On Friday, for the third time in little over a month, the Hall of Mayors in City Hall was the scene of interaction between Willie Herenton and Myron Lowery — the former as mayor of Memphis on every occasion except Friday’s, when he was a courtesy speaker at the swearing-in of Lowery as “mayor pro tem” for the next 87 days.
The two previous occasions had been something of a Mutt and Jeff show, with the towering, self-confident Herenton dominating proceedings.
That was understandably so on June 25 when Herenton made the bombshell announcement that he would be resigning his office. On that date Lowery made the ill-fated and perhaps ill-considered decision to assume the podium immediately after Herenton, a prelude to some take-charge actions which proved premature, especially as Herenton made it clear he intended to spike them right away, even if — as turned out to be the case — he had to postpone his original July 10 date of departure by three additional weeks.
The second occasion was Thursday’s retirement ceremony, at the very end of which Herenton deigned finally to hold out to a chastened and patient Lowery the document, a formal letter of resignation, which finally entitled Lowery as current city council chairman to assume the mayoralty until the selection of a new city chief executive on the special election date of October 27.
The element of condescension was not entirely absent from Herenton’s behavior on Friday. In a brief interview with the media before Lowery’s formal swearing-in, the ex-mayor seemed to be commenting on what turned out to be a major personnel change on Lowery’s part when he noted that, on his own ascension to power in 1992, “I kept the vast majority of the former mayor’s staff because they were knowledgeable and dedicated, and I needed a period of time in which I could learn the government.” He proceeded: “It behooves any individual with a major leadership role to have some continuity and make sure the government works.”
Once at the podium, Herenton was brief and gracious, though with a touch of ambiguity, noting the presence of his own predecessor, former mayor Dick Hackett, and continuing, “I congratulate Mayor Pro Tem Myron Lowery for his acceptance of this highly responsible position….I feel certain that Mayor Pro Tem Lowery, with the men and women that will accompany him, that the government will continue to work.” Then, with a quick wish of “godspeed,” Herenton departed the podium.
It was at this point that Lowery was officially sworn in by U.S. District Judge Hardy S. Mays.
Once he began his own brief remarks, Lowery sounded resolute and determined to put his own stamp on the occasion and, for that matter, demonstrated that he was no slouch at ambiguity himself. “It’s a new day in City Hall,” he said, reminding his audience that “change is a good thing, “ that “new life and new individuals” bring “hope and promise.” He promised “to promote ethical leadership in government,” and to “tell the truth” (especially about financial matters). Matters that had lagged, such as those involving The Pyramid, the Fairgrounds, and Beal Street, would be expedited.
Lowery summed up: “What you will get from Myron Lowery will be good government.”
In a brief press conference after the swearing-in ceremony, Lowery was even more assertive, letting the media people know that he had asked for the resignation of city attorney Elbert Jefferson and he would review what he indicated was a suspicious number of new hires in the city’s legal department. No further changes in personnel for planned for the moment, he said, but he made it clear he intended to monitor the activities of department heads. He introduced former councilman Jack Sammons as his CAO and former U.S. Attorney Veronica Coleman Davis as Jefferson’s replacement.
Neither he nor they would be serving past the certification of the election results in late October, unless, of course, he, as a candidate for mayor in that election, happened to be elected.
Given the fact that his chances for that might depend on, and would certainly be enhanced by, a successful mini-tenure as mayor, it seemed a good bet that Lowery won’t be a mere caretaker for the next three months. He announced the scheduling of a “Town Meeting” for next Friday, at which time the public at large will get a chance to check out the new day and the new man in City Hall.
Let it be recorded that the very heavens opened when Willie Herenton left the job of Memphis mayor -- for leave it he did, via a “retirement ceremony” in the Hall of Mayors, at the end of which he finally hand-delivered a formal letter of resignation to the patiently waiting city council chairman/acting mayor Myron Lowery.
Meanwhile, thunder and lightning and torrential rains and tornado rumors outside City Hall and throughout the city accompanied Herenton’s act of departure – appropriately enough, since the outgoing mayor (who won’t be excised from the city payroll until Friday morning) had declined to accept the role of unifier, pointing out during his retirement address in the Hall that “this city has never been unified” and that therefore his 18-year tenure could not be blamed for its disunity, and forswearing any intention to try to transform that fact when asked about it point-blank during the press availability that followed in the first-floor auditorium of City Hall.
Since Herenton had also made a point of telling the overflow audience in the Hall of Mayors that there was “only one human race,” his ultimate pitch to elect “someone who looks like me” for the 9th District congressional seat he intends to contest next year added to the general sense of an anomaly.
No matter. Mainly what Willie Herenton did on his final day in office was look back in satisfaction on his historical status as the city’s first elected African-American mayor, point with pride to what he regards as his major achievements (ranging from industrial recruitment to the FedEx Forum and the Grizzlies to improved public housing), remind Memphians everywhere of the city’s racist past, and celebrate one last emotional moment of bonding with the friends and supporters who had got him to City Hall and stayed with him through 18 years – sometimes triumphant, sometimes painful, always controversial.
