and not while churning out headlines on the graveyard shift like the unfortunate ESPN editor. Aggregators of the work of others can, with clean hands, make an isolated instance or careless comment go viral.

In a highly entertaining performance of Million Dollar Quartet at the Orpheum last week, the actor portraying Jerry Lee Lewis used the phrase "mother-humpin" or maybe it was "mother-jumpin." Anyway, the intent, if not the enunciation, was clear. But I'm not sure it matters.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Big Time and the Big East

What Memphis needs and doesn't need to upgrade football.

Posted By on Wed, Feb 15, 2012 at 11:26 AM

As athletic director R.C. Johnson said, by golly, they did it. The University of Memphis is in the Big East Conference starting in 2013.

And, by golly, it's about time and somewhat miraculous given the Tigers' recent ineptitude in football. Memphis will join former Conference USA members Louisville, Cincinnati, South Florida, Marquette, and DePaul, members since 2005, and Central Florida, Houston, and SMU, admitted in 2011. Better late than never.

Looking ahead, in 2013, Memphis will need a bigger travel budget, bigger home crowds, a better team, and by some accounts better facilities, including a new JumboTron video screen, suite upgrades, new playing surface, an indoor training facility, and upgraded press box. Football and basketball pay the bills for the minor sports, and only basketball has been carrying its share of the load lately.

As it prepares to join the Big East, Memphis should look 60 miles to the northwest to Arkansas State University in Jonesboro for inspiration. Arkansas State disproves so many platitudes about how to succeed in college football.

Arkansas State beat Memphis 47-3 last year. The two teams will meet again in Jonesboro on September 8th. For the Tigers, the date is sandwiched between games against UT-Martin and Middle Tennessee State. The Red Wolves, on those dates, will be playing Oregon and Nebraska. Johnson, who will retire this summer, and ASU athletic director Dean Lee made the schedules.

Former ASU coach Hugh Freeze, who earned $210,000 last year, got promoted after the regular season to head coach at Ole Miss. Former Tiger coach Larry Porter, who made nearly $800,000 and got fired after his second season, was hired last week as running backs coach at Arizona State.

Since 2009, Arkansas State has played Auburn, Louisville, Indiana, Illinois, Virginia Tech, Nebraska, and Iowa — trading competitive losses for tough experience and paydays. Over the last three years, the Red Wolves went 18-19. Memphis scheduled few big-name schools and lost anyway. Over the last three years, the Tigers went 5-31.

Arkansas State succeeded without any of the advantages Memphis has and overcame several things that supposedly keep Memphis from being more competitive. Jonesboro is a much smaller city, the Sun Belt is a smaller conference, there are no major corporate sponsors, no big television contract, no local recruiting base, no highly paid coaches, no big screen, no fancy stadium.

What Arkansas State had was better players, better coaches, and a better schedule. Success on the field does not necessarily depend on spending big bucks.

After last week's Big East announcement, representatives of the three tenants of Liberty Bowl Memorial Stadium — the University of Memphis, the Southern Heritage Classic, and the AutoZone Liberty Bowl — met with Mayor Wharton about stadium issues. In recent years, the city has spent millions of dollars from its capital improvements budget for Tiger Lane and seating changes to comply with the Americans With Disabilities Act. Chief administrative officer George Little said the city "already has a full plate with projects like Overton Square and Elvis Presley Boulevard that would have a broader impact."

Taxpayers should not have to pay for additional stadium improvements. The money should come from the tenants, boosters, or user fees.

Can the tenants afford it? I think so. Before appropriating a dime, the city administration and the Memphis City Council should ask the tenants for their budgets and tax returns. Nonprofit organizations are required to make their tax returns public, but the AutoZone Liberty Bowl, unlike most other bowls, does not break out salaries from other expenses.

If the tenants plead hardship, which would be a joke, user fees are another option. A $2 per-ticket surcharge — less than the price of a hot dog or a soft drink at the concession stands — would raise $500,000 a year, based on average announced attendance of 50,000 for the Liberty Bowl and Southern Heritage Classic and 25,000 for U of M over the last 10 years.

