Judge and Mayoral Contender Otis Higgs Dies

By Bill Dries

Shelby County Criminal Court Judge W. Otis Higgs, whose two bids to become Memphis Mayor in the 1970s were important chapters in the city’s political and racial history, died Friday, Feb. 15, at the age of 75.

Higgs was elected to the bench in 1998 in his second tenure as a Criminal Court Judge that ended with his death Friday evening.

He was first a judge from 1970 to 1975 before making the first of three bids for Memphis Mayor. Higgs was appointed to Division 4 the first time by then-Tennessee Gov. Buford Ellington.

Higgs was the judge in the trial and acquittal of eight Shelby County Sheriff’s deputies and Memphis Police officers accused in the 1971 beating death of Elton Hayes and the beating of another teenager who lived.

The incident and trial were a symbol of the racial division and tension present in the city’s politics and daily life. Hayes funeral was the last instance of widespread civil disturbances in the city. The trial began, with Higgs presiding, as the racial balance in Memphis politics began to shift.

Higgs’ campaigns for Memphis Mayor in 1975 and 1979 were challenges of incumbent Mayor Wyeth Chandler at a time when black voters were not yet a majority in Memphis and Memphis had a runoff provision.

The runoff provision that sent the top two contenders in city races to a runoff if no one got a simple majority of the votes was later abolished in a 1991 federal court ruling as a deliberate barrier to the election of black candidates on a citywide level.

Higgs never ran as a black consensus candidate for mayor in either of the 70s campaigns nor his final full-fledged campaign for mayor in 1983.

Higgs campaigned with a broad vision for a different direction for the city. He campaigned largely as being more progressive than Chandler and more willing to cross racial lines.

The success of his first two campaigns depended heavily on the ability to cross those lines as a candidate.

Chandler beat Higgs by about 20,000 votes in the 1975 contest that went to a November runoff. In the runoff, Higgs lost by 31,000 votes.

The 1979 mayoral race also went to runoff with Chandler winning by a margin of about 13,000 votes. It was the closest Higgs ever got.

The two campaigns were built on a coalition of biracial political support that had some success in the first election but still couldn’t muster enough white votes to win in a runoff. It was a hard lesson that would affect the way other black political leaders ran for citywide office.

Higgs sat out the 1982 special election for mayor when Chandler resigned. City Council chairman J.O. Patterson Jr. served as interim mayor, becoming the city’s first African-American mayor and then finishing first in the special election field before going to a runoff with Dick Hackett. Hackett won the runoff.

When Higgs returned to the mayoral campaign in 1983, he was no longer the only black contender. Hackett won a full term that year without a runoff and it was State Senator John Ford who finished second.

Higgs considered running for mayor in 1991 as other black political leaders began the process to seek a consensus black challenger to Hackett. Higgs rejected the concept.

He got out of the race the day after a crucial meeting with then Congressman Harold Ford Sr. at Bloomfield Baptist Church in South Memphis with rival contender and then former Memphis City Schools superintendent Willie Herenton.

Higgs came to the meeting alone to find the church sanctuary packed with vocal sign-waving Herenton supporters. Higgs had filed his qualifying petition with the Shelby County Election Commission the day before.

Ford and Herenton and Higgs met privately in an upstairs church office. When the meeting ended, Ford and Herenton came back down to the church sanctuary and Ford announced he was backing Herenton. Higgs left the church by a back door and his campaign ended.

As the campaign between Herenton and Hackett moved into the summer, Higgs was tapped by Hackett to lead an investigation of the Memphis Housing Authority.

One of Herenton’s first acts as mayor was to fire the entire housing authority board. The city council rescinded the firings and the board members then resigned.

Higgs was also Shelby County’s first African-American sheriff. He was appointed to the position following the suicide of Jack Owens in 1990 and served less than three months until A.C. Gilless was elected sheriff later that year.

He launched a political forum-dutch treat luncheon on Beale Street as well during the 1990s.

Higgs announced his candidacy for Shelby County Mayor in 1994, the second set of county elections to feature partisan primaries. Higgs was the Democratic nominee as selected by a committee of the local Democratic party.

But the local party’s first attempt at a partisan slate of candidates produced more division than unity within the party. Meanwhile, the Republican primary battle between the eventual winner, Jim Rout, and Carolyn Gates garnered much of the early attention. And the race to the general election was dominated by Rout and an independent bid by Jack Sammons who campaigned in an alliance with Ford.

With his election to the bench in 1998 and his return to Criminal Court, Higgs served as a CME church pastor and rarely expressed any interest in returning to politics beyond successfully running for re-election in 2006.