Those friends included the Rev. Frank McRae, one of his few white supporters in 1991, the year Herenton was first elected; black businessman Luke Yancey, who had belonged to the former school superintendent’s corps of youthful backers that year; Keith McGee, the loyal CAO of Herenton’s last years; Rick Masson, his onetime CAO and chief finance officer; Shelby County Mayor A C Wharton, Herenton’s sometime campaign manager and would-be successor as mayor; and the Rev. James Netters, who delivered a final benediction.
Considering that the Hall of Mayors is essentially a small room, capable of holding a very few hundred people at elbow-to-elbow capacity, the catalogue of those present added up to a veritable Who’s Who of media, political, and civic types.
It also numbered a good many rank-and-file citizens – mainly Herenton admirers like 88-year-old Charlie Morris, a political and civic lion in North Memphis and a former amateur boxer like the mayor himself. Morris scorned those critics who "cast the first stone" and said he thought Herenton had been an unalloyed boon for Memphis. There were also detractors like Charlie Fineberg, the process server and sometime politician who stood a few feet away from Morris and condemned the reign of Willie Herenton as having lasted too long and become, not the cure for racism, but the means of exacerbating and perpetrating it.
Blogger Thaddeus Matthews, who in recent years has taken positions both favorable and highly unfavorable regarding the mayor, shrugged off the discrepancies as "all politics" and said, "No matter what you think about him, he made history for the African-American people." All in all, said Matthews, he'd have preferred it if Herenton had stayed at the job of mayor longer.
In his remarks, Herenton’s demeanor regarding himself was paradoxically both humble and immodest. He saw himself as having been a tribune of his people but could not resist, when speaking to the predominantly African-American crowd of the citywide quest in 1991 for a single black mayoral candidate “You put your very best forward.” Meaning himself, of course.
Considering the heavy emphasis given Herenton's unique status as an African American chief executive by all speakers, including McRae and Masson, both whites, and by the mayor himself, it was something of an irony that Wharton chose to crown Herenton's moment by reciting the concluding verses of "My Way," a song written by one non-brother, Paul Anka, and made memorable by another, Frank Sinatra.
Almost as interestingly, there didn't seem to be anyone in the crowd, black or white, who didn't know the lyrics. By the time that Wharton had rounded to the last chorus of "I -did- it- my- way," virtually everyone was chanting with him.
The mayor had honored his aged mother, who had a front-row seat in the Hall of Mayors, when he began his remarks in the Hall by directing the presentation to her of a bouquet. At the end of the ceremony, with a look in her direction, he visibly teared up. "They're hating on your son," he told her in one final reference to his critics.
At one point in his remarks, Herenton had noted the presence of son Rodney, with whom he intends to collaborate in business ventures even as he makes his promised run for Congress, but, after scanning the gathered throng, concluded that his other son, Duke, had not been able to leave his job to be present.
The mayor called out the names of those absent or present, living or dead, who had -- as he told it -- prevailed on him to run for mayor in 1991 when he had been initially reluctant to do so.
When the ceremony had ended and Herenton met for a brief availability with members of the press at the other end of City Hall in the council chambers, he reminded them that he had drunk from colored-only water fountains and sat in the back of buses but that his mother had fared worse – being denied the right even to try on the clothes she bought in the city’s downtown department stores.
Although in that final conversation with the press corps as mayor there was some banter back and forth, even a bit of heckling both ways, the affair was dominated by a general aura of respect. This was indeed a man who had traveled far and long, both in the personal and in the sociological sense, both for his own advancement and for the sake of his people.
As Herenton had pointed out several times in his remarks in the Hall of Mayors, there were no portraits hanging there of anyone “who looks like me.” Very soon there will be an exact likeness there.
After meeting with the press, Herenton prepared for a sit-down session with temporary successor Lowery, the better to review with him a list of “critical imperatives” which he had shared in outline with the crowd in the Hall. Some of the items on the list were traditional for any mayor of any city (“1. Promoting economic growth and development…5. Crime abatement strategies – both preventive and interventive….”), but many of them touched upon the peculiar local dichotomies of city/county and black/white.
Number six on the things-to-handle list he intended to pass on to Lowery said it all: “The racial divide: economic, social, political.”
After a somewhat sentimental yet still fiesty speech, Herenton handed his letter of resignation to his interim successor, Councilman Myron Lowry.
During a followup question session with reporters, Herenton tossed down the gauntlet to his future opponent for the 9th District seat, Steve Cohen, saying that African Americans deserved a Tennessee congressional seat, since they make up 16 percent of the population of the state. Details and a full report from Jackson Baker, who was on the scene, to follow soon.
Meanwhile, you can scroll down and check out the Flyer blogs.
But that detention basin has already caught the eye — and nose — of local residents. Mary Cashiola reports.
Read Chris Herrington's favorite BOTS films here.
Today, Morrison's life beyond Central Florida has her front-and-center in a political sex scandal in Tennessee and involved in another criminal investigation ...
State senator Paul Stanley's intern has a very checkered past. The Orlando Sentinel has the story.
Mary Cashiola says our sprawl is subsidizing the choices of others.