Surveilling the Memphis Movement: Police Spying in Memphis, 1968-1976.

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Author: Gregg L. Michel
Date: Nov. 2021
From: Journal of Southern History(Vol. 87, Issue 4)
Publisher: Southern Historical Association
Document Type: Essay
Length: 18,628 words
Lexile Measure: 1580L

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Attorney David Cocke was a man in a hurry on the afternoon of September 10, 1976. A few minutes earlier, his colleague Bruce S. Kramer, representing the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of West Tennessee, had stood in U.S. district judge Robert M. McRae Jr.'s Memphis courtroom arguing for the judge to bar the city of Memphis from destroying the vast trove of secret police intelligence files it had amassed over more than a decade of surveillance of supposedly subversive groups and individuals. The city's newspapers had exposed the files' existence only two days earlier, and Kramer had learned that the Memphis Police Department (MPD) intended to destroy them that very day. The files should be preserved "because this is just like the Watergate cases," he argued. "We don't know if the information in these files was obtained by illegal break-ins or by wiretapping. If the files are destroyed, no one will ever know." Judge McRae agreed and ordered the files protected, and it fell to Cocke to deliver the news to Memphis mayor Wyeth Chandler. (1) Order in hand, Cocke dashed across Civic Center Plaza from the federal courthouse to city hall and up to the mayor's suite, rushing past secretaries and charging right into the mayor's private office. But he was too late. The files were gone; ten filing cabinets filled with informant accounts, surveillance photos, and undercover officers' reports had been turned to ash at a city incinerator hours earlier on the mayor's instruction. (2)

The destruction of the files, however, did not put the matter to rest. City councilman W. J. Michael (Mike) Cody called the burning a "tragic mistake and the worst thing" the mayor could have done, while another councilman, John Ford, labeled the police surveillance a "Hitler-type, Gestapo-type thing." The Memphis Commercial Appeal questioned the motivation for destroying the documents as well as the rationale for keeping such records in the first place, and it mocked the mayor and the police chief in an editorial cartoon. The ACLU and its attorneys, unsurprisingly, were angry and suspicious. Bruce Kramer declared, "I'd like to know what the heck they were hiding that they had to burn those files so fast." (3) Shortly thereafter, the ACLU filed suit, accusing the police of spying on citizens in violation of their constitutionally protected rights. As the lawsuit, Kendrick v. Chandler, progressed, deposition testimony from police officers and the discovery of intelligence files that had survived the purge painted a picture of a police department that methodically surveilled perceived political radicals. To avoid the spectacle of a trial that would divulge its secrets in open court, the city sought to settle the lawsuit, and in 1978 officials reached a groundbreaking agreement in which Memphis became the first city in the nation to prohibit the police from conducting surveillance of purely political activities. (4)

The police surveillance activities discovered in 1976 were rooted in the long, aggressive, and racialized history of police practices in Memphis. With such tactics dating to...

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Gale Document Number: GALE|A688496054