In their study of Southern politics, Jack Bass and Walter Devries found that “the emergence of Southern blacks into the mainstream of political participation” led to a transformation of Southern politics. One of the more interesting transformations in a major Southern city has occurred in Memphis, Tennessee which has been used as a case study to examine the effects of racial conflict on black political development. An examination of Memphis’ black political scene allows for an understanding of the larger issues of politics, power, and race in urban America.
The emergence of black Memphians as dominant actors in local electoral politics has differed from their emergence in other Southern cities. Voluntary desegregation occurred before passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and blacks voted in large numbers long before passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. This is not to suggest that the city of Memphis has been a great Utopia for African Americans. On the contrary, white voters and politicians alike resisted black political emergence. In addition, the black community had to end the internecine divisions and rivalries among its leadership to elect its first black mayor. The election and subsequent reelection of W.W. Herenton not only represented the political emergence of black voters, but the beginning of a new, majority black governing coalition as well. The task that remains for black Memphis is to translate its political power into economic power. If not, they will inherit a city which consists mostly of poor and working class residents who have few options for economic sustainability and growth.