"I suggested to one of the tenants that we add a $2 surcharge to pay for the JumboTron," said city councilman Jim Strickland, a season ticket holder for more than 10 years. "The city could advance the cost and then use the surcharge to pay it back." Strickland said the suggestion "was not embraced."

Fine. If the tenants persist, there is a simple solution, well known to every parent: Turn off the television.

Thursday, February 9, 2012

Connecting the World

FedEx founder Fred Smith on Facebook and Mark Zuckerberg.

Posted By on Thu, Feb 9, 2012 at 4:00 AM

Live and let live. Mind your own business. Your work speaks for itself. There's a lot to be said for printed books and newspapers, a reliable old car, a black blazer, and cutting-edge retro. And that Madonna gal is something, isn't she?

Needless to say, I don't know much about Facebook. I tried it half-heartedly out of professional curiosity and a desire to "friend" my children in Montana, who, having better things to do, soon stopped posting things. To me, a friend is someone who will take you to the airport at 5 o'clock in the morning or let your dog out.

Facebook is a big deal though. It is getting ready to go public, which means selling stock, monetizing its 845 million members, and raising as much as $100 billion. Snoops must be ecstatic.

That's a lot of money any way you look at it, so I called someone who knows a lot about entrepreneurs, stock offerings, connecting the world, turning a brand into a household word, and the future: FedEx founder Fred Smith.

Smith, 67, conceived his big idea when he was a student at Yale. Mark Zuckerberg, 27, founded Facebook with three classmates at Harvard in 2004. Federal Express, as it was called then, began operations in 1974. Smith and believers had raised $72 million in venture capital. "Never in American business history had a newly-formed corporation raised such an enormous amount of venture capital," wrote Kenneth Neill, publisher of the Flyer, in Memphis magazine in 1978. These days, $72 million gets you Rudy Gay.

Federal Express went public in 1978 at $24 a share, which rose to $42 within two months. Morgan Keegan made the first trade and rode the wave. The stock has split several times since then and is now around $94. FedEx, with all its airplanes, trucks, hubs, and 290,000 employees, has $41 billion in revenue and a market capitalization (shares times stock price) of $30 billion.

Facebook, whose offering price has not been set, has no fleet of airplanes or hubs and its 2011 revenue was $3.7 billion.

On why he's watching: "One, social media is a huge phenomenon that is important to FedEx in many ways. Two, as best I can tell, my kids are around half of Facebook's traffic — just kidding. And, three, I have met [Facebook COO] Sheryl Sandberg and Mark Zuckerberg at their headquarters, and it is a fascinating thing that is going to have a huge impact, on marketing in particular."

On the Federal Express IPO price: "I don't remember it."

On going public: "We were run with the discipline of a public company. My guess is that it will be more of a culture shock for Facebook just because of the nature of the entity. Their headquarters is more of a campus. It is a publicly held company in name only. The majority of voting shares are held by Mark Zuckerberg. He can run it pretty much the way he wants to run it."

On Zuckerberg: "My impression is that he is a very bright guy, obviously a technical genius. Sheryl Sandberg is a very experienced executive. She is terrific. I think they will hit the ground running, because they have been preparing for some time."

On capital expenses: "What Facebook is doing would be impossible without the enormous networks and capital expenditures in servers of companies like Verizon, Cisco, Hewlett-Packard, and Sprint. Like most things in the history of the industrialized world, several parts and pieces come together, and somebody realizes what they mean in the aggregate if you put them together to do something nobody has ever done before."

On communities: "The Internet gives you the ability to aggregate a community of interest, for good or bad. Long before 9/11, it was a command-and-control system for people who wished the world ill. In the case of FedEx, it allows us to see the wares of the world. If you are interested in buying sprockets for a racing bike, you can look at every one in the world and say 'this one.'"

On new entrepreneurs: "There are people sitting around campus rooms right now, and the Internet allows them to come up with great ideas that don't need a lot of capital. The capital was put up by all those other people. And they're not going to get a $100 billion market cap."

