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VOL. 123 | NO. 68 | Monday, April 7, 2008

Herenton Moves Ahead With 'Doctoral Thesis' On Schools

By Bill Dries

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HONORING A MAN: Memphis Mayor Willie Herenton paid tribute last week to Jesse Epps, right, a union leader from the 1968 sanitation workers strike. -- Photo By Bill Dries

Memphis Mayor Willie Herenton served notice last week that he is putting a lot of work and political capital into his coming plan for changing the Memphis City Schools.

Herenton made a lengthy speech and answered questions in City Council chambers Thursday before about 60 members of a Leadership Memphis class. He begged off any specifics of the plan that he will present May 6 to the City Council. The plan could resolve lingering questions about whether Herenton will leave City Hall before the end of his term in 2012.

Asked about government consolidation, Herenton repeated his belief that the city and county school systems should be merged as part of such a plan. But Herenton also has said recently that he doesn't believe there is the "political will" among citizens to push elected leaders to go through with such a merger. He also compared the coming plan to a "doctoral thesis."


At one point Thursday, Herenton referred to his tenure as mayor in the past tense but quickly corrected that. It was as he talked about the qualities the next mayor should have: focus, knowledge of Memphis culture and fairness. Then he included "conflict resolution."

"Maybe my style might be a Harvard case study of what not to do. When I was mayor - and I still am the mayor - my style was needed," he said. "We needed a change. ... I think the next mayor of Memphis won't have the uphill challenges that I had. I think the next mayor will be in the maintenance mode."

Before that happens, Herenton said he hoped to have worked out a plan for future use of The Pyramid and redevelopment of the Mid-South Fairgrounds.

Asked to list some possible names of successors, Herenton said it would be easier for him to list who shouldn't be mayor before concluding, "I'm going to leave that alone." Later he again criticized Herman Morris Jr. and Carol Chumney, his challengers in the 2007 mayor's race.
"They can't be mayor. They'll never be mayor."

Racial motives

The remarks didn't touch directly on his recent and tentative move to retire at the end of July or his desire to be superintendent of the Memphis school system again.

Instead, Herenton offered a general view of his 16 years as mayor and his view of racial attitudes in Memphis.

"This city is so uniquely different. ... Memphians are plagued with an inferiority complex. We are our own worst enemy," he said. "Elections here are racially based. Everything in Memphis is about race - ain't a lot of truth about it. People like to deny it."

Herenton also complained that following his election in 1991, he was caught between the expectations of black voters and in particular black business owners who believed he was going to "make them all millionaires" and white citizens sticking to "Southern traditions" about race.

Minutes later, Herenton, who as a school principal marched with striking sanitation workers in 1968, welcomed about two dozen strikers back to the City Council chambers 40 years after the same men were involved in some of the angriest confrontations of the strike in the same room.

Herenton knelt before Jesse Epps, the highly visible and vocal special assistant in 1968 to the international president of the union representing the strikers.

"He was raising hell. It was Jessie Epps. This man was so powerful in his rhetoric. He stirred my consciousness about right," Herenton said, calling Epps a God-sent man who stood up to then-Mayor Henry Loeb. "I know y'all look at me and think I'm stubborn and I'm a lot of that. I got a lot of it from this man here."

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