17. Buford Pusser (1937-1974)

Loyal readers, welcome back to the “Church of Christ Celebrities” blog! You know the standard spiel by now: please feel free to like and share the blog with your friends, and if you have any suggestions for future entries, let me know via Facebook or over at the Contact page. Thanks to those who have helped this project reach a larger readership and to those who have offered ideas for specific blog posts.

Our last entry diverged somewhat from our usual format, but today, we return to our normal approach as we explore the religious affiliation of police officer and inspiration of the Walking Tall movie series, Buford Pusser (1937-1974). Pusser served as sheriff of McNairy County, Tennessee, during the 1960s, where he became both famous and infamous for his confrontational approach to fighting organized crime. Such an approach was no doubt made possible by Pusser’s height (6’6″) and athleticism (he played high school basketball and football and wrestled competitively for a time). Despite having survived numerous stabbings and shootings during his career–one estimate puts the totals at seven of the former and eight of the latter–Pusser was killed in a one-car crash at the age of thirty-six. (1)

As mentioned above, Pusser’s life serves as the basis for the Walking Tall movies, but more importantly for us, he also shows up on some lists of supposed “Church of Christ celebrities.” Do our sources corroborate the lists?

Buford_Pusser

Our first clue comes from the Jackson Sun. A 2016 article in the newspaper contains a photo from Pusser’s funeral service which, according to the accompanying caption, was held at the Adamsville Church of Christ. (2) This detail is corroborated in a book by Pusser’s daughter Dwana, who writes that “The funeral was held at Adamsville Church of Christ. I cried during the entire service.” (3) Elsewhere she adds that “Bobby Tillman, the minister of the Church of Christ, who also helped conduct my mother’s funeral, read scriptures from the Bible and led a prayer.” (4) Dwana also tells us that her grandmother “was a faithful member of the Adamsville Church of Christ,” (5) and that she herself was “raised in the Church of Christ.” (6)

The most important detail from Dwana’s book, however, is that Pusser had been one of the Adamsville church’s biggest contributors during his lifetime:

One Sunday during the service, Deacon Henry Carruthers told the congregation that they may have noticed that the church’s treasury, while never exactly overflowing, didn’t seem quite as healthy as it had in the many months before. He explained that the reason was that my daddy had quietly been giving $100 a week for some time, in order to help pay off some of the debts incurred when the congregation constructed its new church building. Daddy had requested that his giving to the church in this way not be made public.” (7)

Of course, this passage does not directly say that Buford Pusser was a member of the Adamsville Church of Christ, but we know that several of his family members were part of the church and that he gave a great deal of money to the congregation. Although it is feasible that Pusser himself was simply donating to support an institution that was near and dear to his family, the more plausible interpretation is that the sheriff was also a member.

One last detail worth mentioning before we conclude is that the original Walking Tall was filmed (in part) in Henderson, Tennessee, which is home to the Churches of Christ-affiliated Freed-Hardeman University. (8) The school’s Wikipedia entry states that the campus “was used as a filming location for the 1973 movie, Walking Tall,” but there is no source given to document the claim. (9)

Check back in a couple of weeks as we catch a case of March Madness here at the “Church of Christ Celebrities” blog!

NOTES

(1) Emily Dawn Wade, “Buford Pusser: The Man and the Legend,” honors thesis, Freed-Hardeman University, 1995, https://drive.google.com/drive/folders/0BzZ5iuBDDlWTcE9jZ19zQXNhQ2s (scroll down and click the appropriate thumbnail to read the document.)

(2) Craig Thomas, “Books cover Buford Pusser era, more,” Jackson Sun, December 1, 2016, accessed January 14, 2018, https://www.jacksonsun.com/story/news/local/2016/12/01/books-cover-buford-pusser-era-more/94752088/ (again, you’ll need to scroll down to find the photograph and caption.)

(3) Dwana Pusser, Walking On: A Daughter’s Journey with Legendary Sheriff Buford Pusser. Gretna, LA: Pelican Publishing Company, 115.

(4) Pusser, Walking On, 202.

(5) Pusser, Walking On, 125.

(6) Pusser, Walking On, 231.

(7) Pusser, Walking On, 204.

(8) “Henderson, Tennessee… Rich in History,” accessed January 14, 2018, http://www.hendersontn.org/history/history.html .

(9) “Freed-Hardeman University,” Wikipedia, accessed January 14, 2018, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Freed%E2%80%93Hardeman_University#Walking_Tall_movies .

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