Books: James D. Squires on 'The Secrets of the Hopewell Box'

Monday, June 10, 2013 at 7:05pm
By John Egerton Chapter16.org

The post-World War II boyhood of James D. Squires in and around Old Hickory, a working-class community in the orbit of Nashville, gave him access to more than enough personal adventures and colorful charters for a classic coming-of-age memoir, which he finally wrote and published when he was past 50. The Secrets of the Hopewell Box (Random House, 1996) was a local sensation, dealing as it did with the seldom-exposed underbelly of ward politics in a Southern city on the cusp of social change. The book got good regional and national exposure for a couple of years, but inexplicably the publisher let it go out of print. Now, Vanderbilt University Press has reissued it in paperback, giving readers a second chance to be entertained and instructed about a period of local history that had national implications in politics, civil rights, reapportionment and the sensational federal trial of labor boss Jimmy Hoffa.

Jim Squires began his journalism career at The Tennessean as a bottom-rung reporter in 1962, when he was 19, and left 10 years later, after earning a bachelor’s degree at Peabody College, serving as the paper’s Washington bureau chief, and spending a year at Harvard on a Nieman Fellowship. By 1981, he had become the editor and executive vice president of the Chicago Tribune. He resigned at the end of the 1980s, leaving seven Pulitzer Prizes in the record. Recently Squires answered questions via email:

 

Some of the central figures in your book — Dave White, Jake Sheridan, Elkin Garfinkle, even Garner Robinson — are all but invisible in conventional histories of postwar Nashville politics, yet they clearly wielded enormous power and influence behind the scene. Looking back at Nashville now, almost two more decades after The Secrets of the Hopewell Box was first published, how would you characterize their contributions to our 21stcentury form of governance, Metropolitan Nashville?

Dave White probably never influenced much of anything beyond his oldest grandson. But that political machine had a far-reaching effect on our country. Certainly its most lasting contribution was the Supreme Court decision in Baker v. Carr, which Justice Earl Warren said was the most important case of his tenure, even more so than Brown v. Board of Education and the civil rights cases. It resulted in the reapportionment of every elected body at all levels of government, producing two critical changes in democracy: the rise of the two-party South and the empowerment of black Americans. For the first time since Reconstruction, Republicans and blacks began getting elected to city councils, state legislatures and Congress. Without this there would be no President Obama. Up until this point the highest-ranking African American political leaders had been the appointment of a single member of the Supreme Court — Thurgood Marshall.

And how and why did this come about? Because a couple of these guys, mainly Elkin Garfinkle and Z.T. Osborne, saw the lawsuit as way to break the rural control of the state legislature. Other than that, I am not sure they had any higher motivations. Certainly they would have harbored no thought of creating a Republican Party in the state. This is simply one of those unforeseen consequences that so often accompany major changes in society.

In fact, the voter approval of Metropolitan Government was aided by Baker v. Carr in a strange fashion. As a result, the growth of minority population in cities combined with white flight to the suburbs made it clear that the city political jurisdiction would soon be controlled by a minority, as quickly happened in Atlanta and Detroit. Some people quietly sold Metro as an idea that would preserve majority white political control of Nashville. To what if any degree this was true I have no idea.

For certain, Baker vs. Carr ended the white rural domination of state legislatures forever, which in turn changed the complexion of the House of Representatives in Congress as well.

 

Apropos of nothing, I notice that you’re still “playing the horses” — as a journalist, an owner-breeder of thoroughbreds and, for all I know, as a two-dollar bettor. What could be more fun than that? Not writing books, certainly.

Music was my first love, writing my second. I fell in love with horses early in life but could never afford to own one until 1976. But I have been very lucky to have made a living raising them for better than two decades. And they have taught me patience when nothing else could.

Horses and women are God’s most beautiful creatures, not necessarily in that order. Old Colonel McCormick of Tribune fame once said that after his life in newspapers, he had come to prefer the company of dogs to men and books to dogs.

For me, after 30 years of newspapering, it was the company of horses to men and books to horses.

 

For more local book coverage and a longer version of this interview, please visit Chapter16.org, an online publication of Humanities Tennessee.