VOL. 124 | NO. 209 | Friday, October 23, 2009
Teen Moment Leads Wharton To Mayor’s Office
By Andy Meek
INSPIRATION FROM HOME: Memphis Mayor-elect A C Wharton Jr. credits a courtroom hearing he watched as a young man in his hometown of Lebanon, Tenn., with inspiring him to become a lawyer. -- PHOTO BY BILL DRIES
If a pivotal moment in his life had unfolded differently – or hadn’t happened at all – Memphians today might be taking their pets for checkups to Dr. A C Wharton Jr.’s veterinary practice.
Instead, the incoming Memphis mayor will reach the high water mark of his legal and political career Monday when he takes the mayor’s oath and moves into the penthouse office on the seventh floor of City Hall. And for that, Memphians can at least partly thank Avon Williams, with whom Wharton briefly crossed paths in small-town Tennessee in the 1960s.
Moment of impact
Williams was a civil rights attorney who became a state senator. Wharton was in high school at the time and working at McGee & Jennings Jewelers in Lebanon, about 30 miles east of Nashville.
He once thought about being a veterinarian when he got older. It was while he was in high school, however, that Wharton had an encounter that sowed the seeds for what became a prominent legal career that in turn fed his political rise.
While walking to work one Saturday afternoon, he saw a man on College Street in Lebanon who appeared to be drunk.
“He was given to strong drink, as they would say in biblical times,” Wharton recounted. “There were no sidewalks in the area where he was walking. Then this sheriff’s deputy, or he may have been a policeman – there were two of them in the car, like, cruising. And they sort of pulled up on him, and he fell in a ditch. He was intoxicated. No question about it.
“The cop, a white man, got out and just started beating him. ‘Get out of the ditch! Get out of the ditch!’ The guy was just dead drunk, and he pulverized him.”
The incident and its racial undercurrent struck a nerve in Wharton’s small hometown. It was the early 1960s, and the civil rights movement had not yet swept through the area in force.
Nevertheless, a group of people wanted to send for Z. Alexander Looby, a distinguished civil rights attorney in Nashville whose home once was bombed in retaliation for his fight against discrimination.
For young Wharton, still unsure of what he wanted to do with his life, the thought of a black lawyer seemed otherworldly. Recalling the story, his voice at times drops to a whisper, almost as if he’s reliving the memory.
“I had never seen a black lawyer,” Wharton said. “We were just dreaming he would be this huge guy. Maybe 10 feet tall, with a gruff voice. And he’d have to have a huge Cadillac. My friends and I were betting on whether he’d have a Buick, a Mercury or a Cadillac. But I just knew – a lawyer’s going to have a Cadillac.”
An invitation was sent out.
“Right after around 4 or 6 one day, we see this little old black Ford pull up, and we all go toward the car,” Wharton said. “And this lanky, skinny guy gets out of this cheap Ford.”
Murmurs broke out. Onlookers wondered if the famed attorney had arrived.
Wharton’s initial reaction was disappointment.
He was let down that the larger-than-life lawyer he envisioned didn’t drive a fancy car. But more important, the lawyer he expected was not the one who showed up.
“It turned out Z. Alexander Looby could not come, so he’d sent another lawyer who later would become a (state) senator – Avon Williams,” Wharton said. “He came in, and this was in the police station, the little city courtroom. Black people didn’t go in the front door, and white people had gone in ahead of time.
“So when the time came for the trial, white people had all gotten in, and there was no room for the black people to get in. So this little old skinny guy, this black lawyer from out of town, stood up and said, ‘May it please the court – my client has the right to an open trial in front of his peers. Not just some of them.’”
Young Wharton watched in disbelief.
“He was complaining that people couldn’t get in the courtroom. And I just said, ‘Oh God, they’re going to kill him,’” Wharton said. “He’s just standing up talking to this white judge and all these cops are standing there with their eyeballs burning holes in the back of his jacket.
“I could just close my eyes. I’d never seen anything like that. And keep in mind he wasn’t 10 feet tall. He didn’t have a Cadillac. He was just this little skinny guy.”
It’s here in Wharton’s retelling of the story his point becomes clear. He began to see himself in Williams’ place one day.
The judge agreed with Williams and moved the proceedings to a larger space.
“That struck me,” Wharton said. “I said, wait a minute. If that’s the power of the law, and it can take a skinny black man away from home in a hostile territory and give him the courage and backbone to speak up, and then things happen that wouldn’t have happened before – that’s what I want to be.”
Wharton doesn’t remember the outcome of the case. And he never got the chance to tell Williams about its effect on him.
But before Wharton’s name became synonymous with one of the sunniest, savviest dispositions in Memphis politics, he was a young man who one day learned a simple lesson in a country courtroom. It’s a lesson that will be hard to downplay Monday, when the young man from Lebanon officially is given the job of leading one of the largest cities in America.
What he took away from his encounter with Williams is this:
“I knew I wasn’t strong enough to be something like a construction worker,” Wharton said. “But I could be strong in mind, just like he was.
“The rule of law makes every man a big man.”