Dr. Herenton’s Neo-Southern Politics

Dr. W. W. Herenton, former mayor of Memphis, kicked off his campaign for the 9th Congressional District seat Saturday, complaining that all of the state’s current representation in Congress is white. This approach is the usual for him, and probably the best strategy politically, since the incumbent Steve Cohen has not done a bad job, and appeals to race often work in Memphis. Of course, Herenton ignores the fact that the predominantly-Black constituency of the 9th District has refused three times to elect a Black representative of the district when they could have. Even arguing, as I’m sure Herentonistas will, that in the first primary, too many Black candidates diluted the Black vote, that still means that on two occasions when Cohen faced only one Black opponent, the majority-Black electorate chose Cohen. So whose right to Black representation has been abridged? But while Dr. Herenton’s racial strategy may be ignorant,it is hardly new, especially in this part of the country. While it has historically been white candidates “waving the bloody shirt” against the threat of “Negro rule”, when Herenton says voters should vote racially, he joins the ranks of Ben Tillman, Tom Watson, James K. Vardaman, Orville Faubus, Ross Barnett and George Wallace, all of whom found political success by appealing to the racism of their white constituents. Usually, they all chose that course of action for the same reasons- the lack of coherent argument as to why they should be awarded the office they sought, or an attempt to hide their failures. They continued to use these methods because they worked. That the South’s politicians have resorted to racial argument to win elections is to their eternal shame. That these tactics have so often worked is to ours.