During the early months of 1968, Memphis, Tennessee, was a city in deep distress. A strike among sanitation workers who were predominately black was the primary focus of government officials.
The labor crisis escalated to a fever pitch when two garbage workers were crushed to death after climbing into the barrel of a garbage truck to escape the rain. The employees had no insurance, earned no overtime, had no workman’s compensation nor any death benefits.
Following their deaths, workers sought a national figure to represent their cause. The event became the catalyst that brought Civil Rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. to the city once called “A Place of Good Abode.” His support of their plight ultimately led him to the place of his assassination on April 4, 1968.
Forever intertwined in the tapestry of that dark day was Fulton native William Noel “Bill” Morris Jr. who was serving his second term as Sheriff of Shelby County, or “Sheriff of Memphis” as it was often known.
“There was no event in my career that compared to the assassination of Dr. King,” Morris said as he pulled photos from the boxes in his Germantown home, 50 years after King’s murder.
In his recent autobiography, “Bill Morris: A Legendary Life,” Morris discusses at length the days leading up to Dr. King’s death, the investigation that followed, and his strict measures surrounding the incarceration of King’s killer, James Earl Ray.
“I was the arresting officer by virtue of the Tennessee state constitution and the highest ranking police officer in the county,” Morris wrote in his book. “I was the only one who knew what was going to happen when we moved Ray from place to place, including the FBI.”
The former sheriff speaks openly and honestly about his career and how growing up during impoverished, tough times in Itawamba County impacted his leadership during the critical role of his career. He reminisces about his humanitarian efforts, his political career, his longtime friendship with Elvis Presley and caring for his wife, Ann, after her stroke.
Tucked between the covers of his book, is a truly extraordinary life.
Driven and determined – Morris’ early years
Born September 29, 1932 to tenant farmer William Noel Morris Sr. and his wife Beulah Paige, William Noel Morris Jr. quickly won the affection of his older sisters, Kathleen and Gladys.
Depression-era hardships made survival difficult for the family of five. Their less than meager means, coupled with Morris Sr.’s ongoing struggles with alcoholism, led the Morris family from one rental house to the next. They lived wherever and in whatever Morris’ father could find. The family frequently lived in shacks without electricity.
Though their family’s difficulties were immense and parents distant and unsupportive, the Morris children somehow managed to make education a priority. Often their needs, both physical or emotional, were met by supportive community members along their way.
When Norris was 8 years old, he wanted to join the Cub Scouts. He recalled attending a meeting with his childhood friends, brothers Travis and Jimmy Staub, along with their father, Joe. The Scouts were tasked with building a small wooden boat.
“I will never forget how Mr. Staub took the time to help me put my little boat together,” Morris reflected. “We sat down in the floor and worked on it until I finished the tiny vessel. He made the effort, something my dad couldn’t find the time or inclination to do.”
Decades later, Morris was asked to speak at a banquet in Fulton. His thoughts were focused on childhood moments of kindness: Joe Staub and the small boat; a coat and gloves purchased for him by the school superintendent; milk provided by a neighbor for his family.
“When I made that speech, I was able to thank many people who had showed me kindness through some lean years,” Morris said. “I told them, ‘Behold the turtle on the fencepost. He didn’t get there by himself.’ And neither did I.”
Equally substantial in shaping Morris’ perspective of the world was the harshness he sometimes saw growing up.
To provide for his family, Morris’ father found employment in the lumber yards of Itawamba County. One Saturday, Morris Sr. asked his wife and children to meet him when he got off work. His plan was to take his earnings and purchase shoes and clothing for school.
When Morris Sr. picked up his pay envelope, it was empty. The owner of the mill also owned the store in which Morris’ father charged goods. The debt had been taken from Morris Sr.’s pay, leaving the family penniless.
Morris said his father had no say in the matter. He took the empty envelope without discussion, then sat on the steps of the pay office and cried as his family stood by.
“Watching my dad sob was almost more than I could bear,” Morris said. “It’s as real to me today as if it happened yesterday. It was an honest debt; it just lacked sensitivity. That very moment had more impact on me than any other moment in my life. From then on, I tried to be compassionate to others, to be sensitive to those who couldn’t navigate the system.”
