photograph by Amie Vanderford
To make a long story short, as he likes to say himself, Bill Morris has had a big life.
From the time that William Noel Morris Jr. came to Memphis from Fulton, Mississippi, in 1952, he found himself at the center of Memphis history again and again, for more than 40 years. He and his wife, Ann, were close friends of Elvis Presley; she had been his Humes High School classmate. As a student at Memphis State University studying journalism, Morris interviewed Edward H. Crump the year before the legendary political boss died. As a young businessman and member of the Jaycees in the Mad Men era, he watched as Danny Thomas signed contracts to build St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital in downtown Memphis. As a crusading sheriff of Shelby County, he busted up moonshine stills and gambling machines like the G-men on the popular television shows of the day.
And on the afternoon of April 4, 1968, Morris was making an arrest on Riverside Drive when he learned about the shooting of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. at the Lorraine Motel. On June 9, 1968, Ray was captured in London. He was extradited, flown to the Naval Air Station at Millington on July 19, 1968, and given a physical, jail clothes, and a bullet-proof vest. Morris boarded the plane to read Ray his rights, using his real name and all of his aliases. Then Ray was loaded into an armored vehicle and secretly transported to the jail at 3 a.m. The security was extraordinary every hour that Ray was in Memphis. Five years earlier, Lee Harvey Oswald, the accused assassin of John F. Kennedy, had been fatally shot by Jack Ruby while being moved from the jail in Dallas. Ray pleaded guilty in Criminal Court in Memphis on March 10, 1969, and was transferred to state custody.
Morris was Shelby County sheriff from 1964 to 1970. In 1971 he ran for mayor of Memphis against Wyeth Chandler, Henry Loeb’s chosen successor. A third candidate, Juvenile Court Judge Kenneth Turner, was also in the race and got most of the black vote. Morris was marginalized as a moderate, and Chandler was victorious. But he would get another chance to lead a local-government entity.
Shelby County government as we know it today did not exist prior to the mid-1970s. Today’s lingering perception that “the county” is separate from and outside of the city of Memphis is not wholly accidental. Consolidation votes failed in 1962 and 1971. Two separate governments served the different interests of white suburban municipalities and black voting majorities in Memphis. Shelby County’s commission form of government was abolished by the legislature and by voters in a referendum in 1974, and on January 1, 1976, Roy Nixon, a lawman who had been chief deputy for Morris, took office as the first county mayor. Nixon served 18 months, much of it mired in allegations of official corruption. In the 1978 county mayoral election, Morris, running on an “open government” platform, won the office that he would hold for the next 16 years.
Memphis and Shelby County governments would have assumed roughly equal status anyway due to population migration, but Morris accelerated the process by merging some responsibilities, assuming others, and through his political skill. “A great deal of his success can be attributed to the power of his personality,” says current Shelby County Mayor Mark Luttrell. “Bill was good at not taking a second seat to any elected official.” Luttrell, like Morris, Jim Rout, and Roy Nixon before him, followed the same political path from sheriff to county mayor. “The sheriff’s budget is the largest of any single entity in county government, so it’s good preparation for budgets and working with the County Commission.”
As mayor, Morris worked, with varying degrees of comity, with three Memphis mayors — Wyeth Chandler, Dick Hackett, and Willie Herenton — whose combined tenure spanned nearly four decades. For nine of those years, he shared the spotlight with Hackett. They made quite a team. From 1982 to 1991, the names Hackett and Morris were as inseparable locally as those of Smith and Nephew or Baker and Donelson.
“His leadership, partnership, and energy contributed to the betterment of the city,” says Hackett. “I think we showed people you can disagree and still work for the common good. Our different opinions didn’t separate us on all issues. We could get upset over a position that the other would take one day, and move on to something else the next day.”
Morris ended his political career on a sour note, losing the Democratic nomination for governor in 1994 to Phil Bredesen. His retirement soon took an unexpected turn. In 1997, at the age of 61, Ann Morris suffered a severe stroke. The ex-mayor has been her primary caretaker for the last 15 years.
“In the process of caretaking, I find it hard to think back to those exciting years as sheriff and mayor, because those years never gave me the satisfaction that I have now caring for Ann,” he says today. “Now we just simply don’t look back, we look forward. I am also much closer to my family that I am sure I neglected during my political years. Life is what you make of it, and I am proud that Ann and I are making it, together.”
