A new book tells the story of the Panama Canal treaties yet omits one of the more unlikely participants in that controversy, a Knoxville-based blind Baptist gospel disk jockey named J. Bazzel Mull. Therein lies a tale.
In the 1970s Jimmy Carter was in the White House, and came up with the idea of giving the Panama Canal back to Panama. Carter believed he could improve relations with Panama in particular and Latin America in general if he turned over the canal to that country.
All manner of right wing folks, including Ronald Reagan, foamed at the mouth about giving back our icon of imperialism to a banana republic, and predicted all manner of bad results: the Panamanians couldn’t operate the canal, they would give it to the Chinese, and on and on.
Adam Clymer, former Washington Bureau Chief of The New York Times, tells in his book of Carter’s efforts to sway public opinion to his side. At the time, Senator Howard Baker of Tennessee was the Senate minority leader, and various efforts were made to convince him to support the new treaty.
Enter Reverend Mull, who at the time had a nightly show in Knoxville on which he and his wife, “Lady Mull,” played Southern Gospel hits. Someone from the White House contacted Mull, who was a big time Democrat, and sold him on selling the canal treaties, which he did in his own unique way. “Now suppose we had 9,400 Japanese or Russian troops marching up and down the Mississippi,” he’d argued, night after night. “Even though it was our land, here they’d be right in the middle of us. Do you think we’d like that? Do you? I’ll tell you right now, Doc, we wouldn’t put up with that–but that’s just what they want the people in Panama to do.”
I was the East Tennessee stringer for The New York Times in those days, and I wrote an article about Mull that included those words above and some more of his colorful prose. “I’m a Democrat,” he added. “I sometimes tell people that Jesus Christ was the first Democrat because he rode a donkey into the city of Jerusalem. If he had been a Republican he would have ridden a donkey.”
I ran a one-stop journalism shop back then and often took photos for my own stories. Here is one of Mull in his basement studio in his home.
For his efforts to sell the Panana Canal treaties, Rev. and Lady Mull were invited to the White House, and my article ran in the Times on the day they were there. President Carter mentioned the story to Rev. Mull in the receiving line, and the good reverend called me up when he got back to Knoxville. “Let me tell you,” he exclaimed. “That New York paper really gets around.”
Thus began a curious relationship between Rev. Mull and me. His radio show would end at 11:00 PM, and many nights he would call me at that point to talk politics. He took a great interest in national, state, and local politics, and we would discuss candidates and issues.
I moved to Massachusetts and Rev. Mull continued his radio shows and gospel concerts. He was inducted into the Southern Gospel Hall of Fame in 2003 and died in 2006. Last year, I tried to get the Mull family interested in writing a book on Rev. and Lady Mull, but nothing ever came of it. That’s too bad. Lady Mull, when I met her, had a wonderful memory of her years in the worlds of gospel music and politics. Their story should be recorded while she is still here to tell it.
There is no mention of Mull in the Clymer book. Here’s a lecture by Clymer on the Panama Canal treaties given on May 22, 2008 at the Library of Congress.
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