You can have a reasonable argument as to whether Walter Armstrong, Leo Bearman, Mike Cody, or Lucius Burch is the best lawyer around,” Lucius Burch wrote in 1975, “but you can’t have a reasonable argument as to who has been the most insulted man in Memphis. It is I.
“One example will make the point. During the Estes Kefauver campaign [he was the successful Democratic candidate for Senate in 1948], I made many speeches throughout the state in behalf of his candidacy, and some of my remarks about the state of politics in Shelby County were not well received by the political establishment here.
“At a meeting held at the Catholic Club to discuss the campaign strategy for Judge Mitchell [Kefauver’s opponent],” Burch continues, “one young attorney about my own age said: ‘I won’t take your time by telling you that Lucius Burch is a son-of-a-bitch. You all know that. What I’m telling you is that he’s a super-serviceable son-of-a-bitch, and by that I mean 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 a shortage!’”
To be sure, it takes an extraordinary man to inspire such imaginative political invective. But then, Lucius Burch is no ordinary man. Trial lawyer, scholar, political activist, champion of individual rights, outdoorsman, naturalist, world traveler, writer — he’s all of these, and more. There is practically no field of endeavor in which Lucius Burch is not interested, and precious few in which he doesn’t excel.
For nearly 50 years Burch has been prodding us to be more progressive than we are. Born in Nashville in 1912, he spent his early years at Riverwood, his family’s plantation there. At 11, he was sent off to military school in Mississippi; at 15, he was expelled for insubordination. “I grew up a fairly spoiled young man,” he says now (1985). “My father was a prominent man in Nashville [dean of Vanderbilt Medical School], and my grandfather had been interested in politics — frequently violently. It never occurred to me that I had to be careful about what I said.”
By 1936 Burch was a brash young attorney working in his uncle Charles Burch’s Memphis law firm. His aim was to practice corporate law, not politics. But he soon chafed at the enormous power of E.H. Crump’s*** political machine, and it wasn’t long before he began speaking out against it.
In one way or another, Burch has been challenging the status quo in Memphis ever since. Though he’s never sought public office (“It’s a form of life that is repugnant to my personal lifestyle,” he says), he has consistently concerned himself with public issues. While cities like Birmingham and Little Rock exploded with racial violence during the late Fifties and early Sixties, it was Lucius Burch and the biracial Memphis Committee on Community Relations, so largely influenced by his ideas, that helped keep Memphis cool. Later on, when it became obvious that the old city commission form of government no longer served our needs, it was Burch who spearheaded formation of the Program of Progress committee that shaped our present mayor/council set-up. (It should be noted, however, that Burch’s own preference was, and still is, for a city manager rather than a mayor.)
All that, of course, is the public side of Lucius Burch. But it’s the other side of his life, or rather, the many other sides, that stagger the imagination. Carrying on a lifelong love affair with the great outdoors, he has at one time or another: dived to the bottom of the sea for sunken treasure (and successfully recovered dozens of long-lost artifacts, including the cannon that first saluted the American flag,
which now resides in the Smithsonian Institution); hunted eagles for bounty in Alaska (“I wish it hadn’t happened,” he would write many years later, “but my conscience doesn’t bother me because it was done under the auspices of the best scientific and environmental knowledge then extant.”); spearfished for barracuda in the Gulf of Mexico (“Barracudas are not ferocious,” he insists. “They just look ferocious.”); palled around with Ernest Hemingway in Pamplona and hunted with him in Cuba; and sailed, back-packed, and scaled mountains in just about every corner of the globe.
His derring-do as a pilot is almost as legendary as Chuck Yeager’s. For years he commuted to his downtown office each day at the controls of his own single-engine Bonanza, landing on [the little airfield that once ran down the middle of] Mud Island in the morning, and returning to his home in Collierville each night by flying in under the utility wires to land on a makeshift airstrip lighted only by two smudge pots. And those were just his run-of-the-mill trips. Veterans of longer jaunts in Burch’s flying machines tend to describe their experiences in words usually reserved for horror-film commercials. (“Terror in the night,” one called it.)
