Separate and Divided 

Memphis governments begrudgingly coexist

Memphis governments begrudgingly coexist

When Gov. Don Sundquist and Mayor Phil Bredesen courted the state Legislature to approve the deal arranged during the original courtship with the Houston Oilers, the Memphis delegation insisted on a bone for the Bluff City. Officials there had been spinning their wheels for years to get a collection of oversized, overpaid tacklers of their own.

Back in Nashville, the governor and his then-deputy Peaches Simpkins had enough work cut out for them. The House representative whose district included the future stadium—former House Majority Leader Bill Purcell, who is now a mayoral candidate—wouldn’t even sign on as sponsor of the bill.

It was simple. To get the votes, the administration had to make legislators happy. Ultimately, then, Memphis’ Liberty Bowl became the team’s temporary home.

The rest of that story is worn-out and overtold: record-low attendance, and civic resentment that, once again, Memphis was the bridesmaid, and even had to return the flower bouquet at that. It was further evidence that Memphis feels, in many ways, more a part of Mississippi than of Tennessee.

Likewise, when the Bicentennial Mall opened in Nashville in June of 1996, it was celebrated as one of the state’s most successful projects in years. Tennesseans came from all around to the park’s opening, burying time capsules from each county and generally lauding the testament to the state’s 200th year.

It was not, by any means, just a Nashville celebration. But Memphians—even Memphis politicians—still don’t know much about the mall or feel a part of it. Shelby County Mayor Jim Rout, a tall redhead and consummate Southern Republican type, couldn’t remember the name of the park recently.

“Some mall,” he called it, searching for its proper designation. “From what I hear, it’s very nice. I got a brick up there, I think.”

Memphis is politically divided in two ways: one, from the state’s capital city due to a much-too-discussed and one-sided rivalry.

Secondly—owing to a civic culture that is defined by great social, racial, and economic disparity—Memphis is asunder within its own boundaries.

The disparity is all around. Drive one block from the seemingly safe confines of a posh Midtown neighborhood, and visitors are confronted with the kind of poverty usually only displayed on Save the Children come-ons.

Firmly established as a thriving core of the Southern Bible Belt, Memphis is the kind of place where ardent churchgoers do considerable tithing, then go to the polls to vote for the most controversial of characters whose behavior seems to contradict their religious nature.

There is, for example, state Sen. John Ford, who has landed in more than one paternity debacle. Still, he’s managed to keep his powerful place in the upper chamber of the state Legislature. Ford is one member of a politically powerful family dynasty in Memphis. His brother is the former Congressman Harold Ford. His nephew, Harold Ford Jr., inherited the U.S. House seat.

The religious nature of the city is defiant in other ways as well. Mini-marts in some sections of Memphis even offer restroom visitors a trashy variety of multicolored, many-textured condoms. Meanwhile, many of the same stores let their patrons know in no uncertain terms—with handwritten signs on pieces of cardboard—that there are no Sunday beer sales.

It’s not surprising, then, that just a few blocks apart in downtown Memphis are two vastly different, openly antagonistic, and politically dissimilar bureaucratic operations.

Just a short walk from where Mayor Rout conducts the county’s business sits the home of the Memphis city government. It is headed by a black Democrat, Mayor Willie Herenton, himself a 6-foot, 6-inch former boxer. While Rout and Herenton generally manage to be civil to one another, they have been known to butt heads from time to time. (Despite such clashes, campaign finance disclosures show the two men have many supporters in common.) Meanwhile, Herenton has further problems with a fellow black Memphis politician. The ongoing feud and struggle for political power between him and the elder Harold Ford is open and notorious.

“There are from time to time differences,” Rout says of the city-versus-county power struggle. “But even within the category of minority elected officials, there are clashes, power struggles that illuminate the fact that it’s not just Democrat versus Republican, white versus black, city versus county. There are also some internal struggles, so to speak.”

Then, of course, there are the structural differences. While Nashville has enjoyed success since 1963 in merging its city and county governments, Memphis and its umbrella of Shelby County exist the way more than 90 percent of the cities and counties across the country do. That is to say, separate.

“In the city of Memphis, we have pushing 60 percent minority population,” Rout says. That’s compared to the countywide number, which is more like 43 percent. “And so it makes for some interesting dynamics,” he adds. Underneath the structural, racial, and political fragmentation, there is in Memphis the long-held civic sentiment of inferiority that keeps the West Tennessee city detached from the rest of the state.

“I was born in Memphis. I love Memphis,” Herenton says. But, he says, the city suffers significantly from “low self-esteem, lack of optimism, racial polarization, and poverty.” There are “a lot of naysayers here. A lot of these people, they’re overwhelmed in negativism.” At the heart of that negativism, Herenton says, is the city’s collective view of its own standing. Historically, the mentality of subordination comes from the argument that Memphis doesn’t receive its share of state dollars for major roads and other important capital projects.

“We feel that we do not get as much revenue as the larger cities and that Nashville is favored over Memphis much too often. That’s the issue,” Herenton says.

The turbulence of Memphis politics simply can’t be matched in Nashville, where there is only one political party, one administrative bureaucracy, and a much smaller percentage of blacks. There are, of course, some racial struggles as evidenced, for example, by the controversy surrounding the city’s school desegregation plan and by the recent formation of a black chamber of commerce. And there are the skirmishes between Metro Council members representing the little people and the Harvard-educated, tax-happy Mayor Phil Bredesen.

Still, even during Nashville’s most interesting political moments, Memphis has more than just barbecue on this Middle Tennessee town. Not that we’d want what they got.


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