Taking Care of Business

illustration by Mike Coulson

Okay, so this one was an easy call. It should come as no surprise that, with this 36th anniversary issue, we put Elvis Presley on the cover of Memphis magazine for the 17th time. But hey, who’s that other dude in the brown leather (or is that naugahyde) jacket? 

Contemporary Memphians probably only know this gentleman’s name because it graces a road they drive along regularly, the parkway that drifts southeast off Interstate 240, just after the Mt. Moriah exit, heading out to Collierville. “Bill Morris Parkway,” the sign says. Many drivers who go whizzing by haven’t a clue as to just who this road is named after, or the fact that the honoree is still very much alive. Which makes Bill Morris way luckier than most folks who get things named after themselves in this town, posthumously. 

Thanks to State Senator Jim Kyle, this suburban extension was christened Bill Morris Parkway in 2003, after the longtime Shelby County mayor responsible for getting the federal funds that made its construction possible. Now pushing 80, the former mayor still lives in the same East Memphis home he’s lived in for 40 years, and is as witty as ever. “When I’m driving on it,” Morris says about the stretch of Tennessee State Highway 385 that bears his name, “I do feel very uncomfortable. Because I’m trying to drive the speed limit, and most people don’t. Can you imagine how embarrassing it would be if I got caught speeding on Bill Morris Parkway, and was given a ticket?”

Bill Morris getting a ticket on Bill Morris Parkway would be embarrassing, yes, but nowhere near as embarrassing as the fact that today, exactly half a century after city/county consolidation was first rejected by local voters, those of us who call the Memphis metropolitan area home still are dealing with the inefficiencies, inequities, and idiocies of the two-headed albatross that passes for local government in these parts. 

 While I say this forthrightly, I mean no disrespect to either of our current incumbents, Shelby County Mayor Mark Luttrell or Memphis Mayor A C Wharton, both of whom are certainly among the most gifted of the numerous incumbents who have held these positions over the past five decades. It’s not their fault that the current system is, and has been for 50 years, downright absurd. 

The last time Shelby County Mayor Bill Morris was on a Memphis magazine cover, way back in 1984, he shared the stage with his City of Memphis counterpart, Dick Hackett. The Mike Coulson illustration on that issue’s cover showed the two mayors tooling down the road in a shiny red car, with their hands on what was a single steering wheel. Unfortunately, we could run the same image on our cover today, since in 2012, we are still just where we were in 1984. That’s progress?

Of course, there are all kinds of reasons as to why we have remained politically divided against ourselves for lo these many decades. Some of them make sense; most of them do not. Meanwhile, our sister Tennessee city of Nashville bit the bullet long ago, consolidating with Davidson County in 1963; by all accounts, that metropolis has never looked back. Conversely, the most recent attempt at Memphis/Shelby County consolidation went down to ignominious defeat in 2010 despite the outspoken support offered by Fred Smith, founder of the area’s largest employer (FedEx).  While the measure squeaked to victory by a narrow margin residents voted 85 percent against consolidating with Memphis.

Here is neither the time nor the place to debate how and why this great divide developed, or to try to explain why it continues still to, well, divide us. We all know the score; things in our community are the way they are because they are the way they are. That’s part of our Memphis heritage, whether we like it or not.

But this familiar scenario is one that will take us all on a long, slow road to nowhere. To quote that famous Los Angeles itinerant philosopher of the 1990s, Rodney King: “Can we all just get along?”

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