Following the incident, Morris was determined to seize every opportunity that came his way, vowing to always be a good provider.
During World War II, the Morrises moved to Mobile, Alabama, while his father sought work in the shipyards. The family lived in a small apartment in a rough part of town. At 11 years old, while walking home from school one day, Morris saw a “Help Wanted” sign at a local curb market. He asked the ladies running the store about the job and was immediately hired.
Soon he picked up a second job delivering papers for the Mobile Press Register. The job required a bicycle, and the man at the local General Tire Store allowed him to purchase one “on time.” It was his first installment loan. Morris attended school and worked the two jobs. Every penny he earned went to help his family.
“I never had a job I didn’t like,” Morris said. “Because I never had a job I didn’t need.”
Morris’ time at The Times
When war-driven jobs ended, the Morris family returned to Itawamba County and lived in a cement block home on the outskirts of Fulton. Morris’ father convinced the power company to run a line into the house. The siblings used a single light bulb to study their lessons at night. There was neither running water nor a bathroom.
Still driven by a strong work ethic, Morris held down multiple jobs during his youth. His parents were against him starting high school, yet he was determined to get a formal education. When they refused to pay his way, Morris decided to continue and find another place to live. He approached Itawamba Agricultural High School principal Philip Sheffield.
Sheffield allowed Morris to stay in a closet-sized room in a building near the cafeteria. He had a cot and bathed in the athletic showers. He worked doing custodial jobs and labored on the school’s dairy farm.
Eventually, Morris’ family decided to move to Memphis, leaving the young teenager on his own. Morris lived with relatives for some time and migrated from place to place while completing his education.
Outside of illegal whiskey, Itawamba County offered basically two job options: farming and sawmills. Morris had no real interest in either. Principal Sheffield called his friend, Delmus Harden, owner/publisher of the Itawamba County Times, and asked if he had an opening. Thus began Morris’ six-year career at “the only newspaper in the world that cares anything about Itawamba County.”
Morris quickly worked his way into becoming the youngest journeyman printer in Mississippi, often working 66 hours a week. He happily used some of his earnings to purchase his mother her first washing machine. It was his second “on time” purchase. As time progressed, Morris assisted reporting and taking photos of crime scenes.
“I cannot remember a time I didn’t work during my youth, drifting around, ready to seize the next opportunity because I had a survival mindset,” he recalled in his book. “Until I went to work for The Times, I had little direction in my daily life.”
Morris credits Delmus Harden with being a strong spiritual influence, teaching him the principles of honesty, integrity and hard work.
“Always remember who you are, where you’re from and the people who helped you along the way. For me Delmus Harden was one of them,” Morris said.
After completing high school, Morris graduated from Itawamba Community College where he used his printing and reporting skills working on The Chieftain, the school’s newspaper.
With few career options in his hometown, Morris opted to do what many young people do: head to the nearest big city. On September 26, 1952, he left behind all things familiar, and with little money, boarded a greyhound bus destined for Memphis. The move would prove to be pivotal in the course of Morris’ life.
Making it in Memphis
After arriving in Memphis, Morris enrolled in Memphis State to continue his education. Determined as always, he worked in a local market to pay his way. He soon became smitten with a young woman named Ann Ward Norton, who he saw walking in his neighborhood. A customer who frequented the market and friend of Ann’s introduced them.
“I spotted her walking home from school in the spring rain, barefooted, holding her shoes and books in her hand,” Morris wrote in his autobiography. “At that moment I realized she was the cutest girl I had ever seen.”
The two became engaged, married and honeymooned in a whirlwind summer of 1953. Morris purchased Ann’s dress and the rings while he wore a borrowed jacket. Before heading to their honeymoon destination, the Rex Plaza Hotel in Tupelo, they stopped by The Itawamba County Times to have their picture made for the next week’s paper.
In the months and years ahead, Morris joined the U.S. Army and then returned to civilian life. He continued his career in the printing industry with S.C. Toof, one of the oldest and most respected businesses in Memphis, where he quickly rose in the ranks. His position and contacts led him to join the Memphis Jaycees. The group led humanitarian efforts across Memphis.
Discussions among the group concerning the political climate in their city soon led them to seek someone among its ranks to run for sheriff and attempt to turn the department around.
