A man who "Walked Tall" in McNairy County
by Janet Rail
As Russel Gallimore stated at the funeral of Buford Hayes Pusser on August 24, 1974, Pusserís spirit continues to live. Buford Pusser met an untimely death at age 36, just ten years after becoming the youngest sheriff in McNairy County at age 26.
This year marks the 25th Anniversary of Pusserís death. This is a man who was born and died among his people, his friends and his enemies. The man who "Walked Tall" and became a legend in his own time and an international hero.
Pusser won fame as a young sheriff who could not be bought or beaten by criminals. It was with raw courage and steadfast determination that Pusser crumbled a vicious vice and gambling ring that was terrorizing and corrupting McNairy County. This mission was accomplished at a terrible cost of not only his own disfiguring wounds, but the murder of his wife, Pauline.
Pusser is described by his friends and family as a quiet, kind and caring man, a gentle giant. Pusser stood 6 feet 6 inches tall and weighed 250 pounds. His shadow cast across the nation one of the tallest in law enforcement history. Pusser became an American folk hero. A native of McNairy County. A legend with world-wide recognition.
Ask McNairy Countians what they think about Sheriff Buford Pusser, and you will get many different answers. The reactions range from respect and praise to harsh criticism. The reasons for the vast differences of opinions are as varied as the people themselves.
It has been stated before, that in a county where Democrats and Republicans are almost equal in number, simple politics alone made friends or enemies for Pusser, a Republican.
In keeping with political tradition in McNairy County, in the 1964 election incumbent Sheriff James Dickey was favored to win the re-election for another term in office. Just before the election, however, Dickey was killed in an auto accident and Pusser won the election by a close margin.
Pusser promised to "clean up McNairy County". Pusser served and was re-elected for three consecutive terms in office from 1964-1970. This was the term limit according to Tennessee law.
Pusserís war against crime bore a high price tag. Pusserís six years in office led to many acts of violence, often targeting the sheriff who was hospitalized on several occasions. Two people were killed in the line of duty. This type of combat with the outlaws left its battle scars on Pusser.
The greatest tragedy occurred in the early morning hours of August 12, 1967, when Pauline Pusser, the sheriffís wife, rode along with her husband after a call at home regarding some trouble on New Hope Road. The sheriffís wife was killed during an ambush and Pusser was seriously wounded. Pusser underwent sixteen facial operations as a result of the ambush.
This event was thought to be the work of organized crime. Many people in the county disagreed with Pusser denying that organized crime existed. However, many agreed about the unlawful situation that existed at the state line.
During a 1968 interview between Pusser and Eddie Bond, singer and songwriter, Pusser stated that he felt like most of the people were behind him and that during his first term he was closing one to two stills a week and now it was just about one a month. Pusser went on to state that he felt there was organized crime in McNairy County and there were rumors that there had been a price put on his head. When asked how he could go on with all of the threats against his life, Pusser said, "I just donít like to quit. When they get you down, theyíll keep you down. I just want to stand up and fight."
It was apparent that the people wanted Pusser to continue to fight crime by re-electing him for three consecutive terms.
Pusser was surrounded by violence. On February 1, 1966, Pusser was on his way to the Shamrock Motel to arrest Louise Hathcock. He had two warrants for Hathcock in his pocket, one for theft and one for illegal possession of whiskey.
The sheriff was accompanied by his deputies, Jim Moffett and Peatie Plunk, that morning. Pusser shot and killed Hathcock after Hathcock fired at the sheriff first.
On Christmas Day, 1968, Pusser was forced to kill Charles Russell Hamilton. Don Pipkin, landlord and cousin to Hamilton, called Pusser and told him his relative was drunk and threatened to shoot him and his wife. Hamilton had killed his mother, his wife, a York man from Chewalla and a man from Alabama. Pusser made the call and after Hamilton shot at the sheriff, Pusser killed him, his second killing in the line of duty. Both cases were heard by the McNairy County grand jury and both were ruled self-defense.
The events that took place after Pusserís six year term in office boosted him to national fame and a folk hero. Pusser asked a friend, Bobby Killingsworth of Stantonville, to introduce him to Eddie Bond, a singer and songwriter in Memphis. Bobby, or "Bojack", did just that. It was a few weeks later when Bond came to Selmer to do a show for a new grocery store opening in Selmer that she met Buford Pusser for the second time.
The two met for a while and in no time a song was written by Bond and a friend, Jim Climer, "The Ballad of Buford Pusser."
Bond was instrumental in the national recognition of Pusser. Bond introduced W.R. Morris, then a newspaper reporter and correspondent for the Covington Leader and Commercial Appeal, who wrote several books on the life of Pusser in the years to follow. A TV spot on Pusser was filmed in the old Peabody Hotel in Memphis by Channel 3, then aired on Channel 13. It was then picked up by CBS and seen by a producer of Bing Cosby Productions and after that big things began to happen.
Word was that a movie was in the making on Pusserís life. Two years later, as plans were being developed for the movie "Walking Tall," Pusser was making plans to run again for sheriff.
There was controversy regarding the film developing in the county and Pusser blamed that controversy for his defeat by incumbent Sheriff Clifford Coleman.
Selmer officials were opposed to the movie saying it would show the town in a "bad light." The producers ultimately chose Chester and Madison Counties for the location due to a said "lack of cooperation." These charges were denied by local officials.
The movie "Walking Tall" became a success. Pusser was defeated in the race, but claimed he was now glad he lost the race due to the demand for public appearances. Pusser became a living legend, making appearances all over the nation.
On August 21, 1974, Buford Pusser had his last ride. Earlier that day, Pusser had been at a press conference in Memphis announcing that Pusser would play himself in a sequel called "Buford." Pusser drove his Lincoln Continental home, parked it in his garage, and changed from his suit into shorts and a tee shirt. Employees of the Phillips 66 Station delivered his 1974 maroon Corvette and Pusser took a test ride. When he returned, his daughter Dwana had already left for the county fair. He got into the corvette and headed for Selmer.
Around midnight, he left the fair headed home, passed his daughterís friendís car and was out of sight. Pusser crashed into an embankment just off Hwy 64, around the Lawton area, where he was killed.
As we stated earlier, the legend of Pusser lives on, far after his death. Two movies were made, many songs written, as well as books and even a TV series. Pusser is, and always will be, alive in the hearts and minds of many now and in the years to come.
Many people, even twenty-five years later, tour the home/museum of Pusser, his original office and hopefully soon the original jail in the McNairy County Courthouse. Last month alone, over 874 people toured the museum in Adamsville, Tennessee. It is apparent that to many Sheriff Buford Pusser is "Walking Tall."
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