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Otis Higgs & The Way We Were

 

Funeral services are Friday, Feb. 22, for Criminal Court Judge Otis Higgs at 3:30 p.m. at Mississippi Boulevard Christian Church, 70 N. Bellevue Boulevard.

The services come a week to the day that Higgs went home early from the Criminal Justice Center because he wasn’t feeling well and was hospitalized later that night and then died.

A couple of years ago, I was in Otis Higgs’ courtroom at the Criminal Justice Center. It was for a hearing in the Clayton Smart Forrest Hill Cemetery case and there was a point where the attorneys were talking among themselves about some important issue.

So as the rest of us sat in the courtroom waiting, the judge motioned for me to come to the bench and we got caught up. I hadn’t been at The Daily News very long and since Higgs had been re-elected to the criminal court bench, I hadn’t seen that much of him.

So after filling him in on what was going on with my job and what else I had been covering, I asked him if he had any interest in running for mayor again.

His answer was quick, definitive and precise — no.

I get that a lot from folks I covered in the 1970s and 1980s. One told me several years ago that he wasn’t “built that way anymore.”

I’ve also known a lot of politicians I covered in what were the early days for me who changed as well but not in a way that caused them to walk away voluntarily from the pursuit of political office.

It came to be their career, the way they made their living — even in offices that paid a part time salary. Too many of them were forced out because of what they became to make that work — corrupt. Some have successfully battled back from drug addiction only to remain addicted to politics, wanting to stay in office in the worst way possible and succeeding on those terms.

So much of politics is dealing with change on your own terms. It also involves a limited window of opportunity to do something for the right reason even if what you specifically want to accomplish is controversial.

Otis Higgs never won the political prize he wanted the most. But his 1975 and 1979 campaigns for mayor were an important part of our political evolution, setting in motion next moves that ultimately outran Higgs bedrock campaign message — that a political coalition across racial lines could take the highest office in city government and change a government with a fundamentally conservative outlook that dealt with racial issues from a position of majority rule instead of coexistence.

There could be discussions across the racial divide. But if there was disagreement, the talks were going to end with the majority exercising its power and its viewpoint.

Higgs was the first major African-American contender for mayor, running for the first time in 1975, eight years after A. W. Willis had run in the 1967 mayoral race won by Henry Loeb. Willis was accused of splitting enough of the black vote that incumbent mayor William Ingram was counting on to beat Loeb and become the first mayor under the city’s new mayor-council form of government.

In eight years, much had changed politically in Memphis. Chandler had his own concerns including that Juvenile Court Judge Kenneth Turner would split white votes. But even if that happened, Chandler still had the runoff provision to fall back on.

1975 was also the year Harold Ford Sr. took office as the Congressman for what was then the 8th district. It’s difficult now to understand just what his election the year before – the year of Watergate meant to the emergence of black political leaders. Ford’s election was no fluke. It was no knee jerk Watergate reaction. He stayed for 22 years.

As current Memphis Cong. Steve Cohen told us in an editorial board discussion last year:

“The Congressional seat is different now than it was. When Harold Ford Sr. was elected to Congress in 1974, there was no black mayor. There was no black majority city council. There was no black majority county commission. … So the congressman who was the first major black elected official in this area became the godfather. Harold Ford became a political machine.”

And the Ford machine picked and chose those black candidates seeking to win other offices that it would back. But it was hardly that “textbook” in terms of the political mechanics. The machine also worked on getting people out of races through charm and/or pressure. The argument could be that if you don’t run now, we will support you later or if you stay in now, you will never have another chance ever again.

More importantly, there wasn’t then and there isn’t now a monolithic view of what more African-Americans in elected office means. There was no vision or master plan.

Ford was a lightning rod. Higgs wasn’t. Both knew there was an opportunity for new voices long left out of decision making to become not just heard but felt – to affect the city’s direction.

The third time that Higgs ran for mayor was in 1983.

On election night I made my way from D’Army Bailey’s campaign headquarters where the evening ended early to Higgs’ campaign headquarters where the evening lasted just a little bit longer.

The Higgs supporters were in a much better mood than the Bailey camp. In fact, many were chanting “We beat Ford” as the election returns came in showing Dick Hackett beating John Ford by a wide enough margin that Hackett did something Wyeth Chandler hadn’t done against Higgs in 1975 and 1979 – he beat his closest rival with a majority of the votes meaning he did it without a runoff.

Long before he ran in 1991, Willie Herenton had preached the need for a single consensus black mayoral candidate. He certainly wasn’t the only one talking up such an effort. But he was saying it publicly louder and longer than anyone else. Herenton even said it once at Clayborn Temple with Dick Hackett sitting a few feet away.

And 1991 was the year of the plan and the move to push the candidate that emerged from the plan more aggressively than ever before. Higgs was opposed to it enough to describe it as an effort to sell a “mythic water-walking” black candidate to African-American voters.

That was the phrase he used one day before the pivotal meeting at Bloomfield Baptist Church we describe in our weekend piece about Higgs. The meeting effectively ended his last bid for Memphis mayor before it began.

After that I would get an “anonymous” phone call several times over the years suggesting that Benjamin Hooks was interested in an appointment to various offices. The voice was always unmistakably that of Higgs.

 

Dansette

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