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What A C Stands For

Shelby County public defender A C Wharton has traveled a difficult road to get where he is today.

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God knew what He was doing when he made A C Wharton color-blind. With that small alteration He made a man who would live his life seeing things a little bit differently from the rest of us.

But if you ask A C -- whose name is simply that, the letters don't stand for anything -- about his color blindness, or anything else for that matter, he's apt to shrug, downplay the effect it's had on him, and chalk up all of his good fortune to just being lucky. But the truth is that this 56-year-old -- who's been Shelby County's public defender for more than 20 years, who maintains a successful private criminal defense practice and sits on the boards of Methodist-Le Bonheur Hospital and the Tennessee Higher Education Commission, and who has taught law at Ole Miss for 25 years -- works very, very hard.

But it's hard to get Wharton to acknowledge all that he's done and all that he's overcome to get to where he is today. He'd rather hide behind the illustrious lives of some of his better-known clients than sing his own praises. A feat that's easy enough considering he's represented Mayor W.W. Herenton, Senator John Ford, Tamara Mitchell Ford, Lynn Lang, Michael Hooks Sr., Michael Hooks Jr., WillieAnn Madison, Ray Mills, Stephen Toarmina, John J. Pickett III, Tic Price, and Timothy Shane Prink. Chances are, if something is a hot topic around watercoolers in Memphis, A C Wharton is probably involved at some level. But don't count on him waiting around for the 10 o'clock news just to catch a glimpse of himself.

"If there's one thing I will not watch on TV, it's myself," says Wharton. "It's vanity if you have to watch yourself on TV to see who you are. I don't like to read about myself, either."

All of which becomes increasingly difficult with each high-profile case Wharton takes on. So, to keep from having to watch or read about himself, Wharton stays busy with the other responsibilities he has taken on.

"I have not had a dull day in -- well, I don't think I've ever had a dull day," says Wharton. "If I get bored with criminal defense, then there's the hospital board and all the challenges that hospitals are facing these days. When I become tired of that, I can deal with my board work with higher education. When I'm bored with that, I can deal with white-collar crime, and then there's street crime. It's the diversity and the variety that keep life interesting."

In addition, Wharton managed Herenton's 1999 mayoral campaign, served as an adviser to Al Gore, and, together with his wife Ruby, has raised four children. Though he's always maintained an active position on the perimeter of politics, Wharton shrugs off suggestions that he run for mayor, saying that he thinks Herenton is doing a fine job and there's no need to run against him.

Herenton, for his part, thinks A C is up to the job.

"I've known A C for 20 years and have watched him grow in stature as a lawyer and become increasingly politically astute," says Herenton. "If A C were to seek the office of mayor and get elected, I think the citizens would have an excellent mayor."

Another old friend of Wharton's, Joe Brown, known for his television program Judge Joe Brown, jokes that there's one thing that would stop Wharton from winning the office of mayor.

"A C as mayor? He'd have to stand in line behind yours truly! Besides, the Doc [Mayor Herenton] is a good friend of mine and he's doing a bang-up job, so I don't imagine A C or myself would run anytime soon," says Brown. "But A C's the type of person who can cut across lines in Memphis with a dignified manner. If he ran for mayor, I might even be persuaded to vote for him."

It's no accident that Wharton is approachable, identifiable, and universally respected in this city.

"One of the reasons why I stay so busy is that if you see me in so many different channels, you won't have time to see me from a racial perspective," explains Wharton. "You may deal with me today in a hospital setting, tomorrow in a criminal justice setting, the next day in an educational setting. If you [work with me] in all of those channels, it'll take a long time for things to get dull enough for you stop and say, 'That's a black guy.' You'll be more interested in the product, in what I have to say. You've heard the B.B. King song 'You Better Not Look Down'? I think we all ought to be so busy that we don't have time to look down."

Obviously it's a theory that's worked well for him. But, as a black child raised in the rural middle Tennessee town of Lebanon, race was an issue Wharton became very familiar with.

Early "Training"

"My school was segregated -- Wilson County Training School," he says. "The white kids went to Lebanon High. The black kids went to training school, the white kids went to high school. That was just typical of the thought back then. The thought was that black kids didn't need an education, they needed training. White kids would get the education. It was supposed to have been our high school but it had the name Wilson County Training School, and that speaks volumes about the kind of education we got back then. When I got to Tennessee State, I was so proud I hung my diploma in a little brass picture frame on the wall, and kids from Detroit and wherever else would see that 'Training School' and they'd say, 'What did you do?' In other states, a training school was a home for delinquents, a reformatory. They assumed that I'd committed a crime."

