Race, Power, and Political Emergence in Memphis

By Sharon D. Wright | Go to book overview
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The 1991 Memphis Mayoral Election: W.W. Herenton Targets Black Mobilization


The date October 4, 1991 was a milestone in Memphis politics. The black community gained a dominant role in the local governing structure because voters elected a black mayor twenty-four years after the candidacy of the first black contender and six black City Council members. Black candidates also won at-large positions on the City Court and the Memphis School Board. Various developments during the eras of access, machine rule, and civil rights struggle resulted in black political ascendancy. For example, a substantial black electorate began to participate in local, national, and state elections during the eras of access. During the eras of machine rule and civil rights struggle, the black community found ways to mobilize its bloc vote in a racially polarized environment.

The 1991 Memphis mayoral election was among the most polarized in the city’s history. In 1967 and 1987, a large percentage of black voters supported white candidates. In 1991, however, neither blacks nor whites provided significant crossover votes. Dr. Herenton once stated “[that he did not want] to get elected because he [was] black, but rather because [he was] eminently qualified and also [happened] to be black.” 1 His entire campaign, however, ranging from the conventions for his selection as a consensus candidate to the final get-out-the-vote campaign was mostly directed toward black voters. Herenton realized that the deracialized and dual campaign strategies used by black mayoral candidates in other cities had failed for Otis Higgs and J.O. Patterson Jr. in Memphis. Despite campaigns which downplayed racial issues, the majority of white voters refused to support black candidates.


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