Herenton's First New Year's Remarks In A Decade Stir Pot

By Bill Dries

It’s been 10 years since Willie Herenton delivered his last New Year’s Prayer Breakfast message – a political homily Herenton made an institution while serving as mayor of Memphis.

Memphis Mayor Jim Strickland and former Memphis Mayor Willie Herenton pointed to a better coordinated form of volunteerism in 2017 at Strickland’s first New Year’s Prayer Breakfast.

(Daily News/Bill Dries)

His mix of faith, biblical passages, politics and a willingness to leaven New Year’s cheer with grudges and grievances from the old year is a rarity in politics where the bright light of the mayor’s office remains fixed on the current occupant of the office – not the occupant who is departing.

Herenton’s last prayer breakfast address was on New Year’s Day 2007, about 2 1/2 years before he left office. Herenton advocated for “new state-of-the-art football stadium” to be built on the footprint of the Liberty Bowl stadium.

When Herenton walked from his table Saturday, Dec. 31, in the middle of a ballroom to the stage at the Guest House at Graceland to speak at Memphis Mayor Jim Strickland’s New Year’s Eve Prayer Breakfast, the room got very quiet in anticipation of what Herenton would say.

“It takes a lot of courage to invite me,” Herenton said to laughter. “I’ve had a lot of great speeches at prayer breakfasts. It is very important that this mayor succeeds.”

He then set the ground rules for those who may have had no first-hand knowledge of how this works.

“I’m going to say a lot of things today … and some of the comments I will make will probably irritate some people. Some others, it will probably bring a smile to your face,” he said. “The Lord has placed on my heart to make a number of comments relative to the human condition in the great city of Memphis today.”

Among those comments was Herenton’s belief that just as some white citizens had “a hard time” with Herenton’s election as the city’s mayor, many black citizens have a similar problem with Strickland’s election and “accepting a white mayor.”

The comment that got the most attention is one he has made before in at least one interview toward the end of 2016, a year in which the city set a record for the number of homicides in a year.

“This wave of crime is a black problem,” Herenton said as he was critical of policies of the Memphis-Shelby Crime Commission, District Attorney General Amy Weirich and Juvenile Court Judge Dan Michael. He described their efforts as “floundering.”

“Mass incarceration has never worked. When are we going to try education – rehabilitation?” Herenton asked. “For those of us who believe in a God, we believe in redemption.”

What Herenton calls the “new path” is his effort to round up 10,000 black men to volunteer in tutoring and mentoring programs aimed at young black men and teenagers.

New Path is the name Herenton gave to his effort in 2016 to start two charter schools for juvenile offenders in Shelby County.

“Black people don’t realize that this is our challenge. No one can help us if we don’t help ourselves,” he said. “It’s up to us to protect us from us. The people who are shooting, they aren’t riding deep in Germantown and Collierville. They’re riding in Orange Mound. They are riding in Binghampton. They are riding in Frayser. … I’m focusing solely on that black male youth. … People are trying to do too many things when they only do one thing well.”

Dovetailing with Herenton’s call for volunteers is Strickland’s coordination of volunteer mentoring efforts through the Memphis Grizzlies Foundation and other nonprofits, as well as coordinating tutors for second-grade Shelby County Schools students as part of the system’s literacy efforts. And in April, the city will rollout an “adopt-a-block” program to help fight blight.

“City government alone cannot solve all of the challenges we face. We need your help,” Strickland said. “I understand it’s our responsibility at City Hall to provide services. When I say I need your help, we’re not shirking from our responsibility. … But we alone can’t do it alone. I’m just being factual.”

Strickland and Herenton said each of their calls work in conjunction with the other.

Herenton was blunt about why this hasn’t worked before on a larger scale.

“There’s so much turf protection. There’s fragmentation,” he said. “There’s no one big umbrella that can galvanize people and get them targeted and focused. We will be that umbrella. … Right now everybody’s fragmented.”

Beyond that, he believes the response to what is not a new problem is stuck.

“We have some people in critical leadership roles, they don’t have a clue what is going on in the streets,” Herenton said. “We’re good at defining the problem. You hear a lot of them talk adverse childhood experiences, trauma. We know they live in trauma. … But after you acknowledge their human condition, the question is what do you do about it? We must address generational poverty.”

Strickland wasn’t sure about Herenton’s view that there is too much of a focus on incarceration.

“If you dissect it, maybe,” Strickland said when asked about the point. “With respect to violent criminals, I think they need to serve their time. Somebody who has stabbed somebody or shot somebody, we need truth in sentencing … But non-violent criminals, which is kind of what’s going on nationally … is to have them serve less time and I agree with that.”

Maurice Johnson, founder and pastor of Memphis Christian Center, has been running a Saturday morning breakfast meet-up for about two years. He pointed at getting young black men at the same table with older black men.

“Grooming Greatness” was Johnson’s specific response to the 2014 teenage mob attack in a parking lot at Poplar Plaza shopping center.

He estimated 200 men – young and old – are involved with 40-50 young men and teenagers showing up Saturday mornings.

“The fellowship involves speakers who come in from every walk of life,” Johnson said. “They see truck drivers. They see engineers. They see principals, coaches, salesmen, entrepreneurs and they become people to them. And once you see somebody that you may possibly become, it changes your attitude toward them and it changes your behavior around them.”

Johnson liked what he heard from the former and current mayors on New Year’s Eve.

“You are making the community theirs and then asking them to keep it,” he said. “You can meet every Saturday with a group of black men young and old and never miss a beat. … It’s beginning to take on a momentum of its own.”