The stigma that such experiences left on Wharton would stay with him. But instead of being bitter about his past, he's taken it and turned it into fuel for his passion to educate all children.

"My high school did not have a lot of things," says Wharton. "We never had Bunsen burners in our chemistry class. The only thing that set the chemistry room apart from the other rooms in the school was the elements chart, so I memorized that and can still recite it."

Wharton's eyes well up with tears and it becomes apparent that his lack of an adequate secondary education is something he's still troubled by.

"Education deprivation is the worst thing you can do to a child," he continues. "When you think of depriving a child -- who hasn't done anything to anybody -- of an education, that's hard. We're doing that now. We're doing that with college kids. They're getting watered-down educations. That hurts and nobody can see it. They don't know what we're doing to them. The fact of the matter is that we're giving them a piss-poor wannabe education and they can't compete. I'm not even talking about them competing against kids from Massachusetts and wherever else. I'm talking about them competing against kids from Georgia, Kentucky, West Virginia, and soon from Mississippi.

"It hurt when I found myself in college and kids from Detroit were having to show me how to do percentages and fractions, not to mention algebra and calculus. And don't talk about physics. The kids from Detroit had learned this and were helping me do my homework. It ought to be downright illegal. It ought to be criminal," he says. "Once you lose those learning moments, you cannot go back and recapture them. If I make them available to you later on, you feel awkward and embarrassed. It's a stigma that you always carry with you. I'm still putting my building blocks together, learning things I should have learned by now." Even getting to college wasn't easy for Wharton. At times it seemed like only his parents believed he was smart and capable enough to be a college man, and even Wharton often had doubts.

"Back at my high school, the principal knew that he wanted his son, Skippy, to attend college and become an engineer. So the principal started teaching Skippy and Bobby Joe Jenkins, Skippy's best friend, classes like algebra and calculus in the little clinic room each morning. My mother heard about it and she told me, 'Brother' -- that's what everyone called me -- 'you ought to ask Mr. Bryant if you can take those classes that he's teaching Bobby Joe and Skippy.' One day I finally got my nerve up and I approached the principal. He always sold popcorn between classes to raise money for things like cheerleading uniforms, so that day I decided that I would buy a bag of popcorn and that would be my entree. Keep in mind that the principal was always bigger than life; principals were giants. So I went up to him and I said, 'Mr. Bryant, my momma said that I should ask you if I can take those classes you're teaching Bobby Joe and Skippy.'

"He didn't mean anything by it, but he had a very loud, authoritative voice and he said, 'No, no, that's just for boys who are going to college.'

"It wasn't anything personal against me, he just never thought I would be going to college. And every day in college when I was struggling through my math classes, I relived that moment. Once you get that kind of rejection, you don't fully recover."

Despite the rejection, despite economic circumstances, despite a widespread lack of faith in his abilities, Wharton did manage to get a scholarship to Tennessee State University but only after overcoming yet another obstacle.

"I'll never forget that year I had a summer job, making 35 cents an hour raking rocks on a white man's farm on Tater Peeler Road. That road is still there, by the way, right off the expressway near the new mall. Legend has it that the road is so rocky that a farmer had a load of potatoes in his wagon and started down that road and by the time he got to downtown Lebanon, all the potatoes were peeled. That year, come late August I had to go register for college and I said to the man, 'I can't be here tomorrow because I have to go register.' Well, my daddy worked for the same man. Keep in mind that I'm a child and this is a white man. The man said to me, 'Boy, you ought to come on to work, you can go to school anytime. You need to be at work tomorrow.' I get home and my daddy is sitting down taking off his shoes and I just kind of blurted it out: 'Daddy, I'm supposed to register tomorrow, but Mr. Taylor says I ought to come to work.' The next morning he says to the man, 'I understand that you told Brother that he didn't have to go register for school.' My daddy said, 'I work for you, so I'll do what you tell me. But I run my house, and I'll tell my son whether to register for school or not.' On one hand I was so proud of my daddy, but on the other hand I was afraid that my daddy might lose his job and it would be my fault."

