Reign Check

The year Cotton Carnival took a backseat to tragedy

In 1968, Ned Cook was a wealthy cotton and commodities merchant with a bony, hawk-nosed face. His boyhood friend Henry Loeb was a tall, darkly handsome, gregarious politician who had risen from head of the sanitation department to mayor.

Shelby Foote was living in Memphis and working on the third volume of his Civil War trilogy. A novelist as well as a historian, he knew both Loeb and Cook well. When I interviewed Foote in 1995, this is what he said about them.

"Right after [Loeb] was elected, I was talkin' to Ned and I said, 'I hope you handle this Negro problem well, it's really important.' And Ned said, 'Let me tell you, there's nobody more appreciative of what the blacks have done and can do than we are. And believe me, anybody who comes to us with the right kind of attitude . . . .' Well, that about knocked me out. In other words, if he's got his hat in his hands we'll give him almost anything we can. Otherwise nothing. And that was a danger flag flying right there."

The white Memphis establishment and the black Memphis underclass were on a collision course, and, as Foote said, "all hell would break loose." The embodiment of the Memphis establishment was the annual Cotton Carnival, a "party with a purpose" conceived as a civic booster shot in 1931 when cotton was selling at nine and a half cents a pound. Cook was king of Carnival in 1951, and Loeb's wife Mary was queen in 1950.

When a march in support of striking sanitation workers on March 28, 1968, turned into a riot, Memphis was in a high fever. King planned to return a week later to lead another march. Coincidentally, that was the weekend when The Commercial Appeal was planning to run its annual special section on Cotton Carnival royalty. A letter to Loeb from architect W. Jeter Eason expressed the fears of the establishment. The letter, excerpted here, is part of the Memphis Public Library's Henry Loeb Collection.

"Regardless of what happens in the near future in regards to protest marches, I am terribly frightened over what might happen during Cotton Carnival. Suppose some militant 'Avengers' or other black-power advocates jump on the floats and 'integrate' the parades. Then, how many people from the sidelines will get in the fray? It could mean lots of old and young, boys and girls, might be hurt or killed."

The letter was sent on April 4th, the day King was killed. The special section never ran. Memphis kept the lid on until April 8th, when Coretta Scott King led thousands of mourners and supporters in a peaceful march through downtown.

On April 9th, the day of King's funeral in Atlanta, Ned Cook wrote to Loeb:

"As soon as the strike is settled, which I optimistically hope will be tonight, you must move toward solving some of the problems in the Negro community. This must be done in a forthright, direct way and along the lines we discussed sometime [sic] ago. It becomes more urgent at this particular point in time."

Cook suggested that the three presidents of "the most influential business groups, namely the Downtown Association, Future Memphis, and the Chamber of Commerce," meet with three black leaders — the Rev. James Lawson, Rev. James Netters, and sanitation striker Taylor Rogers — to form a planning group reporting directly to Loeb.

They would focus on job opportunities, discrimination in city government, and insuring that city services "are properly supplied to the Negro community." Complaints would be "brought to your [Loeb's] attention after full and complete investigation for your corrective action."

Henry Loeb, whose stubbornness had caused the strike to drag on to its fateful conclusion, could not be the great peace-maker. The plan was doomed. Three days later, on April 12, 1968, a Time magazine story called Memphis a "Southern backwater" and "a decaying Mississippi River town." The most famous hit job in Memphis history did not carry a byline.

On May 15, 1968, S. Toof Brown, president of the Memphis Cotton Carnival Association, sent a letter to participants telling them what they already knew — "after many meetings with community leaders and other interested parties," the executive committee had decided that Cotton Carnival should be indefinitely postponed. The decision "was in the best interest of all concerned."

As Ned Cook's father, Everett R. Cook, wrote many years later, it was the only time other than three years during World War II that Memphis had been without Cotton Carnival since its inception. The carnival, he noted, "was held in 1969 without distur-bances of any kind."

Renamed Carnival Memphis in the 1980s, the event has never been cancelled again. M

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