Politics » Politics Feature

The Passing of Icons

Minerva Johnican’s death, like that of Otis Higgs, turns the page on an era of local history.

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It's Otis Higgs one month, Minerva Johnican the next. And one hears dark rumors of serious illnesses affecting one or two other African-American eminences who are still with us. A page in history is turning and a glorious one it was.

The February funeral of Higgs, a sitting Criminal Court judge at the time of his death and a mayoral candidate during a transitional era, drew a large and diverse crowd at Mississippi Boulevard Christian Church. Almost exactly a month later, Saturday's rites at Parkway Gardens Presbyterian Church for Johnican, who held several elective offices, will surely be well attended also. The attention in both cases will have been well deserved.

Both these giants facilitated the final coming-of-age of Memphis politics and the assumption of local power by African Americans. Higgs' two mayoral runs in 1975 and 1979 earned no cigar, but they were close enough to create the inevitability of an African-American mayor in the minds of the community.

Johnican — a county commissioner, a city council member, a candidate for congresswoman and mayor, a clerk — did something that advanced the envelope even further. Two things, really: First, she enlarged the viability of African Americans in politics by establishing a pattern of competitive races within the black community itself. She won some of those and lost some and made it look like democracy at work either way. Secondly, she advanced the cause of women in politics, simultaneously within her own ethnic ranks and in the community at-large.

And there was a third thing she did: fostering an era of inter-party cooperation that must seem strange to our more gridlocked times. A Democrat, she was willing to form alliances across party lines, famously helping Karen Williams, now a Circuit Court judge and then a moderate Republican of a sort that once flourished in these parts, win a seat in the state legislature.

It was an irony, then, that in 1993, while serving in the last of her elective positions, that of Criminal Court clerk — a race she'd won with reciprocal support across party lines — she was to commit a verbal slip that would doom her political career.

It was at a big Democratic Party rally, held in the realization that the party would have to follow the Republicans' lead from 1992 and conduct a party primary for countywide offices like the one Johnican held. It can be argued as to just what the GOP's intention had been in going to the primary process, but the effect of it, at least in the short run, was to attract fence-straddling white candidates into Republican ranks, where, if successful in the primary, they could minimize ethnic voter splits in the general election.

The county's Democrats were then still a technical minority, though just barely, and they, too, resorted to primaries in an effort to maximize their chances in general elections. Henceforth, independents would get nowhere in county elections. And thus ended an era of cross-fertilized politics in which the Republican John Ryders of the world could work in open harness with the Democratic A C Whartons for goals in which rigid party ideologies as such didn't figure.

Again, to the aforementioned Democratic rally of 1993, where the party people were getting themselves ready for the next year's one-on-one showdowns. It was a nighttime affair, held in a restaurant, and everything — the people, the evening, the rhetoric — began to sprawl. It was the kind of affair where everybody spoke at least once and the irrepressible Mike Kernell spoke twice.

And Minerva Johnican, getting with the mood, let slip a buzz-line, adapted from God knows how many old-fashioned Western movies in which American Indians were the fall guys: "The only good Republican is a dead Republican."

Ouch! Even as she said it, she must have known it was over a line she hadn't meant to cross. The Republicans, righteously offended, doubled down in her race, her bipartisan support base contracted, and she was voted out. She tried her hand at business and had a long run as a mortgage broker before the housing bubble burst.

There were a few more attempted hurrahs, the last one coming in 2010, when Johnican ran again, unsuccessfully, for Criminal Court clerk. "Re-elect Minerva Johnican," her signs said, as if nothing had happened in the intervening time. But it had.

Still, she had made a difference, as supporters like Russell Sugarmon, a civil rights icon and a retired judge himself, made clear in that last race, and as many others — just as was the case for Otis Higgs' passing — will remind us on Saturday.

• March is Women's History month, and, appropriately, a new audio recording of The Perfect 36, which chronicles Tennessee's role as the decisive state in completing the passage of the 19th or women's suffrage amendment has just been completed. The reader is Janann Sherman, retiring professor of history at the University of Memphis and a coauthor, with the late Carol Yellin, of the original volume, which was published in 1998.

Sherman, who chaired the history department at the University of Memphis before retiring, will be moving to Vinalhaven, Maine. Sherman earned her doctorate at Rutgers and arrived at the university in 1994, a pivotal year in its history, one in which it changed its name and to some degree its mission. She liked to say that she was hired by Memphis State University and came to work at the University of Memphis.

The indefatigable Paula Casey, a major facilitator not only of The Perfect 36 but of numerous other efforts to commemorate the suffrage movement and of women's rights issues in general, says that, besides the audio version of The Perfect 36, an e-book version will shortly be published and will be available on Kindle, Nook, and Apple devices.

Both the e-book and the audio book will be carried by major vendors, including Barnes & Noble and Amazon.

• Cadres of the Shelby County Democratic Party conducted their first sampling of opinion on March 5th regarding the person who will lead their local party for the next couple of years as chairman.

In a well-attended straw poll at the Red Bar on Florence at Overton Square, Bryan Carson, a unit supervisor at St. Jude Children's Research Hospital, finished ahead of a three-man field that also included marketing specialist Terry Spicer and Jennings Bernard, a probation entrepreneur and sometime broadcaster.

No vote totals were released, but that was the order of finish when 400-odd ballots were counted. At $10 a throw, that netted the Shelby County Democratic Party some $4,000 — "enough to pay for our convention," jested Dave Cambron, one of the officiating party officials.

The evening did not go without an element of controversy. Two busloads of students from Whitehaven arrived at the venue with the intention of supporting Spicer's candidacy, but most of them were underage and were told by the bar's management that they could not remain inside the facilities for the event.

Word came later that the students were welcome to enter during a period of speechmaking by the three candidates, but by then the chaperone who had come with them had ordered the buses to return to Whitehaven.

Ballots for perhaps 25 of the students had meanwhile been paid for by Spicer, who said afterward, "I probably would have won if they'd all been allowed to stay. Most of them wanted to stay and pay for their own ballots."

The county's Democrats will begin voting for real on March 16th, when they caucus at Airways Middle School to select delegates. The party convention itself will be held at the same venue on April 6th.

• A turn-away crowd showed up last Thursday evening to meet-and-greet Rick Masson, the new "senior director" of Caissa Public Strategy, at Caissa's penthouse address on South Main. A major reason for the turnout, of course, was a whetting of public curiosity by the fact that Masson had also just been named special master on school-merger matters by U.S. district judge Hardy Mays.

Masson, who is largely keeping his cards close to the vest on how he plans to pursue his mission, has characterized that mission as one of "facilitating action." Mays made the appointment in the wake of failed mediation talks between contending litigants in the school-merger case and as an expression of dissatisfaction with what he saw as the Unified School Board's slow progress in planning for the merger of Memphis City Schools with Shelby County Schools on July 1st.

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