Turning to the law

It was a racial incident, an intense explosion of hate manifested in the beating of a black man and witnessed by a young Wharton, that caused him to decide on the legal profession.

"Around '61 or '62, I didn't really know what to do for a living. I knew I was too skinny to do a lot of physical work and I kept reading about the civil-rights demonstrations in Nashville and attorney Z. Alexander Looby and all that he was doing in the state of Tennessee. About that time I saw Bob Jr. Peaks walking down College Street in Lebanon on a Saturday." (Wharton explains that "in the country the Jr. comes in the middle of your name" instead of at the end.)

"Perhaps Bob Jr.'s greatest sin in Lebanon was getting drunk on Saturday afternoons. He was walking up College Street, staggering, and a police officer drove up and hollered at him, 'Get out of the street!' and Bob Jr. jumped and fell into the ditch. The officer then told him to get out of the ditch. Well, he was drunk. He couldn't get out of the ditch. The officer then administered the worst beating I've ever seen, I mean the worst, right there down in the ditch, and I saw it all happen. And so the community got up in arms and we all wanted to hire attorney Looby to represent him, and for a while we thought that he would come."

At this his voice takes on an almost boyish animation. A natural storyteller, it's easy to see why Wharton has been so successful as a litigator.

"We had never seen a man like Z. Alexander Looby. We wondered what kind of car he would have; it would have to be a Cadillac or Lincoln. We just knew he wouldn't have something as common as a Studebaker or a Ford or a Chevy. Days passed and that's all anyone could talk about. Well, as luck would have it, for some reason Z. Alexander Looby couldn't come and he sent Avon Williams instead. Now we didn't know much about this Avon Williams except that he was a young lawyer who was helping attorney Looby. So we started speculating about him, too. 'Wonder what kind of car he'll drive?'"

At the time, Looby was middle Tennessee's best-known civil-rights lawyer and his progressive stance on controversial cases would eventually lead his detractors to burn down his house. Williams, though still unknown when Wharton first encountered him, would go on to a very illustrious career as a civil-rights lawyer himself.

"I'll never forget the day we finally laid eyes on him. There were several false alarms, someone would run around yelling, 'He's coming! He's coming!' And eventually he did show up, driving a little black Ford. And he parked and I was so disappointed because I had bet that he'd be driving a big Cadillac. And he was a little guy. I thought that all lawyers had to be big, bad folks. Because back then, if you were white, you were big. It didn't matter how tall you actually were. They could be shorter than you, but if they were white, they were 10 feet tall. So to go against these white men, I figured Avon Williams would have to be a big man. I pictured some gruff-talking, big man in a big car. But when he got out, he wasn't much bigger than me and he was slender. And I thought, 'Oh, no, they're going to kill him.'"

But they didn't, and as Wharton goes on to explain, the black community in Lebanon soon rallied behind him and the white community was forced to take notice.

"The trial was supposed to be held in city court but the white folks had already gotten in there and taken up all the room for spectators. So that meant that Bob Jr. was going to be tried before a room full of white folks with no black folks in there. Avon Williams stood up and said, 'Your Honor, there's a crowd of people outside who deserve to see this trial and I'm not trying this case unless those people get to see it.' Well, we all thought, 'Oh, no, he's dead, he's dead, he's dead.' But sure enough the judge said, 'This is a trial and we're going to have this trial wherever I say, so we're going to move it over to the county courthouse.'

"Seeing that, something just kind of came over me. Seeing the law in the person of Avon Williams, a black man who just came into that little town and, just as confident as he was, got this white judge to say that we we're going to have this trial where everyone could see it, that really made an impact on me. It just hit me, right then, that Avon was willing to come into that town and trust the law and use the law. And that judge, knowing that the law said that trials have to be open to all the people, was willing to buck the people in that town and move it to the county courthouse. It just hit me, right then, that's what I really wanted to do."

Career Moves

After finishing at TSU, Wharton attended a summer program at Harvard University aimed at recruiting young African Americans who were interested in law careers. It was there that he met Ruby, his wife. After she finished law school at Boston College, the two married. Wharton was still in law school at Ole Miss, however, and Ruby accepted a job in Atlanta, so for a time the two took turns traveling back and forth to visit each other.

