When the Memphis City Council got involved in the 1968 sanitation workers strike it forever changed the relationship between the council and the mayor.
Longtime Memphis attorney and founder of Baker, Donelson, Bearman, Caldwell & Berkowitz PC appeared at a recent signing of his new autobiography, “Lewie.”
(Photo: Courtesy of Rhodes College/Justin Fox Burks)
Lewis Donelson, a member of that council and founder and shareholder of Baker, Donelson, Bearman, Caldwell & Berkowitz PC, writes in his new autobiography, “Lewie,” that the council’s actions have affected every council and mayor since then.
The book is a larger account of Donelson’s life as a business, legal and political leader. He was leader of the “New Guard” efforts that by the mid-1960s created the modern Shelby County Republican Party, giving the GOP the ability to elect its candidates to statewide office after a century of Democratic domination.
Donelson said his view of the historic events of 1968 is “a different view than many people have.”
The council got involved in 1968, Donelson writes, because the labor dispute had become a racial issue with larger implications than the strike. Then-mayor Henry Loeb and the union representing the striking workers were locked in a dispute that involved basic recognition of the union – the American Federation of State County and Municipal Employees.
“Most council members were not racist but anti-union,” Donelson writes. “They were also conscious that the council would exceed its authority if it attempted to negotiate a contract over the mayor’s opposition. Loeb’s intransigence in this case and in a few other issues set a tradition that changed the dynamics between the mayor and the council.”
The strike that brought Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. to Memphis 44 years ago came two months after Memphis city government made the conversion to the mayor council form of government. Donelson was on the group that drafted the new city charter and was then elected to the council in 1967.
“We didn’t think it would be that way. Loeb, in that instance, he wanted to duck the hard call,” Donelson said at a book signing at Rhodes College, his alma mater. “Even today when a sticky wicket comes up, the mayor usually ducks it and it’s the council.”
Donelson gives Loeb’s successor, Wyeth Chandler, who was also on the first edition of the council, credit for “skillfully” dealing with the council. Chandler is the only one of the five elected mayors under the mayor-council form of government who also served on the council.
“The next mayor, Dick Hackett, fairly skilled in dealing with the council, was so politically cautious he wanted the council to take on some issues that he preferred not to handle himself,” Donelson wrote. “Willie Herenton attempted to restore the balance, but primarily developed a wall between himself and the council as he struggled to regain his powers under the charter.”
Among those at the signing was fellow former council member Fred Davis who was among those on the council in 1968.
“I think this mayor (A C Wharton Jr.) has come as close as anyone to reaching out and trying to mend those fences between the council and the mayor,” Davis said. “But the whole protocol – the whole relationship between the mayor and the council got off track as a result of the sanitation workers strike.”
Donelson recruited seven candidates to run for the council in 1967. But they all agreed on the condition that Donelson would also run. Donelson did but only for one term. He considers it one of the smartest things he did in a long public life.
“You are free to do courageous things that you sincerely believe to be in the best interest of the whole community when you are not worrying about your political future,” Donelson writes.
His verdict on local governmental leadership is that it falls short of the necessary leadership and vision.
“I describe Memphis as a place with blacks in the majority and whites in the minority, but blacks act as if they are the minority and whites act as if they are the majority,” he writes. “We desperately need more black leaders willing to govern, to get in there and do things for the city, not think about complaints or past disadvantages but about what to do now to make this city a better one.”
And he says white citizens should demand and support that same goal.
“It might not be the city that white leaders would develop, but it would be a city that represents the community and looks at the future, planning for it and daring to face those challenges unafraid,” Donelson concludes.
Davis says the times and personalities of 1968 made the council different.
“In my opinion, there is no comparison. But the main difference between then and now is that everybody on the council then came to give something to the city – came to return something,” he said. “I think too high a percentage of the members of the council now, came to get something from their position. It was unknown waters.”