"I worked at a grocery store on Breedlove. Ann Norton went to Humes High School with Elvis. You can see where he signed her yearbook 'To a real cute girl.' I went to their graduation and sat in the balcony. She used to come to the store and we got to be buddies. After she graduated I said I was about to leave Memphis to take a job out of the city for the summer. Then I said, 'Why don't we just get married?' I proposed on a Thursday and we got married on Saturday in Hernando. I borrowed 20 bucks and a car."
The Morrises have been married 59 years and have four children, eight grandchildren, and seven great-grandchildren. Bill keeps himself as busy as ever with fundraising for St. Jude, Lifeblood, and the University of Memphis, with going to church, and with playing weekly rounds of golf. The Morrises still live in the East Memphis house they moved into 40 years ago, the one with the tennis court in the backyard and the flagpole out front, colors always flying.
Morris will be 80 in September. He has lived large. He’s overcome his fear of public speaking and then some. He’s had a good time. He’s traveled the world, and he’s become a collector of memorabilia and scrapbooks and a teller of stories. Many of the pictures in this month’s issue of Memphis have never been previously published.
During several hours of interviews over as many days, Bill Morris was expansive, wary, generous, funny, blunt, guarded, emotional, and even at a loss for words once or twice. Near the end of a final session at the Shelby County Archives, with several employees within earshot, he came across a picture of himself standing in front of The Pyramid. What should the caption be?
“There’s the finest mayor who ever lived and The Pyramid,” he deadpanned.
Everyone cracked up.
Here is Bill Morris in his own words.
"Most sharecroppers like us would migrate to paces like Mobile to find work in the shipyards during World War II. We lived in one-bedroom apartments with shared kitchens. I went to grade school in Mobile on Government Street. At ten I had my first job working a curb market and delivering papers. After I finished the seventh grade in 1946 we moved back to Lee County, Mississippi."
"I would go to work at one o'clock and work until 11 at night. On Wednesday night we printed the paper and the presses ran all night. I worked 66 hours a week, and in the summer when I was out of school 80 to 100 hours a week. The Itawamba County Times was a well-done weekly newspaper with a wide distribution in Mississippi. I'm 16 years old in this picture. How do you like those argyle socks?"
Coming to Memphis
“I came to Memphis in 1952 after junior college to enroll in Memphis State and study journalism. I was 20 years old. I remember meeting Mr. Crump in the summer of 1953. I called him for an interview and talked to his secretary. I told him there were a lot of people who don’t know anything about him except what they read in the papers. I got the interview, and he came out and introduced himself saying ‘I’m Ed Crump.’ I said, ‘I’m Noel Morris and I’m studying journalism and I’m from Fulton, Mississippi.’ He was from Holly Springs, and he questioned me more than I questioned him. That was the key to his success. He made people feel good about themselves. I told him I was selling ads for the college paper, Tiger Rag. And Mr. Crump said to his secretary, ‘Don’t we know some people in the advertising business? Let’s call them and see if we can’t help this boy.’ Within a month you wouldn’t believe the ads I was getting. The money was comin’ in, the paper was doin’ good, and I was, too.”
“I was president of the Jaycees in 1961 and because I was involved in the fundraising I was asked to be present when bids were taken for construction of the hospital. Danny Thomas was at the peak of his popularity as the star of the Danny Thomas Show (called Make Room For Daddy in its first three years) on television. He always had that cigar. He was the neatest, most humble guy you ever knew. This meeting was at the Claridge Hotel. There was a lot of tension because the day before Danny had threatened to take St. Jude out of Memphis. The reason was that the architect was black and he could not stay in the Claridge because this was before the Civil Rights Act. Danny flipped out, but the architect was so cool and just said, ‘Danny, this is reality.’ Danny had a suite at the Rivermont and put him up there. That’s what he’s thinking about here. “Little did I know that I would continue to be involved with St. Jude for 50 years. There was a bit of a crisis in 1986. I think St. Jude felt unloved. The truth of the matter is there were not that many new fundraising events in Memphis. Washington University and the city of St. Louis made a big pitch. Danny never suggested that they were leaving us, but they had an obligation to listen, and they spent a day and a half up there. “They returned to Memphis the next day and Dick Hackett and I both wanted to do something for them in a casual atmosphere. It was my idea to go to Bill’s Grill over in Marion, Arkansas. Hackett almost fainted. But there was no way we could compete with St. Louis on a formal dinner. We started out with pitchers of beer. Then they brought out fried dill pickles. Then they brought out rooster fries. Then more beer and barbecue. If they didn’t know what rooster fries were then, they did after they came here. They had a ball.”