Upon his graduation from law school they each took jobs in Washington, D.C., because they could work there without having to take another bar exam and they wanted to pay off their student loans. After two years, though, Wharton got a call from George Brown, now a judge here in Memphis, asking if A C would apply for the position Brown was vacating as director of legal services. Brown had become familiar with Wharton during his law school years when he was working part-time at the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission office in Memphis.

"We had developed an affinity for Memphis," says Ruby Wharton. "It was a place we each thought we'd like to live. But at the time we could probably count on two hands the number of black lawyers practicing in Memphis, and I know I was the only black female practicing law."

The number of black lawyers would soon increase by one, when Wharton recruited Joe Brown for a position in the legal services office. He tells the story that Brown was supposed to come in for an interview at 9 a.m. but by lunch time he still hadn't shown. Finally, around 4 p.m., Wharton says he saw a black man on a big motorcycle packed down with stuff and wearing jeans and motorcycle boots pull up front. He hired Brown that day. Eventually, Brown would be the Boy Scout troop leader for two of Wharton's sons but not before he spent many, many long nights with A C and Ruby.

"I used to sleep on their kitchen floor," says Brown. "Some nights when Ruby would start cooking, we'd all go in the kitchen, sit around on the floor, and start drinking while she cooked. Everyone would just sit on the floor. I was a bachelor then, so if I'd had too much to drink, I'd go to sleep right there on the floor."

Aside from glowing praise for his work and his character, what you hear most about A C Wharton when you talk to his friends is that he's an impeccable dresser. Brown even tells a story about how one day Wharton got home from church and mowed the yard in his suit, tie, and nice shoes. Considering that he keeps a shoe-shine machine in his office, it's easy to believe that looking nice is important to this man. Some of his friends insist that due to A C's color blindness, Ruby lays out all of his clothes for him, but she's quick to dismiss the notion.

"I don't lay out all of his clothes, he does a lot on his own," says Ruby. "He's not totally color-blind. He loves clothes and he makes no bones about it. But my husband is not a vain man. I could not be married to a vain man."

You can e-mail Rebekah Gleaves at gleaves@memphisflyer.com.


Wharton for the Defense

A C Wharton has represented a veritable "who's who" of defendants in his long career. Herewith, a partial list:

Mayor W.W. Herenton -- In 1989, Wharton defended Herenton, then superintendent of Memphis City Schools, against a woman's claims of sexual discrimination.

Senator John Ford -- Having known John Ford and Harold Ford Sr. since college, Wharton has represented the state senator on numerous issues, including the controversy surrounding Cherokee Children and Family Services.

Tamara Mitchell-Ford -- When the wife of state Senator John Ford was charged with vehicular assault and child endangerment after an accident that occurred in 1997, Wharton helped her get the charges dismissed.

Lynn Lang -- The former head football coach at Trezevant High came under intense criticism last year for allegedly receiving $200,000 in exchange for steering football player Albert Means to the University of Alabama. Lang enlisted Wharton's services to help him deal with each element of the investigation.

Michael Hooks Sr. -- When the county commissioner was caught with drug paraphernalia earlier this year, it was Wharton who helped him avoid criminal charges in exchange for seeking rehabilitation.

Michael Hooks Jr. -- In June of this year, the younger Hooks saw allegations resurface that he had purchased a stolen Rolex watch. Hooks, who thought the matter had been dropped in 1999, sought Wharton's help in handling the situation.

WillieAnn Madison -- Like John Ford, Madison hired Wharton to help her with matters related to the Cherokee Children and Family Services.

Ray Mills and Stephen Toarmina -- Under the advice of Wharton, these two former Shelby County Sheriff's deputies (Mills was chief deputy) admitted that they sold deputy jobs to others for cash.

John J. Pickett III -- After being caught as the result of a federal corruption probe, this former Tunica County Sheriff pled guilty to extortion on the advice of Wharton. Pickett and several under him were said to have accepted money in exchange for protecting cocaine dealers in Tunica County.

Tic Price -- The former University of Memphis basketball coach hired Wharton when he was caught having an affair with Chenoa Douglass, a 23-year-old student at the school, who Price also admitted to paying $17,000 after the affair ended.

Timothy Shane Prink -- Prink, then a 20-year-old Cordova man, hired Wharton after admitting that he killed four of his family members and tried to kill a fifth.

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