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Race, Power, and Political Emergence in Memphis

By Sharon D. Wright | Go to book overview

CHAPTER 5

Racial Polarization and Electoral Behavior, 1975-1987

INTRODUCTION

Chapter 5 examines the transition from the eras of civil rights struggle to that of racial politics. As mentioned in chapter four, blacks in the nation made the transition “from protest to politics” during the era of the civil rights struggle. By using mobilization strategies that depended heavily on black unity and biracial coalitions, black candidates won citywide, district, national, and state elections. Black mayoral and at-large candidates were defeated in Memphis, however, because of a lack of confidence that they could elect a black mayor, an inability to form coalitions in a conservative Southern city, and institutional factors which diluted the black vote.

During the era of racial politics, the issue of race dominated most citywide Memphis elections. From 1975 to 1987, blacks and whites engaged in a power struggle. As the black population increased, a growing number of “serious” contenders ran for office. Black politicians made the initial steps in changing their role in the political structure from subordinate to dominant. Black elected officials represented predominantly black districts on the City Council and in the state legislature when Harold Ford became the state’s first black congressman. Yet, white conservatives continued to dominate the local political scene because of the city’s white voting-age population majority and racial polarization. With the exception of Minerva Johnican’s victory in 1983, black candidates were defeated in at-large City Council races resulting in a predominantly white Council.

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