Race, Power, and Political Emergence in Memphis

By Sharon D. Wright | Go to book overview

CHAPTER 8

The Continuing Search for Full Incorporation in Memphis

A statement by former Atlanta Mayor Andrew Young was an accurate characterization of black political development in the South:

It used to be Southern politics was just “nigger” politics, who could “outnigger” the other—then you registered 10 to 15 percent in the community and folk would start saying “Nigra,” and then you get 35 to 40 percent registered and its amazing how quick they learned how to say “Nee-grow,” and now that we’ve got 50, 60, 70 percent of the black votes registered in the South, everybody’s proud to be associated with their black brothers and sisters. 1

As the number of black voters increased in the South, white candidates had to ask for their support. Blacks were no longer outsiders who were excluded from political participation and office holding, but became insiders who could demand that their elected officials address their interests.

During the eras of access, machine rule, civil rights struggle, and racial politics, blacks in Memphis sought and achieved political emergence. During the era of racial politics, they elected a black mayor, a father and son to Congress, a majority black City Council and school board, and black County Commissioners. Also, most of the Democratic state legislators from the Shelby County area were African American as were the heads of the fire and police departments and public school system. With this black political ascendancy, the city of Memphis represented the ultimate case study that showed ways in which blacks in a

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