They tell, for example, of Burch’s unnerving habit of switching the controls to autopilot, settling down for a nap, and advising his passengers to “let me know if you see something.” They also tell of the time when Burch, stranded in Puerto Rico by a chipped propeller and annoyed by mechanics’ claims that it would take two weeks to fix it, picked up a hacksaw, sawed off the end of the broken propeller, evened off the prop on the opposite side to match, climbed into his plane, and calmly took off. “Lucius is absolutely fearless,” says one longtime friend. “He’s so assured about his ability and his place in life that no one and nothing can make him back off.”
Nor does he back off from speaking his mind. We visited with Lucius Burch on two occasions not too long ago and found him, at 73, as frank — and frankly controversial — as ever:
Memphis: Let’s begin back in 1936, when you moved to Memphis. You were only 24 at the time and the ink was barely dry on your law degree from Vanderbilt, yet almost immediately you incurred the wrath of political boss E.H. Crump. How did that come about?
Burch: As a young lawyer I was representing the Illinois Central Railroad, and I spoke out about the unfairness of corporate taxation and the unfairness of the views of the administration about the utilities. (Crump was in favor of publically owned utilities and directly responsible for founding MLGW in 1934. Downtown’s peculiarly named November 6th Street commemorates that event.) I didn’t know then, as I later learned, that it’s characteristic of almost all dictators — all people who have a tremendous amount of power — that you cannot agree with them 90 percent of the time and be their friend. You’ve got to agree 100 percent, or you’re an enemy. So I became an enemy of Mr. Crump, and having become an enemy, there was nothing to do besides try to dig myself out of the rubble and to make the best resistance that I could. It was repugnant to me — and I was thinking mostly about myself rather than having any great, far-reaching view about the glories of democracy — that anybody could restrain what I thought or said or did. And then, as you usually do, you try to rationalize your position. So I expanded it into how terrible it was for everybody. Being in opposition, I saw how very stifling Crump’s control was, and if it was stifling to me to the fourth power, it was stifling to blacks and labor leaders and other people to the twentieth power.
In fact, how complete was Crump’s control?
It’s impossible today to realize the absolute control that Mr. Crump had over the community. You couldn’t be elected an officer in the Bar Association, you couldn’t hold a position in the American Legion, you couldn’t be a teacher, you couldn’t be anything unless Mr. Crump blessed it.
Did your opposition to the Crump machine make it difficult for you to build a successful law practice?
Oh, certainly. Very difficult. It started out as a terrible burden. But it ended up being a great benefit. As I said, I represented the Illinois Central, and Crump sent an emissary down to see the general counsel [for Illinois Central], who was here on a private call. And he said if they wanted to get on in Memphis, they had to get rid of me. Fortunately, the general counsel was the sort of man who didn’t respond to that. What normally happened in a situation like that, if you were a prospective client and you saw in the paper all the time that Lucius Burch was persona non grata, you would naturally want to go to somebody who was a little less controversial. But the result was that I got the reputation of, I suppose, having a competitive set of glands or something. So I got the legal surgery. I got the cases that were difficult, and a lot of them paid extremely well. And I got my start as a trial lawyer, which principally I have been ever since. So it was not all bad.
The election of Estes Kefauver to the Senate in 1948 was pivotal in that it marked the first time in decades that a candidate won a statewide election without Crump’s support. Tell us about your role in Kefauver’s campaign.
The first person that really launched and maintained an on-going fight against Mr. Crump was [then-Memphis Press-Scimitar editor] Ed Meeman, and Ed Meeman and I became friends as a result of our common interest there. We realized that there was never any chance of doing anything unless people who were not vulnerable in some way would stand up and fight. So the first olive out of the bottle, so to speak, was Edmund Orgill. Edmund Orgill was president of the Chamber of Commerce, and the president of Orgill Brothers, he was respected, and he came from a very old family here. Nobody could lay a finger on him about anything.
And Ed Orgill just happened to be very interested in something that I became very interested in at the time, which was the idea of extending the Association of North Atlantic Countries into a federal union. I took a book about it [Union Now, by Clarence Streit] up to Estes Kefauver and got him to read it, and he became enthused about it and promised, if he were elected senator, to support it — which he did. So based on that, we were able to get Ed Orgill to join up [in support of Kefauver], and following that, five or six others joined.
