As Hollywood produced some of its best films and secured its place internationally as the mecca of movie-making, the Memphis Board of Censors gained nationwide notoriety for its draconian brand of censorship. Founded in 1911 by Mayor E. H. Crump, the Board of Censors was initially rather lethargic in fulfilling its mandate to restrict works that were “immoral, lewd, or lascivious” or “inimical to the public safety, health, morals, or welfare.” In 1927, however, Mayor Watkins Overton appointed Lloyd T. Binford, a prosperous businessman, as chairman of the Memphis Board of Censors. Binford received the chairmanship after he reversed an earlier position and offered his support to Crump, who had established himself as the “boss” of Memphis politics. Binford served as the censor board chairman until 1955, only resigning after Crump’s death effectively dissolved the power structure that ruled Memphis for nearly half a century.
While Binford sometimes censored plays and other public performances, his efforts focused primarily on films. He imposed bans or censored films for a variety of reasons. In 1928, Binford banned Cecil B. DeMille’s King of Kings from playing in Memphis because he objected to the film’s portrayal of Jews, a group of people who composed a sizeable portion of Memphis’s population and were indispensable to Crump’s political machine. He also banned all films starring Ingrid Bergman on moral grounds after she had an extramarital affair with Roberto Rosselini and became pregnant with his child. Binford censored Charlie Chaplin, citing communist sympathies, and banned the western The Return of Jesse James, claiming that it was too violent. Finally, exemplifying his whimsical approach to censorship, Binford banned all films depicting train robberies because he had witnessed one as a child.
Yet, more than any other issue, Binford’s racial attitudes structured his censorship endeavors. Binford was not a particularly overactive censor until World War II precipitated shifting demographics in Memphis and generated increased racial tension. At the same time, a 1943 race riot in Detroit amplified fears of racial violence among Memphis’s civic leaders. In response to these perceived threats, Binford and others began endorsing strict film censorship as a means of maintaining racial harmony. Binford believed that African Americans should have economic equality, but he viewed social equality as both impractical and undesirable. He also feared miscegenation; in 1947, Binford stated, “the downfall of every ancient civilization is traceable to racial contamination.” Clearly, municipal leaders approved of Binford’s racially charged censorship because the city gave him an 800-percent pay raise in 1945.
Through Binford’s efforts, celebrities such as Lena Horne, Duke Ellington, Cab Calloway, and the King Cole Trio all disappeared from Memphis silver screens. Binford also prohibited films that featured all-black casts from playing in movie theaters that catered to white audiences. Additionally, he banned films that presented “unrealistic” portrayals of African Americans. For example, he banned the 1947 film Curley because it depicted white and black children attending school together, which did not happen in the South at that time. Similarly, Binford banned the 1949 film Lost Boundaries because he thought it presented an overstated sense of equality between blacks and whites. Binford did not limit his racism to African Americans, though; he banned the 1946 film Duel in the Sun because it depicted a sexual affair between a white man and a half-Mexican woman.
Lloyd Binford’s stringency generated a national reputation for the Memphis Board of Censors. The term “Binfordized” became a part of the movie industry’s lexicon and denoted significant censorship or outright banning of films. Binford’s harsh attitudes led some people to view him as puritanical, but he also had the support of many local citizens, suggesting that his views were not far outside of mainstream thought at the time. When Binford decided to censor a movie, he cut the footage he found offensive regardless of whether it disrupted the artistic flow or confused the narrative of the film. Consequently, throughout the Golden Age of Hollywood, Memphians often had a limited movie selection or viewed choppy, “sanitized” versions of films.
Whitney Strub, “Black and White and Banned All Over: Race, Censorship and Obscenity in Postwar Memphis,” Journal of Social History (Spring 2007): 685-715; G. Wayne Dowdy, “Censoring Popular Culture: Political and Social Control in Segregated Memphis,” West Tennessee Historical Society Papers 55 (2001): 98-117