Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Giants of West Tennessee: Buford Pusser

NOTE: This is the first in an occasional series about notable figures from my home region. These are personal reminiscences and opinions; where available, I'll include links so interested readers can find out more.

There aren't many heroic figures to come out of flat, muddy west Tennessee. Elvis is one, obviously, but he's a special case. Tina Turner, born Annie Mae Bullock in diminutive Nutbush, is certainly heroic, but she's not really associated with the region. But we do have one genuine, larger-than-life hero to our credit: Buford Pusser.

The legend goes like this: former pro wrestler and ex-Marine Buford Pusser returns to McNairy County, Tennessee and is appalled at the rampant injustice. When he's beaten and robbed at a local gambling joint run by the well-connected State Line Gang, he goes back for revenge. At his trial for this assault, his righteousness convinces the jury to take a stand against the gangsters, and he's acquitted. Emboldened, he runs for county sheriff and wins.

As sheriff, Buford doesn't carry a gun. Instead he wields a big stick, literally: four feet long, made of concrete-solid hickory wood. He pursues the criminals and bootleggers that formally had a free ride in the country. He's shot and stabbed, but nothing stops him, until the morning of August 12, 1967. In an ambush, his wife is killed and he's shot in the face. But he survives to continue fighting the good fight, until he's killed in a 1974 one-car wreck that had "suspicious" written all over it.

This is the story you'll find in the trilogy of movies based on his life: Walking Tall (1973, with Joe Don Baker as Pusser), Walking Tall Part 2 (1975, with Bo Svenson taking over) and Walking Tall: the Final Chapter (1977, again with Svenson). The truth, as you can imagine, was quite a bit less black-and-white and can be found in detail in the books The State Line Mob: A True Story of Murder and Intrigue and The Twelfth of August, both by W.R. Morris. As with all real people, Pusser was neither all good nor all bad, and nothing changes the fact that he took a lot of punishment in his capacity as sheriff, not least of which was losing his wife.

If my memory is right, when I was 11 I shook Pusser's hand at the Humboldt, Tennessee Strawberry Festival in the spring of 1974. He was part of the annual parade, along with the governor and various strawberry-related dignitaries. I remember mainly his size, and the off-kilter aspect of his reconstructed face. I was also disappointed he didn't look like Joe Don Baker.

But the public figure of Pusser--an indestructible man with a huge stick, ready to dispense justice--has more reality than the man himself. Elvis may have worn the cape, but Buford Pusser is West Tennessee's superhero.

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