‘I’m Not Some Idiot,’ Says Whalum Jr.

By Bill Dries

Kenneth Whalum Jr.

The Rev. Kenneth Whalum Jr. is aware that some people regard him as a vocal lightweight with zero political skills and no chance of winning the Oct. 15 special election for Memphis mayor.

“I’m not some idiot,” Whalum told a group of more than 100 supporters this week at the Hickory Hill opening of his campaign. Whalum, the pastor of New Olivet Baptist Church, has a law degree and is a graduate of Memphis Theological Seminary. “I’m not some fly-by-night, jack-legged preacher. I am well prepared. … They’re scared of this kind of candidate because I don’t owe anybody anything at all.”

He is also no newcomer to Memphis politics. His father, Kenneth Whalum Sr., was a Memphis City Council member and the younger Whalum ran for trustee in 1990.

Aware of his father’s profile as an elected official as well as part of the city’s civil rights establishment, the younger Whalum campaigned with signs that proclaimed he was “Jr.” in larger type than anything else. Although he didn’t win, he was “Jr.” six years before Harold Ford Jr. successfully campaigned for Congress using the same kind of campaign signage.

“I think we need to throw out everything that reminds us of the old.”
– The Rev. Kenneth Whalum Jr.

“I’m not new to this. And for some reason, I’m a surprise to everyone,” Whalum told The Daily News. “I started out working in the Shelby County Trustee’s Office. There’s nobody who knows the inner workings of municipal government like I do. … I have a kind of knowledge that a chief executive has got to have in order to transform systems. The people we’re talking about – the frontrunners – they’re not trying to transform systems. They’re trying to maintain systems.”

Different drummer

Whalum returned to the ballot in 2006, winning one of the two at-large, or citywide, seats on the Memphis school board.

Whalum has been the most outspoken person on the nine-member body. He was so outspoken that earlier this year, fellow board member Jeff Warren grew frustrated and sent Whalum an e-mail during the meeting reading, “U R an ass.”

Whalum’s election followed his stormy beginning as pastor of the church his father once headed. Some members, including Whalum Sr., objected to his move toward the Pentecostal denomination and split from Olivet. Whalum and his father reconciled before the elder Whalum’s death in 2007.

The New Olivet congregation includes a number of ministries, such as patronizing locally black-owned small businesses en masse once a month and outreach programs for gang members. It was the “Bust A Move Monday” program that brought Whalum and his supporters to “The Shack,” a local black-owned restaurant in Hickory Hill.

“What Memphis needs is an interim mayor,” Whalum said as he talked of City Hall post-Willie Herenton, the mayor for 18 years. “Anytime you have a situation where somebody’s been in power for 20 doggone years, it’s going to take a minute to come down off of whatever kind of high you’ve been on.”

Whalum said he believes he will surprise undecided voters in the television debates that begin this week. But he isn’t predicting what percentage of the vote he will get in the citywide balloting.

“All that matters is that I get one more vote than (rival and Shelby County mayor) A C (Wharton),” he said. “At 65 years old you can draw Social Security. At 65, you’re not looking to do new things. You’re looking to keep things as they are. … I think we need to throw out everything that reminds us of the old.”