The re-emergence of former Mayor Willie Herenton as a candidate for Memphis mayor again in the city election of 2019 was a genuine surprise from the MLK50 week of events and — in Herenton's telling, anyhow — was a direct outgrowth of the re-arousal of progressive hopes that came with the kindling of Dr. King's memory.
- Justin Fox Burks
- Willie Herenton
Herenton set himself forth as someone who could lift up the martyr's fallen standard and take the stranded mission to completion. We harbor no disrespect for Herenton, who — before and after his 18 years of service as the city's chief executive — was a schoolmaster, first and foremost, and who has, publicly and often, expressed the hope of being able to resume that highly useful trade at the charter level. And, in fact, we have vivid memories of our former mayor's abilities, strength of personality, and determination to succeed.
After the stealth passage of the iniquitous "toy towns" bill in the 1997 legislative session threatened to hem in Memphis' possible expansion within a ring of under-populated MacMunicipalities, it was Herenton and Herenton alone who resolved to fight a long-odds battle against the powers-that-be in state government to turn back the measure. Almost no one expected him to prevail, but prevail he did, when the state Supreme Court found the toy towns bill to be unconstitutional, in that it had sneaked by unsuspecting urban legislators in the form of a misleading bill caption.
Herenton's triumph was the city's — and that of all Tennessee municipalities potentially affected by the city-killing bill — and it led to a new, duly considered and less Draconian revision of cities' annexation privileges and to a long overdue reform of bill captioning in the General Assembly.
All of this is to say that the man had his moments, and, of course, the mere fact of his ascension as Memphis' first elected black mayor was historic and then some. But, especially given the careless hand and outright boredom with the job evinced by Herenton during the latter years of his mayoralty and his one-sided defeat by Representative Steve Cohen in an ill-advised Congressional race in 2010, we fear he'd be wasting his time and risking further embarrassment with another mayoral race at the age of 78.
And there's another matter: with apologies to then Senator Lloyd Bentsen's rebuke of Dan Quayle in a 1988 vice-presidential debate: Mayor, we knew Martin Luther King; Martin Luther King was a friend of all mankind's. Like yourself, we just got through venerating his memory; and you are no Martin Luther King.
That's not the put-down it may seem, because the fact is, Dr. King had no peers. The surest proof of that is that no one else, in or out of his circle, was able to revive the planned revolutionary Poor People's Campaign that was disrupted by his murder.
We thank you for your past work and for your offer of new service, Dr. Herenton, but, as we look to the future and its challenges, we'd prefer that you'd join with us in looking for and developing the new blood that will guide our destiny in decades to come. You can do that as a teacher and guide, as you have been planning up until now.