Bill Morris … a life worth telling

Bill Miles

Bill Morris’ memoirs, “A Legendary Life”, is a heart rendering, informative narrative written in a contemporized atmosphere that tells a story of all things “Rural South” ending with classic success mixed with melancholy. Noel, as we called him around the Itawamba County Times in the 1950s, went to Memphis and adapted to the nickname, “Bill”, a contraction from William. I can identify with that as my family and friends called me (many still do) William even though I adopted Bill when I followed Noel to work for Delmus Harden at The Times in 1954. At his book signing last week I asked him when he left Fulton. Not only did he place the year into perspective, he gave me the day of the week, the month and the exact time the Greyhound Bus left the drug store that served as its stop. The time and date are marked into his memory because it meant a spot on his life calendar. In case you’re wondering who in the heck is Bill Morris, just drive to Memphis, take one of the shortcuts to many popular Bluff City destinations and you’ll likely end up going around East Memphis on the Bill Morris Parkway. It connects (State Rt. 385, Nonconnah Parkway) 1-240 to U.S. 69 and the major interstates serving the city. He was Shelby County Sheriff from 1964-70 (three 2-year terms) and Shelby County Mayor from 1978-1994 (four 4-year periods). He also made failed races for Memphis Mayor and Governor of Tennessee. His story describes dire circumstances in which he and his family existed from his birth near Amory through years’ long struggles in ‘get-by’ housing in Fulton marked by a few years of relative calm in Mobile while his father worked in one of the shipbuilding plants during WWII. I suggest if you want to re-live his early life, buy one of his books. It’s well written. Knowing pitfalls of writing, I found few mistakes about his background or identifications. After more than a half century of fast-paced upward mobility one can overlook a narrative that remains extremely factual. It’s a great book on Southern history from a non-privileged white person’s viewpoint. It is a credible book on philosophy. It should be a required text on sociology. He might even compete with W. R. Cash’s “Mind of the South”. Bill portrays himself as an idealist who thought he could help bring major changes. He focused on transparency. He is an example of a unifier. At the same time he was hard-nosed, cocky and ambitious. He had ever right to be. He admits being part of a home darkened with a hard-drinking father and a weary mother dedicated to keeping the family together and fed. Bill knew frustrations. He admits miscues as a youth, politician and community leader. The everlasting moral of his story might be that he took advantages when doors of opportunity opened. He said hope for our community, state and nation relies on youth. “Because they don’t know something can’t be done,” he explained. After Memphis State (University of Memphis) Noel became a salesman for a major Memphis printing company. He soon affiliated with the Jaycees (at the time) service organization where he improved his skills while building a network that propelled him into politics. He described himself as shy, insecure and socially inferior. Many of us know about that. He was sheriff when James Earl Ray shot Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in Memphis in 1968. His responsibility to protect Ray is documented in this book. A lot of details are included about economic development while he was Shelby County mayor because he made that office a strong position. When he lived in Fulton, the high school and college they were on the same campus. I started to work at The Times two years after Noel left. He was in the press room. I never attempted to run a press but wrote most of the stories that appeared in the paper for the three years I was on the staff before I went on to Ole Miss. Bill writes that his wife, Ann, was his calming force. She was his biggest booster. She stood by him when he won and when he lost. They had four children and a host of grandchildren. When she suffered a debilitating stroke in 1997 (three years after he lost his bid to be governor) he spent the next 19 taking care of her. She died in 2016. With sadness I heard his family endured a new tragedy the weekend after I saw him at his book singing in The Itawamba Times Office a couple of weeks ago. A grandson was killed in an accident.

If you would like to contact Bill Miles you can email him at bill.t.miles@gmail.com

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