Memphis, Without the Mississippi 

Looking at what really matters to our western neighbors

Looking at what really matters to our western neighbors

Reporter John Branston has lived in and observed Memphis for the past 22 years. In Rowdy Memphis: The South Unscripted (Cold Tree Press, 282 pp., $15.95), he collects his best stories, many of them first published in Memphis magazine or in The Memphis Flyer, an alternative newsweekly similar to the Scene. The book is "the first rough draft of history," he says, and makes no attempt to impose a narrative order on events. To do so would be especially difficult for Memphis, Branston argues: The city's character is essentially disorderly.

Branston skips "Elvis, barbeque, the blues, Baptists, or the mighty Mississippi River," the kinds of things that have shaped Memphis' national image, in favor of the inside people and issues that matter to Memphians. Most of his subjects relate to politics, sports, integration and school desegregation, and business—especially real estate development, gambling and the warehouse and distribution industry. The big names are all here: Edward Hull ("boss") Crump, "the most powerful man in Memphis for half a century"; U. S. Attorney Hickman Ewing Jr. of Whitewater fame; U. S. Representative Harold Ford; businessman William Tanner; FedEx's Fred Smith; James Earl Ray and those riding conspiracy theories around him; U.S. District Judge Robert S. McRae, who imposed controversial busing plans on the city; and Richard Fields, the civil rights lawyer who pushed many far-reaching reforms through the courts. A few stories don't fit the classifications, however, such as the features on historian/writer Shelby Foote, and on pioneer anti-government outlaw Gordon Kahl.

While the politics and business features are good sources for anybody who might try to make sense of Memphis history, some of Branston's best writing comes in the stories of lesser-known Memphians. He tells of Jacqueline Smith, for example, evicted from the Lorraine Motel when it became a National Civil Rights Museum in 1987, and protesting across the street ever since. He also relates his own descent into the grubby world of the warehouse worker for a look at the Memphis bottom. His final ruminations on the old days in the journalism of the backwater South and on the changed face of modern newsmakers adds perspective, like a movie trailer, to both Memphis and how the reader sees it.

—RALPH BOWDEN

While the politics and business features are good sources for anybody who might try to make sense of Memphis history, some of Branston's best writing comes in the stories of lesser-known Memphians. He tells of Jacqueline Smith, for example, evicted from the Lorraine Motel when it became a National Civil Rights Museum in 1987, and protesting across the street ever since. He also relates his own descent into the grubby world of the warehouse worker for a look at the Memphis bottom. His final ruminations on the old days in the journalism of the backwater South and on the changed face of modern newsmakers adds perspective, like a movie trailer, to both Memphis and how the reader sees it.

—RALPH BOWDEN

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