If I needed reminding of the glory of this imperfect nation I found it recently in a remarkable article from the Memphis Daily News (October 23, 2009) depicting, in Andy Meek’s words, “a pivotal moment” in the life of the newest occupant of the Memphis mayor’s penthouse office, our hometown native, A.C. Wharton, Jr. Memphis is listed as 41st in city size in the United States, and its population was estimated last year as being almost 1,300,000. Mayor Wharton was elected in a landslide vote on October 15 this year; 24 other candidates were in the race. A. C. Wharton, Jr., graduated from Tennessee State University in 1962 with honors and from the University of Mississippi Law School in 1971 with honors. For 25 years he served as professor of law there in addition to being Shelby County Public Defender from 1980 until elected Mayor of Shelby County. Quoting from online source Wikipedia, “…his concern for the mentally ill in the criminal justice system gave birth to a national model program, known today as the Jericho Initiative. He chaired the county’s Jail Overcrowding Committee, which developed new ways to ease overcrowding without sacrificing public safety. In 1982, he wrote and passed one of the first state laws in the U.S. to combat domestic violence, and at a national level, he worked for a special appropriation for one of the nation’s first transitional living facilities for juveniles. With his wife, Ruby, he formed the law firm of Wharton and Wharton. He has also served as …executive director of Memphis Area Legal Services, an investigator for the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, and an attorney for the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law.” During the recent campaign Wharton described his philosophy, “Deep inside, what really makes me tick is that I’m an eternal optimist. Once we put aside the racial, the religious, the geographic, the political partisanship, they (citizens) want very basic things. My driving force is not how many miles of road I can build or how many buildings... or how many stories I can construct, but how many people can I build.”
Wharton describes his late father, A. C. Wharton, Sr., as an entrepreneur “on a small scale.” Operating Wharton and Sons Grocery, Mr. Wharton and his wife taught their five children well. As the mayor explains, “My daddy and my mother believed that every person has the responsibility of taking care of his or her self and their families. They also felt that after each individual has done all he or she can, or could, that our society or government has a responsibility to step in and help.”
Mrs. Wharton, the mayor’s mother, still maintains a garden. The original Wharton store is in Fiddler’s Grove at the Wilson County Fairgrounds.
Mayor Wharton as a teen believed veterinary medicine would be his calling. He gained admittance to famed Tuskegee Fate intervened.
Standing on Lebanon’s College Street, young Wharton witnessed an authority beating a drunken man who had offered no opposition. A community group sought the help of Z. Alexander Looby, an important Nashville civil rights attorney.
Mayor Wharton recalled, “I had never seen a black lawyer. We were just dreaming he would be this huge guy. Maybe 10 feet tall, with a gruff voice. And he’d have to have a huge Cadillac. My friends and I were betting on whether he’d have a Buick, a Mercury, or a Cadillac. But I just knew – a lawyer’s going to have a Cadillac.”
Looby could not come, but he sent another lawyer, Avon Williams. And, as the Mayor remembers, “Right after 4 or 5 one day, we see this little old black Ford pull up, and we all go toward the car. And this lanky, skinny guy gets out of this cheap Ford.”
Mr. Williams began by requesting a larger place to guarantee the accused an audience of his peers. Young Wharton feared the outcome, but the judge agreed with Attorney Williams, and something rather large stirred in A.C. Wharton, Jr.
He notes, “That struck me. I said, wait a minute. If that’s the power of the law, and it can take a skinny black man away from home in a hostile territory and give him the courage and backbone to speak up, and then things happen that wouldn’t have happened before – that’s what I want to be.”
The Mayor continues, “I knew I wasn’t strong enough to be something like a construction worker, but I could be strong in mind, just like he was. The rule of law makes every man a big man.”
The United States of America celebrates Thanksgiving tomorrow, thanksgiving for so very much in a land rich in diversity. We’re thankful for our Constitution’s upholding all through the years the rule of law, providing opportunity for us all – upholding sometimes rather slowly and haltingly, sometimes obscured by selfish, narrow minds, but never stopped altogether. The path remains passable, often wide open, and the vista’s glorious.
We rejoice that a young gentleman resolved to serve, and now he smiles from behind the desk of the Mayor of Memphis. We’ll be seeing him as Grand Marshal of the local Christmas parade, December 6. A few years ago when the Lebanon/Wilson County Chamber of Commerce honored A.C. Wharton, Jr., as its first ever recipient of the Distinguished Alumni Award, they chose very, very well.