By Wiley Henry Courtesy of The Memphis Tri-State Defender
Mayor Willie Herenton
It comes as no surprise to some black Memphians that powerful white businessmen allegedly tried to coax a sultry black woman into luring Mayor Willie Herenton into a videotaped sex trap in order to foil his chances of winning an unprecedented 5th term as Memphis mayor.
“There’s a premeditated conspiracy to bring him down — no question about it,” said Dr. Isaac Richmond, national director of CORR (Commission on Religion and Racism). “Somebody wants him out by any means necessary.”
Mayor Herenton agrees. He said there’s a well-orchestrated political conspiracy designed to defame his character, “to cause me such an embarrassment that I wouldn’t run for re-election, and, if I did, that I would be on the defensive trying to prove my innocence. That’s a reality.”
Herenton notes that the mainstream media moved to assault the character of Gwendolyn Smith, who came forward with news of the alleged conspiracy, and didn’t probe to get at the origin of the foiled plot.
“Gwendolyn Smith’s character is not on trial here,” Herenton said. “Yes, she has a criminal record. But they are trying to say since she had a problem with the law that she’s incapable of telling the truth.”
Dr. Richmond said the alleged conspirators, those Herenton called “snakes,” fear him for what he represents: independence and confidence.
“As the mayor of the city, he hasn’t done anything that’s bad. If you don’t want him as mayor, get somebody in the race to beat him,” said Dr. Richmond, often labeled a rabble-rouser for using protest methods made popular in the 1960s.
So, are Black leaders under siege? Certainly, Herenton said. “When African Americans are moving into leadership of importance, they attract scrutiny more than their white counterparts.”
He said the media is often hostile to African-American leaders who are confident and focused on an agenda that benefits the total community. “We are under the microscope more that our white counterpart,” Herenton said.
“The stronger your leadership profile, the more they come after you. Now they’re armed with the justice department, the U.S. attorney, the FBI, and the DA offices and often focus on black leaders with such intensity and prejudicial views.
“After serving in public office 12 years as school superintendent and now 16 years as mayor, I’ve always understood that the African-American political leader can’t do what white political leaders have done. We face a double standard,” Herenton said.
Shelby County Sheriff Mark Luttrell said the reason there may be a public perception that black leaders are under siege might stem from the recent FBI indictments.
Of the 12 defendants in the Tennessee Waltz public corruption probe, 10 are African Americans. City Council members Edmund Ford and Rickey Peete were also snared in an unrelated FBI sting operation.
“It’s a reaction to the number of indictments that came down,” Luttrell said. “You can look back over the years and find that a number of whites have bitten the dust – like Joe Cooper. For the most part, people make wise decisions. People are there (in office) for the right reason. And they come in white and black.
“You can take issue in our society and apply a racial lens to it. Let’s focus on good leadership, whether it’s black or white,” Luttrell said. “However, there are a few that won’t exceed the standard.”
Sarah Carpenter, a Hyde Park community leader, says a lot of the powerbrokers want to control the whole city.
“They are trying to push us back 50 years. There are many politicians still falling for the hokey-dokey. But we can’t fall for anything. I’m a Rickey Peete fan, but he hasn’t had his day in court.”
During his tenure as mayor, controversy has swirled around Herenton and his most ardent critics have criticized him for his leadership style and for his candid comments.
“They don’t have a performance issue with me; they have a style issue. And it ain’t going to change,” Herenton said. “Under the Herenton administration, there has been tremendous growth. You would have to be stupid and blind not to see that enormous progress has been made since I’ve been mayor.”
Mark Stansbury, who has served as an assistant to four University of Memphis presidents including Dr. Shirley Raines, said Herenton should be judged by his performance as mayor and not by his temperament.
“Dr. Herenton has done a good job in the city of Memphis,” Stansbury said. “They (white powerbrokers) are trying to destroy and discredit our black leadership in Memphis and all over the country.”
Stansbury said while black leaders are under siege, they have a responsibility to carry themselves in a manner where they can’t be set up. Case in point: the Tennessee Waltz.
“I don’t care what your race is. If you breech the public trust and commit a crime and you’re indicted and proven guilty, you ought to be punished,” Herenton said. “It behooves all elected officials, especially African Americans, not to breech the public trust.
“In fairness, some of the African-American officials should be under siege by law enforcement and the justice department if they’re committing crimes. There’s no excuse for the breech of trust by anyone whether you’re white or African American.”
The problem arises, Herenton said, when the justice system turns its head to crimes committed by white elected officials. Despite the onslaught of media scrutiny, the mayor said, some blacks don’t play by the rules and subject themselves to investigations.
“If we’re going to learn anything from this, people have to be squeaky clean and maintain their integrity,” said Willie Henry, a counselor and special assistant to U.S. Rep. Steve Cohen.
“What happens to black folks happens to people as a whole,” he said. “What destroys black leadership is a lack of involvement, education and commitment to the community. I’m one of those who is educated enough to speak truth to power.”
The truth of the matter, Herenton said, is that he is targeted by the media and rumors float around because “I’m not a part of the Tennessee Waltz.
They can’t believe that an African American can be honest and clean in his leadership role.”