Much to his surprise, that someone was Bill Morris.
His page in history
At 31 years old, Morris was elected sheriff of Shelby County. He took his oath of office on September 1, 1964, as one of the youngest sheriffs in Tennessee’s history. His tenure would put him squarely in the middle of Memphis’ most difficult era and one of U.S. history’s defining moments.
The lessons he learned as a young child growing up in Itawamba County were put to the test during those years. As sheriff, Morris tackled illegal gambling, unlawful nightclubs and bootleg whiskey. He integrated his department, mixing black and white officers for the first time in the department’s history, and ran it under an open door policy. His discovery of how the mentally ill were incarcerated and treated led him to drastically change the department’s policy and partner with a local hospital for their care.
Morris worked constantly. The work ethic from his youth had followed him to Tennessee. Often labeled a “hard ass,” he said he simply wanted Shelby County to have the best sheriff’s department in the country.
On April 4, 1968, Morris was headed home when he pulled a car over on Riverside Drive that had almost ran him off the road. Tension in the city was already high because a sanitation strike agreement had not been signed and previous protest marches had turned violent.
Morris recognized the three occupants as a part of a militant political group. While placing them under arrest for reckless endangerment, Morris heard the dispatcher’s call that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. had been shot at the Lorraine Hotel. He was only one mile away. He immediately headed to the scene.
In an instant, every minute of training, every principle he had set for his men and every ounce of integrity his office had would be put on the line.
“The days following Dr. King’s death were tough,” Morris wrote in his book. “I had almost four years under my belt as sheriff and my men were well trained, we could react with some degree of professionalism.”
Immediately following the assassination, Morris quickly set a countywide curfew in place. He met and deputized 75 Arkansas state troopers on the Memphis-Arkansas Bridge and also deputized one fireman on each truck and authorized each of them to carry a rifle.
Over the weeks and months following King’s death, Morris spent countless hours preparing for the day his killer, 40-year-old James Earl Ray, would be brought back to his custody. Morris, along with other officials, flew to Los Angeles to observe security measures that were being used in the protection of Sirhan Bishara Sirhan, the assassin responsible for the death of Robert Kennedy.
Upon James Earl Ray’s capture in London on June 8, 1968, meetings were held to discuss his transfer to Memphis. Dubbed “Operation Landing,” Ray was flown aboard a U.S. Air Force C-135 to Millington Naval Air Base, 18 miles northeast of Memphis. Both Ray’s transport and housing were carefully planned, down to steel plates Morris ordered to cover the windows of the jail’s third floor.
On July 19, 1968, at 3:48 a.m., Morris and his heavily-armed entourage arrived at Millington. He climbed aboard the plane and read James Earl Ray his Miranda Rights. Ray was transported back to Memphis in an armored truck borrowed from Jackson, Mississippi Police Department.
Morris’ security measures included not allowing media to photograph the high-profile prisoner. He always maintained that “anyone you can photograph; you can shoot.” There were no cameras allowed on Ray that were not under Morris’ direct control.
Ray was held in Shelby County for eight months. On March 10, 1969, Ray confessed to King’s killing. He was sentenced to 99 years in prison.
For Morris, Ray’s sentencing brought an end to what was arguably his most significant chapter in American history, but hardly the last.
A snapshot in time
In a small room filled with personal history, Morris pulled stacks of photographs from boxes. Flipping through them revealed quick glimpses of his extraordinary life. The faces of President Ronald Reagan, Bob Hope, Danny Thomas peer out as he shuffles through them. There’s a candid picture of the 1972 Mercedes given to him for Christmas by Elvis Presley, who was a personal friend of his. There are flashes of his adventures across the world with his wife, Ann, before a major stroke left her homebound and in Morris’ longtime care. There’s a simple snapshot of Morris sitting at a desk in the office of the Itawamba County Times, his boyish monochrome grin belying the hardships he’d faced growing up.
Some 60-odd years later, as Morris flipped through the pages of a photo album, one of dozens, that grin is still recognizable, still full of joy. To the man who lived it, Morris’ “legendary” life was just life. It was full of heartbreak and joy, hardships and bounties. Speaking with him, he seems grateful to have lived every moment of it, good or bad, because they all have value.
He said, “It’s been a rich life without riches.”