Thursday, January 24, 2008

The Great Debaters

Wharton, Herenton, Cohen, and Whalum talk it up on MLK Day.

Posted By on Thu, Jan 24, 2008 at 4:00 AM

There was some fine oratory on Monday, Martin Luther King Jr. Day, as that part of King's legacy was upheld by mayors Willie Herenton and A C Wharton, congressman Steve Cohen, and city school board member Rev. Kenneth Whalum Jr.

Somewhat surprisingly, none of them were on the speakers platform outside the National Civil Rights Museum for a 9 a.m. rally by the group Memphis Cares. About 200 people were there, a mix of adults and children, many wearing signs that said "I Am a Mentor" or "I Want To Be a Man." Speakers passed out mentoring applications asking for a 12-month commitment. A white woman standing near the back of the crowd handed out "Obama '08" stickers, but seemed out of place in a setting that was nonpartisan.

A smaller, racially mixed crowd met at MIFA to mark that group's 40th anniversary. Featured speaker Whalum was a 12-year-old student at Hamilton Elementary School in 1968. "I made up my mind the day he was killed that I'd do everything I could to make it up to him," says Whalum, who is supporting Obama. Whalum, who graduated from Melrose High School in Memphis and Morehouse College in Atlanta, gave an animated and energetic talk about the need to translate the rhetoric of King's 1963 "I Have a Dream" speech into action.

"It has been scientifically proven that if you are dreaming then you are asleep," he said. He contrasted the racial progress that has been made in Atlanta, Birmingham, and Mississippi since 1963 with the failure of urban school integration (he said the Memphis schools are 94 percent minority) and the struggles of black-owned businesses where, Whalum said, black consumers direct only one percent of their spending. "On Valentine's Day this year, buy your flowers from a black-owned business," Whalum said.

Whalum was introduced by Cohen, who was a student at Vanderbilt University in 1968. In his second year as a congressman, Cohen has kept a grueling schedule of public appearances and developed a fine sense of when to take the stage and when to yield it to others. He kept his introduction short and self-effacing. He had spoken earlier at a breakfast for the United Mine Workers of America and would speak again Monday afternoon, to warm applause, at Pastor Dwight Montgomery's Annesdale Cherokee Missionary Baptist Church before the Memphis Chapter of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC). Cohen's theme was economic injustice ("I don't need a rebate") and the need to shift federal spending from the war in Iraq to domestic needs. Cohen is staying neutral in the battle for the Democratic presidential nomination.

The other speakers at the SCLC event were Herenton and Wharton. Both were at their best, which is very good. Herenton, who is supporting Hillary Clinton, marched with striking sanitation workers in 1968 and wore an "I Am A Man" sign. His talk was brief, but he spoke with the gravitas of a man who has been there about his own spiritual orientation and connection to Dr. King. "Is America better off 40 years later? I'll let you answer that question," he said, somewhat enigmatically. I couldn't help thinking about the dust-up between Obama and Clinton over the respective contributions of King and former President Lyndon Johnson to civil rights policy. Herenton, it sometimes seems, is faced with the impossible task of playing both parts.

Wharton was living in Washington, D.C., in April 1968 and would be at Ole Miss in the fall. Forty years later, he said he sees more emphasis on service, personal commitment to King's ideals, and an encouraging number of children attending the day's commemorative events. Wharton said it is unlikely he will support a candidate before Super Tuesday: "As you well know, all politics is local, and I have got some hot political irons in the fire that I've got to deal with. Stay tuned. Things could change."

With the focus on the South Carolina primary and Monday night's Democratic candidate debate, none of the presidential candidates from either party were in Memphis Monday. Bill Clinton spoke at King-related events in Atlanta and at Fisk University in Nashville. Will Hillary Clinton and Obama court Memphis and its reliable Democratic voters, including the 42 percent who voted for Herenton? Does Tennessee matter this year, or is the price too high — a lost white or middle-class black vote for every vote from what Herenton has called the "real people"? As Wharton said, stay tuned.

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