This was a group that Crump couldn’t intimidate or run out of town, and although we didn’t carry Shelby County, we did get enough votes for Kefauver to cut down on the usual majority in Shelby County [enjoyed by Crump-backed candidates], and Kefauver won. And that was the beginning of the end for Mr. Crump.
What other factors contributed to the decline of Crump’s power?
After the Kefauver campaign, we formed something known as the Civic Research Committee. Most of the same people were involved. It grew to about 50, and with the help of the Press-Scimitar and people really being involved in a community effort, which was very unusual for those days, we were able to get things that broke the back of the machine. We got voting machines, we got civil service for public employees — things that the machine had to have to keep its hand in. And from then on it was gradually downhill until Mr. Crump died [in 1954].
Would you like to see a form of the Civic Research Committee operating today?
Yes, I would. I think it’s very, very badly needed.
If such a group did exist, what kinds of problems would you like to see it try to solve?
Well, the big thing municipally right now is taxation. It’s absolutely shocking that all of our taxes are regressive. That the city doesn’t have a payroll tax, and the state doesn’t have an income tax, is barbarous — the result largely of ignorance. If you had [a group] in the community who were thought to have good sense and have community interest at heart, and if they would come out and say, “Look, we’ve got to stop taxing the poor people in this community — we’ve got to spread this burden around,” they could do something about that sort of thing, and much simpler things — what we’re going to do about the railroad tracks along the river, stuff like that. And if you had 30 or 40 people like Fred Smith, they could do it. But there’s no forum for it.
Nor, apparently, is there anyone to assume the role of organizer, as you did.
Well, I was forced into it. I don’t know whether if I’d come down here to Memphis and Mr. Crump had said, “Look, I’m going to make you attorney for the Park Commission,” and if he’d bought me like he bought others, he might have been successful. I’d like to think not. But a better answer is that at the time Crump died, the people that are my age and ten years younger — not 2 percent of them could have told you the difference between the County Court and County Commission. They had been so satisfied and so apathetic about public life that it was sort of demeaning to have to do anything about it. And in the time that it took the vacuum to fill — and it’s not completely filled yet — Dallas and Houston and everybody else were off and running. But the old families — the Snowdens, the Hills, the Boyles — none of them took any part in civic affairs. Hopefully, some of their children will.
In 1958, in an attempt to help Memphis avoid the violent desegregation battles then raging in cities like Little Rock and Birmingham, you called together members of the black and white power structures in Memphis to form the Memphis Committee on Community Relations. What were some of the activities of the committee?
The blacks were trying to assert their legal rights — they didn’t want to sit in the back of the bus, they wanted to go into Lowenstein’s and sit at the lunch counter, they wanted to be able to drink out of the fountain at the courthouse. So, what the committee did, it trained cadres of blacks who wouldn’t lose their cool. If they went to the picture show and somebody said, “What are you goddamned niggers doing at the picture show?” they weren’t going to start a fight or a riot. They’d just say, “Aw, come on, let’s forget it.” And over a period of several years the community was able to desegregate all of the public facilities — can you believe it? The library used to be segregated! — and it went off without any major violence.
Until the sanitation workers’ strike in 1968.
Right. I would say the blackest day that I know of in Memphis occurred during the garbage strike when everybody was interested in settling it. People were truly concerned about it. A lot of people realized that you had to do something to meet the demands of the garbage workers, and a lot of people were very, very uptight about recognizing any city union. And there was merit in both views. But as a result of rather clandestine negotiations with Jerry Wurf, who was representing the garbage workers’ union, [then-City Councilman] Downey Pryor and I took a letter up to City Hall [in which the union offered] to settle the strike with the city giving up nothing more than the union dues, which were nominal, could be collected in a check-off. They [then-Mayor Henry Loeb and his advisors] refused to do it, and from then on, there was nothing for the union to do but fight. They had to. Take a mouse and crowd him into a corner, and finally he’s going to have to try to bite his way out. That’s what they did from then on, right up to the assassination of Martin Luther King.
You represented Dr. King, didn’t you?
