Giants of West Tennessee: Buford Pusser

NOTE: This is the first in an occasional series about notable figures from my home region. These are personal reminiscences and opinions; where available, I’ll include links so interested readers can find out more.

There aren’t many heroic figures to come out of flat, muddy west Tennessee. Elvis is one, obviously, but he’s a special case. Tina Turner, born Annie Mae Bullock in diminutive Nutbush, is certainly heroic, but she’s not really associated with the region. But we do have one genuine, larger-than-life hero to our credit: Buford Pusser.

The legend goes like this: former pro wrestler and ex-Marine Buford Pusser returns to McNairy County, Tennessee and is appalled at the rampant injustice. When he’s beaten and robbed at a local gambling joint run by the well-connected State Line Gang, he goes back for revenge. At his trial for this assault, his righteousness convinces the jury to take a stand against the gangsters, and he’s acquitted. Emboldened, he runs for county sheriff and wins.

As sheriff, Buford doesn’t carry a gun. Instead he wields a big stick, literally: four feet long, made of concrete-solid hickory wood. He pursues the criminals and bootleggers that formally had a free ride in the country. He’s shot and stabbed, but nothing stops him, until the morning of August 12, 1967. In an ambush, his wife is killed and he’s shot in the face. But he survives to continue fighting the good fight, until he’s killed in a 1974 one-car wreck that had “suspicious” written all over it.

This is the story you’ll find in the trilogy of movies based on his life: Walking Tall (1973, with Joe Don Baker as Pusser), Walking Tall Part 2 (1975, with Bo Svenson taking over) and Walking Tall: the Final Chapter (1977, again with Svenson). The truth, as you can imagine, was quite a bit less black-and-white and can be found in detail in the books The State Line Mob: A True Story of Murder and Intrigue and The Twelfth of August, both by W.R. Morris. As with all real people, Pusser was neither all good nor all bad, and nothing changes the fact that he took a lot of punishment in his capacity as sheriff, not least of which was losing his wife.

If my memory is right, when I was 11 I shook Pusser’s hand at the Humboldt, Tennessee Strawberry Festival in the spring of 1974. He was part of the annual parade, along with the governor and various strawberry-related dignitaries. I remember mainly his size, and the off-kilter aspect of his reconstructed face. I was also disappointed he didn’t look like Joe Don Baker.

But the public figure of Pusser–an indestructible man with a huge stick, ready to dispense justice–has more reality than the man himself. Elvis may have worn the cape, but Buford Pusser is West Tennessee’s superhero.

3 Comments on “Giants of West Tennessee: Buford Pusser”

  1. Pingback: A Giveaway in honor of National Bubba Day! | Alex Bledsoe

  2. I was 20 when Buford lost his life, my name is Glenn Elkins Im from Valdosta Ga., What a man this was, fearless, tough as nails, Ive was in law enforcement for 20 years, Im 60 years old now, and this Man is still my hero, he was the main reason why I had a career in law, I grew up with heros , Elvis being one Audy Murphy being another, but Buford Pusser was the man!!! I now live in a town Albany Ga. That has a bunch of Im sorry to say, pussies for police officers!!! They don’t make mMen like Buford anymore. Red West was another tough marine, I was in the corp 3 years, and the military puts out some pretty tough men.I know his family has to be proud of him. I wished he could have been my father!!!

  3. Thank you for this information of Sheriff Buford Pusser. You are absolutely right, Sheriff Buford Pusser of McNairy County Tennessee was a man among men and a leader that law enforcement officers could look up to. He didn’t back off and he didn’t back down.

    Officers should be man enough to step up to the plate and fill the shoes of being a law enforcement officer, or go find another job. Law enforcement is just that, it’s enforcing the law. If you don’t have the guts and the backbone for the job, then don’t bother to apply.

    A bootlegger, a drug dealer, pimp or con artist needs to be dealt with straight on, face to face, locked up and taken off the streets. There is no place in our society for drug dealers, bootleggers, pimps or con artists. Thieves, crooks, rapists, dope dealers, pimps and con artists is not what life in America is about. These kind of people need to be locked up and put far away from society.

    Buford Pusser was a man who lived to serve the people and lived to preserve law and order, in his community and for America. We need more men like Buford Pusser who will stand up for what’s right and who will stand up against what’s wrong. We owe it to our children and our grandchildren to enforce the laws and to put the crooks, criminals, pimps and pushers behind bars.

    If you think you have the guts, strength and courage to be a law enforcement officer, then go for it, America needs good men like you.

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