The New Sheriff in Town
“Coming from where I grew up in Mississippi, I was not socially sophisticated. I had a major inferiority complex that was a terrible handicap. I was the most frightened person in the world when I had to make a speech. I had to take a Valium to calm my nerves, and that continued until I was sheriff. I was stunned when I won the election. When I became sheriff in 1964, the Civil Rights Act had just been passed. I walked into the office and there were ‘colored’ water fountains. Black officers could not arrest white people. Germantown, for example, had never seen a black officer. I enforced the Civil Rights Act for the first time. I got six of the most veteran officers, big tough guys, and told them I needed some volunteers to be squad-car partners with black officers and change the way we thought about them. Long story short, they accepted the opportunity to build a bridge. Thirty days later, three of them had backyard cookouts with their families. It may not sound like much today but back then that was unheard of.”
"Contraband guns, once tagged, if you were not careful would find their way into the wrong hands. So I made it a point after the attorney general released them to dump them in the river. That's Roy 'Skip' Nixon in the sunglasses. He was a damn good officer."
September, 1964 “There I am, walking the line. I wanted to see what our department looked like. I was 31 years old, with no law enforcement experience. They lined up, and a lot of them were fat boys. I told them we were representing Shelby County and needed to look better and sharper. It got to be a joke with them about losing weight.”
"I was in L.A. to talk with the sheriff about incarceration of Sirhan Sirhan when he was on trial for killing Robert Kennedy. We were following his footsteps from his cell to the courtroom to see how they were protecting him."
“A.C. Gilless might have had the only camera in the department, and he made all the wreck scenes. Matter of fact, we had a real bad guy hang himself in the jail. I got the call at three in the morning and got down there, and we accused Gilless of letting him hang there so he could get a picture. Gilless also shot the videotape of Ray that is now in the Shelby County Archives and, hopefully, will be restored and available for public viewing. “There was a lot of eavesdropping going on in those days. I said I was not going to sit down in my office until I got debugged. So a security expert came over, and he found a bucketful of bugs. Everybody was buggin’ everybody, and the sheriff’s office actually was being bugged by the attorney general’s office. They found the equipment in a closet.”
“Dr. Ralph Abernathy was in jail along with several others on a civil disobedience charge. And of course we had determined that he could be released when he chose to be. That’s when I made a deal with him so I could go duck hunting if I would send him some ducks for Christmas. When he was leaving, a crowd had gathered and he said, ‘Look, be quiet, this sheriff has been better to me than any sheriff I have been involved with in 32 arrests.’”
James Earl Ray
“When Dr. King was shot, I was at Riverside Drive making an arrest of one of the group called the Invaders. Mayor Henry Loeb drove up almost at the same moment I got the call that King had been shot. I told Henry that I had a squad car on the way to take custody of the man I was holding, and I handed the mayor a shotgun. At that point we had no idea of the extent of the injury. I immediately went to the Lorraine Motel and met my deputies and the policemen who were there along with Jesse Jackson. As soon as I got on the scene I felt certain it was a fatal shot. Every law enforcement agency was involved in trying to locate the white Mustang and a suspect, who at that time was unknown. He eluded local law enforcement and made it to Alabama and Georgia, and the rest is history.”
“The first time I had personal contact with James Earl Ray was when I read him his rights and took him into custody in June. I never asked him if he did it. That wasn’t my job. My job was incarceration. That could have been a problem if he had gone to trial. So our conversation was always lighthearted, about food or health mostly. We had law enforcement officers housed in his unit on the third floor. Officers had the same meals he did at the same time. Every pill he took, every letter he wrote or received, was logged.
“Rightly or wrongly, I always felt like the quicker J. Edgar Hoover could be rid of the assassination issue the better he liked it. It was well known he did not like liberals, did not like the Kennedys, did not like the Kings, and I always suspected he thought that James Earl Ray did the world a great service. People in law enforcement circles believe there was more to the assassination of King. Nobody ever satisfied me and a lot of other people as to where the money came from, why he acted, what direction he went in, and [author] Hampton Sides’ perspective notwithstanding, from my conversations with Ray, I never detected that he had any ill feelings toward blacks whatsoever. “I think that history is unfinished when it comes to the role that others played in the assassinations of King and Kennedy. I don’t know that history will ever get a glimpse of the real facts as it happened. “I am one of the people who firmly believes that the King assassination was a conspiracy and that there were others involved besides james earl ray. I believed it then and I believe it now. Not that anyone will ever know, necessarily. Law enforcement never pursued it after a quick guilty plea in shelby county. Once that was over it was over. “Ray never denied to me that he was there and driving the car. I never had any questions about the gun. I saw the gun sitting there. In his discussions with me, Ray talked about his route out of Memphis after the assassination. I raised all kinds of questions but I could not ask him directly if he did it. Ray and I had a good rapport even though he lashed out when he was put in jail. We made sure he had all the privileges the law provided. He was well protected, well fed, had good medical care. I and everyone else remembered very clearly what had happened in Dallas five years earlier to Lee Harvey Oswald. What stunned me the most was when Martin Luther King’s son Dexter went to see Ray in prison in Nashville [30 years later], and told him he didn’t think he killed his dad. “Ray was moved to Nashville and back to Memphis once before he was finally transferred into state custody. The first time I put him in a deputy’s coat and helmet in the back of a squad car. The disguise was good enough that it fooled a local reporter who saw us leaving and actually spoke to Ray. I think that reporter is still mad at me. “The second time, I called my friend Jack Morris to come down to the jail on the Washington Street side. Then a deputy, Ray, and myself walked straight out the front door and got in the car with Jack. I said, ‘Jack, this is James Earl Ray and we need to go right to the penal farm.’ From there we drove to the point of Interstate 40 where we transferred him to state custody. It was good riddance as far as I was concerned. That was a lot of pressure to have to bear. I was relieved that he was gone, as was our entire department.”
