It was moments after the end of what had been a sadly disappointing
council committee public hearing to listen to ideas about how to remedy the
impasse created by the council's vote to cut health care and pension benefits
for city employees and retirees. As I scrambled to get interviews in the
hallway to gather some perspective on what happened, the indignant councilman
approached me, asking if I wanted to hear his solution to the whole problem. I
said yes. He then declined to talk, instead cryptically uttering, "I know where
you live." He then smirked, walked away, and took the elevator down.
It would be easy — we in the media have done it before — to dismiss such an
incident as just another cantankerous episode by this council veteran, rather
than assume there was some attempt at personal intimidation involved. But, for
some reason, as the day and the week went on, I really started to get angry
about his remark and his audacity, as a black elected official, to level some
"gangsta" innuendo at another African American.
It's ironic that in the same month we commemorate President Lyndon Johnson's
signing of the landmark 1964 Civil Rights Bill, Memphis continues to suffer
from a crisis in African-American leadership — in politics, in economics, and
I remember the euphoria the black community felt when Willie Herenton became
the city's first African-American mayor. Since then, we've had 23 consecutive
years of an African American as the chief executive at City Hall, many black
majorities on the council, numerous black police and fire directors, and 24
straight years of black school superintendents. Some accomplishments have been
registered: tearing down aged blighted apartment complexes to restore hope
where none had existed before. We got a new sports arena and a pro basketball
team. Beale Street has become a world-wide tourist attraction, and the
long-awaited Beale Street Landing riverfront project is finished, even if it
was millions over budget.
But honestly, look in the mirror, black and white Memphians, and ask the same
pertinent question that catapulted Ronald Reagan to the presidency: "Are you
and your family any better off than you were four years ago ... or 10 or 20 or
30 years ago?" Statistics, including 28 percent of Memphians black and white
living below the national poverty level and consistently worse than the
national average unemployment numbers, say a frightening number of Memphians
are worse off. Our educational system is not a model for the nation. It's a
liability for those who might consider moving here. It's no secret we're losing
population every year, unless we want to start annexing the fish in the
Is it possible that in the Bluff City's case, the 1964 Civil Rights Act hurt
us as a race of people more than it helped us? After decades of blaming the
white man for the ills of society, we African Americans were given the chance to
govern not only ourselves, but everyone in Memphis and Shelby County. What have
we gotten in return for our empowerment? We've given our officials the keys to
our government and too many of them have interpreted it as a sense of
entitlement. They sneer when asked simple questions about their residency.
Constituent service has taken a backseat to grandstanding at public forums. We
have endured too many banner headlines exposing their personal problems.
The Civil Rights Act was also supposed to make it possible, by ending
segregation in schools, for our children to become a part of mainstream
America. Unfortunately, in doing so, it sacrificed the pride and diligence of
many black teachers who had dedicated their lives and love to making a
difference in the classroom. It broke up communities where people once took it
upon themselves to be their brother's keeper and his family as well.
People such as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Ben Hooks, Maxine Smith, and many
others in this city sacrificed much of their lives to see the day when the
fight for equal rights would end in triumph. Now that fight needs to be changed
and waged to use the power of the vote to find the right people to serve us —
not be served — whether black or white.
By the way, councilman, I know where you live, too.