By Erica R. Williams
Updated: Profiles of all three of the leading candidates for Memphis Mayor are now live online. Excellent reporting and writing by Erica R. Williams. Click to access the candidate of your choice:
Dr. Willie W. Herenton recalled the days when he attended segregated public schools and was forced to sit at the back of city buses because of the color of his skin. As the South Memphis native reflected, he sat back in his chair and paused before explaining how it all came full circle.
The first African American to serve as superintendent of those once-segregated schools, Herenton (in 1991) beat incumbent mayor Dick Hackett, becoming the first African American elected to serve as Memphis’ mayor.
“It’s one of my biggest accomplishments,” said Herenton, whose 17-year tenure made him Memphis’ longest serving mayor. “To rise up through rejection, discrimination, racism and poverty and then to be elected to the highest position in Memphis and have the power to elevate other qualified African Americans to positions of leadership.”
Now, Herenton says, “God’s not done” with him yet. He wants to be re-elected October 3.
“Oh, we’re heading back to City Hall,” he often proclaims at rallies such as the recent “Women for Herenton” event that boasted more than a thousand women Herenton is counting upon.
“When I saw more than a thousand women attend my event and support my candidacy that day it was affirmation from what I already sensed,” he said.
Thinking back upon his time as mayor, Herenton notes among accomplishments his contribution to the transformation of public housing, where people were living in “such degradation.”
“And when I was campaigning (in ’91), I said if God enlarges my territory I will do something about this; and we did.”
In 2009, the U.S. Dept. of Housing and Urban Development used the work done by the Herenton administration as a model for the nation. Hundreds of millions of dollars were secured under the federal Hope VI Grant program, which was a national plan to eradicate severely distressed public housing.
“If you look at LeMoyne Gardens, it didn’t look like what it looks like today. We tore all of that down to make it better,” Herenton said, referencing the old South Memphis public housing development that was replaced by a mixed-income community and renamed College Park.
Some argue that the HOPE VI program displaced poor families to make way for people with higher incomes. Herenton cites its benefits to Memphis.
“Those facilities were once unfit for human habitation and we made them livable. I’m proud of that.”
Clearly happy that he was able to aid in the transformation of the area where he once grew up in poverty, Herenton noted that he graduated from LeMoyne-Owen College (LOC), only a few feet away from that transformation.
After graduating from LOC, Herenton obtained a master’s degree in Education from the University of Memphis (formerly Memphis State). He spent the early years of his career teaching before serving as a principal and district administrator. He became the superintendent of Memphis City Schools in 1979.
“During my tenure, we made available about $175 million to the Memphis school system that we were not required to do,” he said. “But because my background is in education I felt we had to do it.”
Herenton later founded the W.E.B. Du Bois Consortium of Charter Schools in Memphis and Atlanta; but two of the six schools have closed due to poor performance.
Today, the city’s budget doesn’t allot any funding to K-12 education and Herenton believes the city should do more. And, says Herenton, assistance should extend beyond city funding.
“The root cause is poverty, family disintegration, racism and classism. And until we begin to tackle that fundamentally, we will always have the difference in academic achievement in race and class,” he said. “It’s the ugly reality.”
Poverty abatement and crime reduction are high on his agenda. Additionally, his platform includes creating an “attractive business climate” to grow the city’s tax base, tackling juvenile justice reform, and growing minority-owned businesses. And to the degree his platform mirrors elements of the campaigns of any of his opponents, Herenton said he would employ tougher tactics to get the job done.
Herenton and Strickland have said they would increase the city’s complement of police officers, with Herenton labeling Strickland as weak on crime. Strickland’s comeback has referenced Herenton as mayor in 2006, the year Memphis was recognized as leading the nation in violent crimes.
Crime, Herenton said, is connected to other problems and is a result of a hopeless and prevalent mindset.
“When I’m elected mayor – and I will be elected mayor – I don’t have the power to stop people from killing each other, but I believe my presence as mayor is going to be symbolic to many of the African-American young people who walk and drive the streets of Memphis who don’t have a role model.”
Herenton said he can relate to the citizens of Memphis, most of who are African Americans
“I’m everywhere – at the McDonald’s, Piccadilly and walking the streets of Memphis. I meet a lot of people, old and young. And they’ve told me that I’ve got to come back.”
Acknowledging a “very colorful career,” Herenton said, “And I’m not proud of everything, but when people see me they tell me that when I was mayor we had this city on a tight grip and that’s what we need again.”
Herenton timed the public announcement of his mayoral bid to coincide with the commemoration of the day Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in Memphis.
“All of this was a part of my strategy,” he said. “I marched with Dr. King and it was my strong admiration for him that compelled me to become an activist.”
He credits the legacy of Dr. King for his desire to run for re-election.
“Fifty years after Dr. King’s death, I watched what was going on in my city. Dr. King had a dream that was interrupted. I, too, had a dream for the city of Memphis that was interrupted because of my resignation during my fifth term.”
During his final years as mayor, the FBI launched an investigation, accusing him of a faulty real estate deal. Herenton has denounced the investigation calling it “targeted, unfounded, and ultimately unsuccessful.” No charges were filed.
Herenton took a break from public service after unsuccessfully taking on Ninth District incumbent Congressman Steve Cohen in 2010 and garnering only 20 percent of the vote. The former mayor said he’s had time to reflect and now wants to re-dedicate himself to the agenda he started.
The to-do list includes improving the city’s infrastructure.
“Before I became mayor, our downtown was dead,” he said. “The public private partnerships that we were able to bring into reality – the Peabody Place, the relocation of AutoZone Park, FedExForum, we were able to do all that.”
At 79 years old, Herenton said he’s up for the challenge and that he expects to be re-elected with a voter turnout higher than it has been in the past.
Open about his distrust of the Shelby County Election Commission, Herenton said he’s not taking any chances.
“We will probably request federal officials to come in and monitor this election because of my distrust.”
He’s also focusing heavily on early voting. His team has launched The Herenton Express, a bus service that will take supporters to the polls to vote on Sept.14, the day after early voting begins.
Several local unions, including the Memphis Police Association, the Memphis Firefighters Association and the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, Local 1733, have endorsed Herenton. Heralding himself a proponent of the working class, Herenton returned to his theme – that he’s ready to get back to city hall and serve the residents of Memphis.
“I know it’s late in the evening for me to run,” he said. “…but I’m glad that God has provided me with the blessing to persevere in life to the point that I have been able to contribute to the growth of my hometown.”
This article originally appeared in the New Tri-State Defender