Wednesday, May 1, 2013
With apologies to A. Jackson, J. Winchester, and J. Overton, sometime in the twilight of the twentieth century W. W. Herenton, a black man born in Memphis, passed E. H. Crump, a white man born in Mississippi, as the most significant figure in Memphis history.
Or maybe not. I don’t know what to make of the legacy of W. W. Herenton, who, on October 3, 1991, received 122,596 votes to incumbent Dick Hackett’s 122,454—a difference of a mere 142—and thereby became the first black man elected mayor of the most racially polarized of racially polarized American cities.
The hopes among black Memphians were high by the end of that day. Many thought they were finally going to get their piece of the pie. But two things are now certain. White cronyism, which the white establishment, beginning with Boss Crump, had practiced with perfection, was simply replaced by black cronyism, and blacks are just as poor today as they were then. Memphis was not to have an enlightened government under Willie Wilbert Herenton.
In their 1996 study of that 1991 election, Racial Politics at the Crossroads: Memphis Elects Dr. W. W. Herenton (University of Tennessee Press), Marcus D. Pohlmann and Michael P. Kirby claim that the election of W. W. Herenton was of “considerable social and historical significance.” Their claim—perhaps reasonable at the time but more and more dubious in retrospect—rests on the fact that Herenton’s election was made under circumstances that differed from the usual circumstances attending the election of black mayoral candidates in other major cities. For one thing, Herenton ran against only one white candidate: there was no second white candidate to split the white vote. For another, Memphis’s only major newspaper endorsed not the black candidate but the white. Indeed, the newspaper ran a series of articles criticizing Herenton’s private life and his tenure as superintendent of the city schools.
In addition, Herenton won with virtually no white support—and it was white support that had already enabled many other cities to elect black mayors, starting in 1967 with Carl Stokes in Cleveland. By 1991, Memphis was one of only two major cities (the other being St. Louis) with a sizable black population that had not elected a black mayor.
In short, Herenton won, write Pohlmann and Kirby, without having to concede anything to the white community. To Pohlmann and Kirby, that was significant—and troubling. It meant that Memphis had reached what the authors call the point of “racial reflexivity.” When a city has come to that point, a black politician will lose the trust of black voters if he appeals to the concerns of white voters; likewise, if a white politician appeals to the concerns of black voters, he will lose the trust of white voters. The result is a thoroughly racialized politics, and the loss of trust will show itself in a lower turnout at the polls.
Pohlmann and Kirby end their book on a slightly optimistic note, suggesting that Herenton, who was reelected in 1995 and would serve as mayor until 2009, had begun to develop a “progressive” black-white governing majority.
As for Pohlmann, his assessment of Herenton’s legacy has grown only more positive over the years. In a 2009 article in the Commercial Appeal, Pohlmann, who is a professor of political science at Rhodes College, stated that Herenton was “the most significant mayor in the history of the city” and suggested that Herenton had done a lot to advance race relations in the city.