Founding and Growth (1900′s-1990)
Six score and seven years ago, since the election of Abraham Lincoln (1860), our forefathers, along with the present day survivors, brought forth in this County of Shelby, a solid Republican Party, one now dedicated to those interested in good government. It is altogether fitting and proper that those past servants of our Party be recognized.
Robert Church, Jr., later Republican National Committeeman, founded the Lincoln League in 1916. In later years the leader of the Lincoln League, and thus the Republican Party in Shelby County, was George W. Lee, a local Black leader who had risen through the ranks in World War I to become a Lieutenant in the U.S. Army. He was a delegate to nearly every Republican National convention from 1920 to 1960.
(Did you know? That John T. Williams was appointed U.S. Marshall, Western District, by President Eisenhower in 1953?)
In 1954, the “old” group headed by Lt. Lee and the “new” group headed by Millsaps Fitzhugh and Walker Wellford, Sr. at convention elected Walker Wellford, Jr. as Chairman and Dr. R.Q. Venson (founder of the Cottonmaker’s Jubilee), as Co-Chairman, creating harmony, at least for a while.
In 1961, Bob James was elected Party Chairman. He represented our Party by running for Congress in 1962 and 1964. Unfortunately, he was not victorious on either occasion but his effort built a base from which many others would rise. In 1967, he was elected to the Memphis City Council, a position which he held with distinction for twenty years, retiring in 1987.
In 1964, Dan Kuykendall and Howard Baker both ran for the United States Senate (there was a vacancy or short term caused by the death of Estes Kefauver). 1964 was a tough year for Republicans and both men lost.
In 1966, the Republican Party bounced back. Howard Baker became the first popularly elected Republican Senator in the history of the state and Dan Kuykendall was elected to Congress from Memphis. In addition, Republicans elected half the members of the Tennessee House of Representatives. Because the lone Independent member of the House voted with us, Bill Jenkins of Knoxville became the only Republican Speaker of the Tennessee House in this century and Tom Avery of Memphis became the only Majority Leader from our Party.
One of those contributing to this Republican success, was a dentist named Winfield Dunn, who served as Party Chairman from 1963-1967. Winfield, of course, was to lead us to even bigger victories.
He was succeeded as Chairman by Harry Wellford (1967-69), whose term saw the re-election of Dan Kuykendall and increased strength statewide. Later appointed to the U.S. District Court in Memphis, Judge Wellford now sites on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 6th Circuit.
Alex Dann served as Chairman from 1969-1971, a term which saw some of the greatest Republican victories. In 1970, Bill Brock moved from Congress to the Senate (defeating Albert Gore, Sr.) and Winfield Dunn became Governor. Memphis’s S.L. “Kopie” Kopald became State Republican Chairman. In 1972, while Kyle Creson was Shelby County Chairman, the party achieved its greatest electoral strength with the election of Robin Beard to Congress. Republicans now held the Governor’s office, both U.S. Senate seats, and five of eight Congressional seats from Tennessee. Watergate soon began to undo all that had been done. Chairman Creson spent much time on TV, defending the Republican Party.
(Did you know? That District chairmen were elected by our Party, in 1972? They were: Ralph Thomas (7th), Carl Abbott (8th), and Frank Liddell, Jr. (9th).
Bill Lawson became Chairman in 1973-75, caught in the throes of Vice-President Agnew’s resignation, followed by that of President Nixon. 1974 was even harder on Republicans than 1964. Lamar Alexander lost the Governor’s race to Ray Blanton. Dan Kuykendall lost the Memphis Congressional seat to Harold Ford. In 1976, Gerald Ford lost the Presidency and Bill Brock lost the Senate seat to Jim Sasser.
(Did you know? That new District chairmen now served the local Party? They were: Bert Prosterman (6th), Bill George (7th), and Shirley Tomlinson Stone (8th))
Former National Young Republican chairman, Don Sundquist, became County Chairman (1975-77) and the location of Republican Headquarters was moved from midtown to east Memphis. The Lincoln Day dinners became a reality and continue to this date. Bill Brock became Chairman of the Republican National Committee (1977). Lamar Alexander walked across our State in 1978 to become Governor. Howard Baker and Robin Beard won re-election. Bill Watkins, County Chairman (1977-79) helped more and more persons climb aboard the elephant and ride to victory in State and Local elections.
Emphasis was on precinct organization and this was continued the following two years (1979-81) under the leadership of County Chairman, Tom Pyron. Republicans were again running and winning seats in the State Legislature, City Council, County Commission and School Board. Our State Executive Committee members were trying to sell us on the Capitol Club.
Everything started “looking up” again in 1980, with a grand victory for President Reagan. Bill Brock was appointed U.S. Trade Representative, and Howard Baker was Senate Majority Leader. Maida Pearson was elected as the first female County Chairman. Republican headquarters became “computerized” and the emphasis was on precinct organization and raising funds to keep headquarters afloat.
Lamar Alexander was re-elected Governor. Don Sundquist was elected to the 7th District Congressional seat (in a close one), formerly held by Robin Beard. Beard lost his race for U.S. Senate that year. Emphasis was again on increasing our numbers in the State Legislature. Maida Pearson served a second term as County Chairman. All in 1982.
By 1985, Ronald Reagan was serving his second term, with Howard Baker as his Chief of Staff in 1987. Bill Brock was now Secretary of Labor and Jack Craddock was Shelby County Chairman (1985-86). Again, raising funds was the key to keeping headquarters functioning. The Iran-Contra hearings were not helping the President’s popularity.
John Ryder is County Chairman (1987-1989). 1988 shows six strong Republicans running for the nomination for U.S. President. A good man is running for the U.S. Senate in Tennessee – Bill Andersen from Johnson City. And, Don Sundquist is running for re-election. Our Party still needs a majority in the State House and Senate.
The Republican Party appears alive and well as this goes to press. The Lincoln Day dinners have been quite successful, not only in a financial way, but in bringing our Republicans together and rewarding so many for their volunteer hours.
Six score and seven years after the election of Abraham Lincoln, we honor him by remembering and living his words, “this Nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom, and that government of the people, by the people, and for the people shall not perish from the earth.”