By Wiley Henry
MEMPHIS, TN — Jim McCarter sat quietly in a packed room thumbing through a recently published book that he’d purchased at Novel Memphis minutes before the author’s 6 p.m. book talk and signing Thursday, March 28.
While waiting on the former Shelby County sheriff and mayor William Noel “Bill” Morris to address the capacity crowd, an age-old photograph on page 181 in the book, “Bill Morris: A Legendary Life,” caught McCarter’s attention.
“That’s my picture. I had to look at it closely,” said McCarter, who’d granted Morris permission to use the vintage photograph. “I showed the picture to Bill and he said he wanted to use it in the book.”
McCarter was pleasantly surprised that Morris had actually used the photograph.
The black and white photograph captures the moment in time when a bundle – wrapped in a bedspread and containing an overnight bag, binoculars, suitcase, and the rifle that James Earl Ray had reportedly used to kill Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. – was discovered at the entryway of Canipe’s Amusement Company at 424 South Main St.
Morris can be seen through the plate-glass window questioning the owner of the amusement company, Mr. Guy Canipe, which was next door to the boarding house and one street over from The Lorraine Motel on Mulberry where the shot rang out.
McCarter said he was around 17 or so when the photograph was snapped in 1968, minutes after a young sheriff Morris made the scene. McCarter would eventually become Canipe’s son-in-law after marrying his daughter.
The aforementioned photograph along with the widely published photograph of Morris escorting the accused handcuffed assassin to court catapulted the young sheriff into the national spotlight.
Even so, Morris employed the audience to read the book rather than provide too many details.
The book is loaded with historical accounts and information of Morris’ exploits in government – as sheriff during an era when pandemonium erupted over Dr. King’s death, and when he was the four-term Shelby County mayor.
The book also includes Morris and community stakeholders, decision makers, pioneers and legends, including his pal Elvis Presley. Add to that Morris’ affiliations, civic involvement, and his role as an unofficial ambassador for the city of Memphis.
“The last 60 years…there has been a lot of history,” said Morris, explaining his reasons for penning his autobiography. “Some of the history should be recorded differently than [what was covered in] the media.”
Morris pointed out that the arduous writing project began several years ago in his mind before meeting his co-writer, Darrell B. Uselton, who transcribed 268 recordings before working with Morris on is 400-plus-page autobiography.
“It was a little over two years in the process and sometime before that,” said Uselton matter-of-factly, recalling the interview and the laborious writing process. In addition to the writing, the book is punctuated with more era photographs than the ones of Ray that made Morris a household name.
Just to give the audience even more of a peep into the book, Morris dropped a few names, including the infamous mayor Edward Hull “Boss” Crump. Crump – not Trump, he joked – built a political machine that dominated Memphis and Tennessee politics for decades.
“Mr. Boss Crump was one of the most marvelous persons I ever met,” he said. “He was good to me.”
The name Richard C. “Dick” Hackett kept coming up in Morris’ discussion about his work in government. He said he and Hackett had often traveled together to bring business to Memphis.
“We were successful because we worked hard,” said Morris, crediting Hackett with working with him to bring industry and jobs to Memphis and Shelby County. “We believed Memphis could be better.”
As a result of their efforts, Morris added, “I think the community is working better than we ever had compared to Washington.”
“Bill Morris: A Legendary Life” is an important read for those with an appetite for history and compassion for one man’s enduring journey from Itawamba County, Mississippi, to Memphis, where his legacy is anchored.
He eventually raised himself up from the depths of adverse poverty to become an important figure in the political and historic annals of Memphis and Shelby County.
“It’s the best I can do to tell the truth,” he said. “You can’t write an autobiography unless you tell the truth.”
This article originally appeared in The Tennessee Tribune.