Friend of Elvis
“Elvis was youthful and playful. We would shoot roman candles at each other and use garbage can lids to defend ourselves. He loved to go to the Fairgrounds and the Malco Theater. When he made his first money he gave $50,000 to the city to distribute to charity. He wrote checks to St. Jude early on and lots of them. I asked that the trauma center at The Med be named in his honor, because I thought it reflected another side of Elvis beyond his talents as a performer.”
“When I was sheriff I deputized Elvis and took him to the meeting of the National Sheriffs Association in Washington for card-carrying members. He and all the guys with him joined. We were going to meet with J. Edgar Hoover. It was all hush-hush, and set for seven o’clock in the morning at the FBI Building at a particular corner. We show up and there’s 250 people outside the door. Somebody had sent the word out that Elvis was coming. All these well-dressed conservative FBI agents were gawking like teenage kids. Elvis needed to take a break to go to the restroom. So we all go and follow him in there.
“Elvis had on sunglasses and fur and he takes his belt off and a pistol falls out. I like to died on the spot. It didn’t faze him. He just walked over and put the pistol back in his pocket. We never did get to see the director.”
“This picture of Elvis and Priscilla was taken in 1971. After I left office as sheriff, I sponsored Elvis for the ‘Ten Outstanding Young Men’ award given by the United States Junior Chamber of Commerce, or Jaycees. I still have that TCB necklace that I’m wearing, and Ann has one that says TLC. Elvis smoked these little Villiger Kiel German cigars you see on the table. We were at Graceland one Christmas and George Klein told me Elvis wanted to see me outside. I go out there and there’s a Mercedes SL sitting there. He said, ‘How do you like that?’ I said, ‘It’s great.’ He said, ‘Well, I hope you like it because it’s yours. Get in and take it for a spin.’
“So we get in the car and he turns the radio on and Elvis is singing ‘I’ll Be Home for Christmas.’ We drove to the airport because they were the ones who sold these German cigars.”
Shelby County Mayor
“Wyeth Chandler and I opposed each other in the Memphis mayoral race in 1971 and he was the winner, but there was never any hard feelings on my part. He was very expressive. He’s got to be saying, ‘I promise you I’m telling you the truth, Bill.’ Chandler loved history and was really smart. And he was helpful to me. I knew what my job was and he knew what his was, and we both needed each other.”
“That year 1978 was my most fun campaign. I ran on a program of open government. Unlike 1964 when I was surprised to be elected sheriff, I fully expected to win in 1978. That’s Ann next to me and our sons and my parents with her.”
“Mr. A. Saeki was chairman of the board of Sharp Manufacturing. We are at Sharp in Memphis. Sharp started out as a company that made pencils. They were attracted to Memphis because of its distribution facilities. “This is probably in 1980. Governor Lamar Alexander made recruiting Japanese businesses to Tennessee one of his top priorities, and we made several trips together. In future years, more than 100 companies came to Tennessee, including Nissan. Sharp was the biggest catch for us.”
“This was taken in 1992 in front of The Pyramid. Bill Clinton was running for president, Herenton had taken office that year, and The Pyramid had opened the year before. I knew Clinton when he was governor and introduced him on several occasions. After one of them that was full of fire and brimstone, Clinton said, ‘This might be one of those occasions when the introduction was better than the speaker.’ “Tipper Gore (center) was national spokesperson for my Free the Children program. Herenton and I did not have a close working relationship, but were cordial.”