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Memphis, City of Kings
Photo by Joshua J. Cotten / Unsplash

Memphis, City of Kings

A city of legend, of song, of hallowed and heroic memories that will endure despite its flaws

[The Egyptians] have also another sacred bird called the phoenix... Indeed it is a great rarity, even in Egypt, only coming there in five hundred years, when the old phoenix dies.


Country people are always wary of cities as dens of vice and crime, the creation of the sons of Cain, but no civilization was great without great cities, and the South is no exception. The 20th century was not kind to our cities. First the deluge of the 60s hollowed them out. Later an influx of new money began to fill them up again with strange people with strange customs, driving the wedge between the city and the country deeper still. Some of our cities, Charleston, Asheville, Savannah, have been loved to death. Today they are overflowing with snowbirds, halfbacks, yuppies, and every other manner of carpetbagger. They come here because they like our tax rate, or they’re tired of the cold, or because $500k goes a lot further in Tennessee real estate than it does in San Francisco. Memphis is not one of those cities.

Cities rise and fall and rise again. Memphis is no different. The city began as a settlement of the Mississippian civilization, colloquially known as the “Mound Builders,” though this is something of a misnomer; in their heyday, before erosion took its toll, these structures were earthen pyramids. Some say that great first nation of America’s Nile was visited by ships sent out by the ancient Pharaohs, and that those visitors left a trace of their own spirit here in the new Egypt. Whatever the case, the Mississippian civilization would collapse before European settlers arrived on these shores. In the post-apocalyptic void left in its wake, a tribe of survivors known as the Chickasaw established themselves on the bluffs above the great river. It was from the Chickasaw nation that three of Tennessee’s founding fathers, Andrew Jackson, John Overton, and James Winchester, purchased the land which would become the city of Memphis.

The young city perched atop the Chickasaw Bluffs grew rapidly. By the time of the Civil War, it was a bustling river port, home to the infamous cavalry commander Nathan Bedford Forrest, “the wizard of the saddle,” who was elected a city alderman in 1858. Due to the Confederates’ poor planning for the defense of Tennessee against Union armies under General Ulysses S. Grant the city fell on June 6th, 1862, and would remain in Union hands through the rest of the war. By 1870 Memphis was a city of some 40,000 souls, second only to New Orleans in the entire South. In 1878 over five-thousand Memphians died of yellow fever; half the surviving population fled the city during that time. With over fifteen-million dollars in losses, the city went bankrupt, and the Tennessee General Assembly revoked its charter. Yet Memphis didn’t stay dead for long.

Big wheel keep on turnin! Proud Mary keep on burnin!
Rollin, rollin, rollin on the river.
John Fogerty

By the turn of the 20th century Memphis had clawed its way back from the dead to become the largest cotton market in the world and the largest lumber market as well. Some of the South’s first skyscrapers would begin to rise from the Chickasaw Bluffs. In 1893 a young man named Ed Crump would arrive in Memphis from Holly Springs, Mississippi to take a job as a cotton trader on Front Street, in sight of the cobblestone landings where giant bales of cotton were unloaded from paddlewheel steamers. Edward “Boss” Crump would quickly rise through local Democratic politics to become the city’s mayor in 1910; he would build a political machine in Memphis to rival the legendary Tammany Hall and retain near absolute control over the city’s politics for the remainder of his life. Crump’s Democratic machine would reach so far across the state that it would trigger the famous Battle of Athens far away in East Tennessee, a region long dominated by Republicans. Boss Crump was the first king of Memphis in our historical record, though doubtless many had come before in the forgotten mists of the age of the Moundbuilders.

Boss Crump’s political success was not solely based on his acumen for manipulating procedural outcomes, nor his ability to build coalitions across racial and class lines. Crump delivered on his campaign promises. He improved the city’s roads and schools and modernized its utilities. He attracted desirable employers like Ford Motor Company and Firestone Tires. As a mayor Crump understood “broken windows theory” before there was such a thing. He was obsessively focused on improving the city’s aesthetics, changing its reputation from a seedy river port to a first-class Southern city. In 1930 Memphis created the City Beautiful Commission, the first urban beautification commission in the nation. Memphis became known nationally for its parks and parkways. It won awards for being the nation’s cleanest city throughout the 1940s and into the 50s.