On using Facebook: "FedEx is a very big user, and I am sure we will be a bigger user in marketing and advertising. If you live on Facebook, we want to be a part of that too."

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Capture the Children

The battle for the hearts, minds, and tax dollars of the outer lands.

Posted By on Wed, Feb 1, 2012 at 1:22 PM

The Battle of Gray's Creek: It sounds like a Civil War story. Consolidation, school system merger, financial obligations of municipalities, and annexations. It sounds like a graduate course in public policy or a stimulus bill for lawyers.


Actually, it's the Memphis news agenda for the last two years. And, this week, suburban lawmakers are threatening to undo a 1999 annexation deal, and Mayor A C Wharton and the Memphis City Council are up in arms.

Don't you miss the narrative plot and drama of Tennessee Waltz? And the finality? I do. Trials end. There are bribes and mysteries. Annexations go on for years. There are consultants, planning teams, and 100-page studies.

A short history lesson is in order.

"The annexation of surrounding areas has long been a significant component in the racial politics of Memphis," wrote Rhodes College political scientists Marcus Pohlmann and Michael Kirby in their 1996 book Racial Politics at the Crossroads.

Memphis annexed Frayser in 1958, Parkway Village in 1965, Whitehaven in 1969, Raleigh in the 1970s, and Cordova and Hickory Hill in the 1990s. All of them were majority white at the time the annexations began, and their completion helped preserve a white voting majority in the city until the 1990s.

In 1999, Memphis and the suburban municipalities in Shelby County signed an annexation reserve agreement, divvying up territory like Indian tribes splitting ancestral hunting lands.

"We were the only county in Tennessee that had to develop an annexation reserve area plan," said Louise Mercuro, former deputy division director of the Office of Planning and Development. "I wrote the Shelby County plan and the Memphis plan."

The agreement was hailed by then-mayors Willie Herenton and Jim Rout as "historic" and a "backbone for the growth plans" for the next two decades.

Not quite. After 2000, annexation pretty much ran off the rails. The city council took aim at densely populated southeast Shelby County just about the time the housing market crashed in 2007. Developers pleaded to be left out. Maps were redrawn. The annexation is pending. Memphis took in some commercial strips but not the residential areas of Southwind and Windyke, where property owners got a city tax holiday until 2013. Or Southwind High School, which remains a county school.

No matter how hard it tried for 50 years, Memphis could never catch up with white flight. Tens of thousands of people moved out of the city's grasp to DeSoto County, Mississippi, or to Germantown, Bartlett, and Collierville. Between Census 2000 and Census 2010, the population of Memphis fell from 650,000 to 647,000. In 1970, before several big annexations, it was 624,000.

So which city is bigger? Memphis, St. Louis, or Atlanta? It's a trick question. In land area, Memphis, at 315 square miles, is bigger than St. Louis and Atlanta put together (195 square miles). The people just keep slipping away.

The wedge of unannexed Shelby County between Bartlett and Germantown that is at issue is called the Gray's Creek Basin. Around 1997, Memphis, after years of resistance, agreed to extend the city sewer into it, which opened it up to development. Suburban developer Cary Whitehead Jr. used to say "he who controls the sanitary sewer rules the world." Mercuro says the area has more than 50,000 residents.

When the Memphis City Council meets this week, it will revisit annexation and the 1999 growth agreement. There will be some outrage, some speeches, and some unity among black and white council members and the mayor around the positives of local control and the negatives of state interference and racial politics. Memphis can possibly win the coming battle over the legality of the 1999 agreement and the efforts in Nashville to undermine it.

But it can't win the war for the hearts, minds, tax dollars, and school-age children of suburbanites determined to live outside the Memphis city limits and send their children somewhere other than Memphis City Schools or the future Shelby County merged school system. That has been proven again and again.

The muni mayors and their friends in the General Assembly have their sights on unannexed populations on their borders, just as Memphis did for more than half a century. For Memphis, the name of the game used to be Capture the White Voters. For Bartlett, Collierville, and Germantown, the name of the game now is Capture the Children, to support their future school systems.

Where there's a will there's a way. Maybe not this year, maybe not 2013, but some day.

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