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Loeb, Henry, III

Loeb, Henry, III

(b. 9 Dec. 1920 in Memphis, Tennessee; d. 8 Sept. 1992 near Forrest City, Arkansas), segregationist mayor of Memphis at the time of the 1968 sanitation workers’ strike during which Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., was assassinated.

Loeb was the elder of two sons of William Loeb, the owner of a chain of laundries in Memphis, and Ethel Lob, a homemaker. The family was prosperous and locally promi-nent. After graduating from Phillips Academy in Andover, Massachusetts (1939), and Brown University (1943), Loeb served in World War II as commander of a PT boat in the Mediterranean, reaching the rank of lieutenant. He re-turned to join the family business and in 1951 married Mary Gregg, a former queen of the Memphis Cotton Car-nival; they had three children.

Disagreements with his brother, combined with an in-terest in politics, caused Loeb to leave the laundry business. He entered public service with an appointment to the Memphis Park Commission in 1951. Handsome, charming and outspoken, he easily attracted attention with his six-foot, six-inch frame. In 1950 the Jaycees voted him Outstanding Young Man of the Year, and in 1952 he was elected local commander of the American Legion. He gained a reputation as a political maverick by supporting Dwight D. Eisenhower in 1952 when Memphis was still a “yellow-dog Democrat” town.

Elected to the City Commission in 1955, he became commissioner of public works, pursuing potholes vigorously. He oversaw the city’s sanitation department with such zeal that he began referring to himself as a “garbage-man.” Loeb quickly gained a high profile for open conduct of business, becoming the scourge of politicians who engaged in sweetheart deals or worse.

In 1959 he challenged the incumbent mayor, Edmund Orgill, who subsequently dropped out of the race for medical reasons. Thus Loeb became mayor almost by default. A fiscal and racial conservative, he reflected the views of those who had elected him. In 1960 the newly elected Loeb and the city commissioners heard an appeal from a group of black community leaders to desegregate the city’s parks and museums. After listening to their presentation, Loeb said one word, “No,” and swiveled his chair around to show them his back.

In October 1963 Loeb terminated his campaign for re-lection and resigned as mayor, his mother’s death necessitating his return to the family business. But he ran again in 1967 when the weak mayor-commission form of city government was scheduled to change to a mayor-council arrangement. Ever charismatic, he won with the support of the city’s white voters in a highly charged, racially polarized campaign.

Early in his new term he converted from Judaism to Episcopalianism, the religion of his wife and children. From a political standpoint, it seemed an attempt to perfectly reflect the old-line Memphis establishment that supported him.

The new administration faced a serious operating d-ficit, and Loeb began an economy crusade. Six weeks into the term the city sanitation workers went out on strike, maintaining that their working conditions, pay, and ben-fits were unjustifiably inferior to those of white city workers. State and municipal laws forbade strikes by public employees. Loeb took refuge in those laws, as well as in the city deficit, to rebuff the workers, enjoying the support of both local newspapers and the white business establishment.

Loeb refused to believe that the sanitation workers struck of their own free will. Bitterly antiunion, he was convinced that they were the unwitting pawns of the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees, which was trying to persuade the city to recognize the union as the bargaining agent for the striking workers. The union and the black leadership contended that inequities required redress.

But the mayor never wavered. Because the strike violated state law, Loeb maintained that he would not address the workers’ grievances until they went back to work. This was a bit disingenuous. Although the law forbade the workers to strike, it did not prevent the city from negotiating with striking workers. Furthermore, in line with his belief in “open conduct of business,” Loeb required that all strike negotiations be carried on publicly, with nothing going on behind closed doors. Throughout the negotiations, reporters scribbled and TV cameras blinked on and off. This made it extremely difficult for either side to make concessions without losing face.

Loeb was never a race-baiting extremist. Rather, he suffered from a “plantation” mentality that favored the status quo. During the strike he made sure that the families of the men on strike received food stamps, and he worked out an arrangement with the power company to ensure that strikers’ homes would not have their power cut off. He continued to maintain that he would meet with the strikers to listen to their grievances if they went back to work. But he refused to give credence to the union. Likewise, he turned back conciliation efforts by political moderates, members of the clergy, and friends. Relentlessly stubborn and lacking a broader vision, he never understood that the striking workers wanted more than just higher wages and a union dues checkoff. He did not grasp that what he perceived as a labor dispute had become a civil rights issue.

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., planning a “Poor Peoples” March’ on Washington, was attracted to the sanitation workers’ strike as pertaining to his larger mission. On a Memphis visit to help bring attention to the strike, King was gunned down and killed by James Earl Ray as he stood on the balcony of his room at the Lorraine Motel. The assassination triggered extensive rioting in Memphis and other cities across the country. Loeb called it “the saddest day in Memphis history.” Ironically, Loeb had been on the verge of winning the strike deadlock. More and more sanitation workers, dispirited by the strike’s dragging on for two months, had gradually returned to work. But in the wake of King’s death, Loeb was forced by the pressure of local and national media, as well as an urgent phone call from President Lyndon B. Johnson, to settle the strike, largely on the union’s terms. Although Loeb was denounced in the press and from pulpits across the country, he never admitted any regret or wrongdoing in the way he handled the strike.

Loeb’s local popularity among the white population of Memphis never diminished despite his connection to the King assassination. As late as 1980, a political adversary said of him, “I hate to admit it, but I don’t believe there’s anybody in Memphis who could beat him, even now.”

He did not run for re-election in 1971 or any year thereafter and later moved with his wife to a farm in Arkansas. In 1988 he suffered a stroke that left him unable to speak. He died four years later of colon cancer and is buried in Memorial Park Cemetery in Memphis.

The papers of Henry Loeb III in the Memphis/Shelby County Archives include his terms as commissioner of public works (1956-1960) and mayor (1960–1963, 1968–1971). The best record of the sanitation workers’ strike, including the death of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., is Joan Turner Beifuss, At the River I Stand (1985). Extensive coverage of the strike as well as much coverage of Loeb during his terms as mayor appeared in the Memphis newspapers, the Commercial Appeal and Memphis Press-Scimitar. The New York Times carried a profile of Loeb (17 Apr. 1968) soon after Dr. King’s death. Some years after his retirement, Memphis magazine ran a lengthy two-part profile by Jackson Baker (Jan.- Feb. 1980). The Memphis Flyer carried a major retrospective (17-23 Sept. 1992) following Loeb’s death. Obituaries are in ieNew York Times and the Atlanta Constitution (both 12 Sept. 1992). An interview with Fred Davis, one of the first black Memphis City Council members, whose first term of office was concurrent with Loeb’s second term as mayor, provided valuable insights.

Natalie B. Jalenak

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