Yes, I was asked by the American Civil Liberties Union to represent King, and I did. When the city got an injunction [to prevent him from holding a second march through downtown Memphis], I went to court and got the injunction dissolved so that he could have the march the next day. By the time I got home, the telephone was ringing with the news that he’d been killed.
And was the strike ultimately settled according to the terms of the letter you had taken to Mayor Loeb earlier?
The earlier offer was less than the ultimate settlement, because our agreement didn’t have any pay increase in it at all. And the final agreement included a slight increase in pay, which, as you know, Abe Plough*** picked up.
The MCCR gave way after 1968 to the official Memphis/Shelby County Human Relations Commission, and since then you have become less and less involved with civil-rights activities. Why?
The thing that I was interested in was to see that blacks had equal access to all public facilities, and that they were fully protected in their legal rights. That point has been passed for a decade. The black struggle, as far as that goes, is a thing of the past.
What is your opinion of affirmative action as a civil-rights tool?
I think affirmative action is racist, and I’ll have to give you a long answer as to why. If you say that because blacks are 50 percent of the community they should have 50 percent of the jobs, either in the private sector or the public sector, immediately that is racist, because you say they have that right just because of their race. Suppose one of my law partners calls me up and says, “Look, I’ve got two girls down here. One is white and one is black, and they both want jobs as law clerks, and the black girl is slightly better qualified.” And I say, “Let’s don’t hire a lot of blacks up here and make a lot of friction. Let’s hire the white girl.” Now, obviously, I have discriminated against that black girl because of her race. That is wrong. It is depriving her of her constitutional rights.
But turn it around. Suppose my partner says, “I’ve got two girls down here, one is black and one is white, and the white girl is slightly better qualified.” And I talk to them both and say, “Well, we need some black faces here. We’ve got a few, but we need a few more. So we’re going to take the black girl.” We’ve discriminated against the white girl because she is white. And it’s just as wrong. It’s just as much a deprivation of her rights as it would be in the other case. So I think the Supreme Court was right in [the] Bakke [case],*** and I can’t get interested in affirmative action.
What about the argument that it’s up to us to redress the injustices of the past?
I don’t buy that at all. I don’t feel an obligation to redress anything except the things which I participated in doing. Everything is unjust. I don’t look like [Robert] Redford; none of the women in my life ever looked like Bo Derek; I’m not nearly as smart as Einstein — it’s unjust. But unless the injustice is in some way institutionalized, unless there is some law or institution that perpetuates it, I think we’re going to have to let everybody work it out as best they can, just like the Jews and the Irish and the Japanese and everybody else that had to do it. Although, admittedly, it’s going to be tougher on blacks because they wear such a distinctive uniform.
If we may, let’s turn to your profession. Looking back, which have been your most satisfying cases?
Well, the best known, but not by any means the most difficult cases, were representing Martin Luther King the day he was killed, and representing Fred Smith when he was indicted in Arkansas some years ago. It was alleged in the indictment that he had borrowed money from a national bank over there by presenting them with a buy-back letter on some pledged stock that he had no authority to sign. He was tried over there and properly acquitted. This was a very important case because it was just when Federal Express was getting started, and if Fred Smith had gone down then, there would be no Federal Express.
Have you ever argued a case before the United States Supreme Court?
I’ve only been before the Supreme Court of the United States on three occasions, and I didn’t regard it as anything very unusual. Where you get your lift out of trying lawsuits is if you’ve got a hard personal injury case you try, and it comes in with a really good, big verdict, or if you’re defending one. The results of jury trials, either civil or criminal — that’s where the lift comes, at least for me.
Whom do you prefer to represent — the plaintiff or the defendant?
The plaintiff in civil cases and the defendant in criminal cases.
Did you ever consider any profession other than law?
No. I came of a medical family — my father was dean of Vanderbilt Medical School and my brother was a very fine, very successful surgeon — but I was no good at chemistry or math, so there was no chance that I was going to become a doctor. So the law was the other alternative, but until I was in law school I was a very poor student.
That’s very difficult to believe.
Well, believe me, it’s so. If anybody asks me what I majored in in undergraduate school I say mathematics, because it took me the whole four years to get out of freshman math.
At what point, then, did you develop your academic curiosity?
