Memphis Mayor Willie W. Herenton will lay out his plan for Memphis City Schools in a 60-90 minute presentation on May 6 in City Council Chambers.

“I’m going to make the most important presentation in my entire public life,” he said, adding that it will be “major” and a detailed plan of action.

Already, he’s worked nonstop for 4-6 weeks on his presentation which is likely to feature a critique of the district, a report on the state of our schools, and specific recommendations for improving the district, including organizational structure, priorities, and strategies for turning the district around.

Experienced Opinions

While his presentation will focus on city schools, he’ll probably repeat his oft-stated contention that consolidation of the city and county districts only makes sense. “There is so much duplication that costs money, and schools and government need to be consolidated,” he said flatly.

About his proposals for the city school district, Mayor Herenton said it will be a “presentation on school reform based on 30 years of experience in schools.” “I’ll send special invitations to the school board, and we’ll even send cars to get them,” he said in April 3 comments to Leadership Memphis.

Despite a New York Times article to the contrary, support for the idea of Mayor Herenton as superintendent is growing both in the grassroots and business communities, largely on the basis that his passion for improving the city district and his track record as an educator offer hope for the kind of prominent leadership needed for major change at Memphis City Schools.

At Peace

According to political allies, Mayor Herenton hasn’t worked as hard or as enthusiastically on anything in city government since the “tiny towns” controversy a decade ago. In particular, the mayor is keenly aware that the presentation on city schools will be just as important as the ones he made in opposition to the incorporation of new towns inside Shelby County.

These days, Mayor Herenton seems more at peace and candid than at any time in recent years and is more reflective about his legacy. “I’m often described as arrogant and blunt,” he said, “but your skin has to be tough (in politics). I have had a purpose-driven life, because true leaders always have purpose.”

“When you know who you are and whose you are, you do things on the basis of purpose. Whatever leadership role you embrace, you need to embrace it with passion and a desire to make a difference. True leaders are committed to purpose and they pay a price, whatever it is, for taking a position.”


He emphasized that when he was superintendent of Memphis City Schools, it was the 10th largest in the U.S. (it’s the 21st today), and that schools alone are only part of the answers for students. “There have been 20 murders in the schools of Chicago and every day, there are shootings in high schools in ever major city,” he said. “The highest priority in my budget is public safety. This country locks up more people than any industrialized nation in the world, but we have to ask, when will we address the root causes – family deterioration, housing, a whole lot of things?”

Foreshadowing a point that may make its way into his presentation on schools, he said: “Government has grown too big, with a bloated bureaucracy that costs too much money. We’ve had an atmosphere of abundance and convenience that will change. These are tough times, and we have to make tough decisions. Government has to cut back. We need people to make the right decision, not just the popular decision.”

Reflecting on his legacy of public service, he said he hopes history will describe him as a leader. “I’ve had the two toughest public service jobs there are,” he said. “The biggest mistake I made was mishandling MLGW. I just messed it up. I didn’t manage it correctly. My greatest triumph was in defending Memphis against its ultimate destruction by tiny towns. Had we not prevented them, Memphis would not be where it is today.”

Personal Style

Drawing on comparisons between himself and University of Memphis basketball coach John Calipari, Mayor Herenton said he too has been criticized and targeted by the media. “Memphis is unique and different, and it accepts you conditionally,” he said. “We blame others for our unique problems. I didn’t fit into old Southern traditions. I was African-American, independent, and my place is wherever I want it to be. The South always has a place for you.

“Everything in Memphis is about race, and you have to have a real consciousness to navigate through it and move toward making Memphis a better place. There were expectations in the black community when I was elected that I would make every black businessman a millionaire. White people said Herenton won’t treat white people right. They thought I’d be the same as the white tradition. But I knew the culture, and I tried to be fair. My style might be a Harvard case study, maybe about what not to do, but my style was needed at the time. Either you love it or you don’t. I’m just a South Memphis guy. The next mayor won’t have the challenges I had”

Despite the distinctive Memphis culture, Mayor Herenton strongly believes that things have changed for the better. “God placed me in a time and space where I could be part of a healing,” he said. “It’s working. When I was elected, I had 5-8 bodyguards, 24-hour security even at my house, threats were made, places where I was going to speak were checked ahead of time for bombs.”

The Tide Turns

Referring to the city that he often holds up as the ideal, he said Atlanta knew the inevitability of African-Americans taking power. “As a result, they embraced it, and Atlanta became a place of great progress. I knew that the tide started turning here when white families introduced their children to me as their mayor. It was gratifying, and I knew it (African-Americans in power) was gaining acceptance.”