It was to this thriving and beautiful new Memphis that a young Sam Phillips would arrive from Florence, Alabama in 1945. Phillips, like so many young men in the Midsouth who’d grown up picking cotton, dreamt of more. He would open Sun Records in Crosstown Memphis in 1952, and it was there that he launched a global revolution in popular music. Sun would introduce the world to Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins, Elvis Presley, Roy Orbison, Jerry Lee Lewis, and countless other artists who would influence popular music for decades to come. The city, which less than a century earlier had ceased to exist, had become a cultural and economic lodestone for the nation. Memphis was the birthplace of Rock and Roll, and Elvis Presley was its King, the second king of Memphis.

Run and tell somebody there's blood on the riverside
Oh muddy water, rolling to Memphis
If you were there, you'd swear it was more than a man who died.
Ketch Secor, Old Crowe Medicine Show

But all good things come to an end. As the 1950s wore on social change began to stir throughout the nation, and the South in particular. By the 1960s the Civil Rights Movement was in full swing and Memphis’s black sanitation workers, who kept “city beautiful” beautiful demanded better treatment and compensation. In 1968 those sanitation workers went on strike and into that protest stepped another king, a black pastor from Atlanta named Martin Luther. I trust my readers are familiar enough with what happened next. MLK’s assassination, the turmoil, and white flight outside the city limits, which accelerated throughout the 1970s, would leave the city wounded and broken, but not dead. Then on August 19th, 1977, King Elvis would die of a broken heart at his royal residence Graceland Mansion. The streets of Memphis were filled with mourners from across the globe. The king was dead, and the throne sat empty.

But even in its reduced state Memphis still held a lot of life, and there were still those who aspired to be its king. Jerry Lawler, wrestler, and talented self-promoter would bring national media attention to Memphis through his feud with comedian Andy Kaufman. B.B. King, one of the greatest bluesmen of all time, would lay his claim downtown on Beale Street. Local legend Isaac Hayes, the Soul Man, would earn a king’s crown, not in Memphis, but in the Ada country of Ghana. To this day the city bears the mark of the usurper, Willie Herenton, who was elected the city’s first black mayor in 1991 by a slim margin of 146 votes; despite irregularities Mayor Dick Hackett chose not to contest the vote to preserve the peace. And of course, Robert Hodges, AKA “Prince Mongo,” exiled ruler of the Planet Zambodia, would hold court in his castle on Central Avenue amidst the skeletons of his extrasolar relations. But as the years rolled on and the twentieth century came to a close, Memphis remained a city without a true king. By the 1990s Memphis began to be surpassed by Nashville as Tennessee’s foremost city. Like an oxbow lake cut off from the Mississippi, Memphis seemed to have been stranded outside the great stream of history.

The city languished, but in its defeat, it also found its salvation, because unlike so many other cities which increasingly seem to have lost those things which made them distinctly Southern, Memphis remains so. The Southern accent is increasingly rare in Nashville, but in Memphis it’s everywhere. Too few of Nashville’s historical buildings remain, they were replaced with high-rise condos and bougie wine bars, but Memphis is still an architectural treasure trove. Nashville’s new “local” cuisine often makes hollow gestures toward our region’s rich culinary legacy, but it is often indistinguishable from Denver or Dallas. Nashville has been homogenized, deracinated, exploited, and remodeled; she is hardly recognizable to those of us who loved her before she became the belle of the ball. Memphis on the other hand is still Memphis. Yes, crime, racial conflict, and poverty continue to plague her, but Memphis is still distinctly Southern, and that is reason enough for me to celebrate her. And it is my hope that someday soon someone worthy will claim the throne of Memphis and the city of kings will rise again.