The Unmaking of a Black Candidate: Memphis

The Unmaking of a Black Candidate: Memphis

By Terry Keeter

Vol. 2, No. 5, 1908, pp. 13-15

Otis Higgs, Jr. told the public that he did not want to be elected mayor of Memphis simply because he is Black, and in November the voters turned around the meaning of his remark and made that wish come true: he was not elected, simply because he is Black.

Higgs campaigned hard in both the Black and White communities and made an unprecedented number of public appearances before church, civic and political groups. But as Higgs was pledging not to. run a campaign based on color, he was probably also setting a record in colorless campaign rhetoric. The former state criminal court judge failed to attract any undecided voters and went into election day with much of his hardcore support coming from the same knee-jerk liberal and Black-for-Black’s sake voters he had the day he announced.

Shortly after the election some political observers maintained that Higgs was simply a victim of racial prejudice and, regardless of his positions or what he had to say, he would have been defeated by White fear of a Black mayor. Voting patterns leave little doubt that he did lose solely because he is Black. The final returns gave incumbent Mayor Wyeth Chandler 120,207 mostly White votes, or 52.9 percent, to 107,323 mostly Black votes, or 47.1 percent, for Higgs.

Jesse Turner – a member of the Shelby county board of commissioners and NAACP natiqnal treasurer – presented to the local NAACP branch an analysis of the voting. Turner’s report showed Chandler with a meager 1,300 Black votes, or 1.4 percent, and 88.6 percent of the White votes – leaving Higgs with 98.6 percent of the Black votes and 11.4 percent of the Whites. Black registration comprises 42.5 percent of the 343,157 registered voters in the city – or 145,832 potential Black votes.

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According to Turner, the 66 percent total voter turnout represented 64 percent of the Black voters and 68 percent of the Whites. The election – a rematch of the 1975 runoff for mayor showed a substantial increase from the 58 percent turnout registered four years ago.

As an obvious Black-White matchup, the election returns posed the real question of whether Higgs could have won in spite of the fact that he is Black. Could he have attracted more Whites? Could he have won on the issues?

The biracial support for Higgs was at first impressive. He had the endorsement of the municipal fire and police unions, several other labor organizations and the editorial page endorsement of the city’s largest newspaper, The Commercial Appeal. But, armed with endorsements that no Black mayoral candidate ever had,Higgs failed to translate this support into votes.

Much of his failure could possibly be traced to the start of his drive for the mayor’s office. The former judge had problems with his campaign organization. In the early weeks of the race, Higgs’ campaign was about as organized as a street fight and not nearly as exciting.

During this period, campaign leaders spent almost $14,000 on rent for a headquarters, threw a fund raiser that lost considerable funds, and agreed to lease a ton of billboard space which resulted in a lawsuit from a minority businessman.

After such moves it became obvious that the Higgs’ campaign was not getting anywhere and something had to be done. Higgs frantically met with Black leaders such as Russell Sugarmon, the NAACP’s Maxine Smith, Vasco Smith and Turner and begged their help. It was a pitch, however, for the group leaders in the Democratic Voters Council – not to help set campaign direction and decisions, but to handle the grass roots ward and precinct work to get the Black voters to the polls on election day.

For Sugarmon, who as a candidate for county court several years ago had been snubbed by Higgs, the decision was not easy. He chose, however, to go to work for Higgs and became listed as a campaign manager.

The Higgs campaign soon expanded from a single manager to two, three and then four. But Sugarmon quickly brought a sense of organization to the camp and devised a complicated yet effective plan to get out votes. For the first time the campaign began to use some of headquarters building that was eating up funds in monthly utility bills.

Some fences could not be mended. No help came from U.S. Rep. Harold Ford of Memphis and his politically powerful machine. Nor was there an endorsement from James E. Smith and his local of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees. (AFSCME s strained dealings with the Black mayor in Atlanta, Maynard Jackson, were cited as a prime reason that Higgs failed to win an endorsement from the Memphis local.) Only token support came from the predominantly Black union group.

However, the Black turnout was one that could have spelled victory under normal circumstances. Almost 65 percent of the registered Blacks voted and almost all voted for Higgs. But work by Chandler’s camp -. coupled with a series of poor top level decisions in the Higgs campaign – pushed almost 70 percent of the White voters to the polls – mot to vote against him.

The final two weeks before the election were a series of disasters for Higgs as his campaign came apart at the top.

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For weeks, Higgs had blasted Chandler for running a racist campaign and had the incumbent on the defensive. Chandler had made the job easy by attending a citizens counsel meeting and pledging allegiance to the Confederate flag, and by asking the Election Commission for a “White only” list of voters who failed to go to the polls in the first city election in October.

Failing to understand its advantage, the Higgs campaign decided to bring together 16 Black elected officials – and no Whites to endorse the candidate. Although Higgs had the support of some White officials, the move allowed Chandler to make charges of his own concerning racism and wiggle out of a trap he had dug for himself. It may have been the key factor in determining where moderate White votes would go election day.

The Higgs campaign also decided to call a press conference where the candidate would neither confirm nor deny a police report relating to a cross-burning alleged to have occurred because the candidate had an illegitimate son born 21 years ago. The media had been skeptical of the cross-burning and its connection with the claim of an illegitimate son until the candidate held his press conference. With the candidate himself focusing on the allegation without denying it, the media and others went after the story. Even some of the staunch Higgs supporters saw this as the straw that broke the back of a campaign that had already been weakened by poor decisions.

In the last days, Higgs continued to maintain a hectic pace of speeches and appearances. Yet he spoke to neither the issues nor the voters. Throughout his campaign Higgs displayed a consistent lack of decisiveness. Many of Higgs’ positions on important matters facing the city were “maybe” or “I’ll have to look into that.”

The “maybe” included such items as a tunnel for the interstate highway through Overton Park a proposal that might solve the controversy raging for decades but at heavy expense. Items under “I’ll have to look into that” included the multi-million dollar sludge burning plant – one of the largest capital improvement projects in the city’s history.

Higgs’ firm stands appear general or even peculiar. They included such items as “to be tough as nails on crime,” to be ”fund a ni e ntally fair” with municipal fire and police unions, to let the Memphis Area Chamber of Commerce name his chief administrative officer and for some reason apparently known only to the candidate to change the name of Beale Street to Beal Street-USA.

Higgs also spoke not to the crowds, but somewhere above them. “I can walk and talk with kings and potentates and still speak the common language of the simple garbageman,” he said, in a somewhat pompous tone that appeared to reach about an equal number of kings, potentates and garbagement “The renaissance in this city must begin with a new mayor,” he said early in the campaign. The “disconnected frankness of the community” in discussing city problems “must be replaced by projections of positivism and affirmatism. We should be harmonious here if for no other reason, for pragmatic reasons.”

In the face of such lofty pleas the election returns showed a divided city Black and White. The saddest result for the city of Memphis is that W. Otis l-liggs, Jr. lost the race for mayor because he is Black.

Higgs should have lost the race because his campaign was a colorless gray.

Terry Keeter is a reporter for the Commercial Appeal in Memphis, Tennessee.