I had a good experience. I lived on a farm out from Nashville, and I became friends in my freshman year with a fellow named Albert Erskine from Memphis, who was a fine English student. And I went with him one afternoon to meet a friend of his who was coming in from somewhere to teach at Vanderbilt. His name was Robert Penn Warren, known as “Red” Warren then. And he had no place to go. There was a house on my father’s farm that was unoccupied, and so he and his wife came out there to stay for a couple of years.
Thus I was thrown into the society of Warren, and Andrew Lytle, who is one of the greatest conversationalists who ever lived, and Donald Davidson — you know, the people who were in the [Southern] Agrarian group. And they had quite an effect on me, and on my thinking, which has persisted to the present. And that is why I got interested in the printed page, and I carried that into law school, and I became a very good student.
Tell us about Ernest Hemingway. How did you meet him, and what was he like?
When I was 17 my mother sold the hay crop and got $700 for it, and she decided that was a good opportunity to send me to Europe with an aunt of mine who lived in England. So I went over there and we spent the summer — she and two boys about my age — down at a little place in the Pyrenees.
It was an idyllic situation, but I hated every minute of it. I was 17 and just discovering girls and beginning to move about a bit, and there was nothing to do.
I heard that there was a place called Pamplona that wasn’t very far away, and they had a lot going on over there, so I got on the train and went to Pamplona. I spoke very little French at the time, and no Spanish, and when I got there they told me there was an American living there who turned out to be Ernest Hemingway. He was about 30 or 32 at the time. I’d never heard of him — never read anything that he’d written — but he was very, very kind to me.
The next time I ran into him was in the late Forties and early Fifties, in Cuba. Of course, he was a very famous man by that time, and a great live pigeon shot, and I saw something of him then. One of the worst afternoons I ever spent was at a club in Cuba where they shoot live pigeons, which was a pretty expensive sport even then, because you had to pay for the pigeons and then pay for shooting them. There was a cotton man from Memphis who was a friend of mine, and we went down there to meet Hemingway.
Well, my friend was drinking and Hemingway was drinking, and they got up a pretty good bet on shooting those live pigeons. And this cotton man, he just absolutely wiped up the turf with Hemingway. It was no contest. And Hemingway became the most unpleasant, surly, disagreeable person I believe I ever saw. He was, of course, a very complex individual. If you were no threat to him, he was the most charming person in the world. But to anybody that he considered pushing him in any way, he could be one of the most unpleasant people I ever knew.
You are well known for the vitality and vigor of your personal lifestyle, and for the fact that so many of your favorite pastimes seem to involve an element of risk. Would you characterize yourself as a man who enjoys living dangerously?
No, not at all. I’m rather cautious.
Many of your friends — particularly those who have flown with you — would argue the point.
But it’s true. I am cautious. Of course, one thing that is absolutely certain is that in the course of infinity, everything that can happen will happen. That’s beyond argument. And if you do anything long enough, things will happen. If you fly an airplane as I have, particularly under the conditions that I have, you’re going to have some problems. I had one serious airplane crash, and some minor ones. The one when I was really hurt, I was coming in here in the middle of a storm one night. Like every other bad accident, that one was due to bad judgment — pilot error.
Would you describe yourself as a man’s man?
Not at all. I am a man of the new wave. Matter of fact, I’m well ahead of my time. I began to regard women as people long before it was fashionable. Of course, my wilderness trips are the things that attract attention, but they are not the important parts of my life. The things I do most are reading, writing — very pedestrian stuff.
What kind of people do you enjoy spending time with the most?
All sorts of people. I enjoy my friends in The Egyptians, which is a literary society. I enjoy the people I spend time with in the mountains who can hardly write, yet are good with horses and understand what snow formations will likely cause an avalanche. I like people who know how to tie flies. I like people who are interested in airplanes. I just like people, and I haven’t any particular strata of people that I like better than others.
If you could sum up your personal philosophy in one statement, what would it be?
I believe that the highest end in life is to let everybody have the opportunity to develop to the limit of their capacity, and that anything that encourages that is good, and anything that opposes that is evil. I believe more than anything else that society should be constructed in order to recognize the personhood of citizens, and to allow them to develop as individuals with individual dignity.