Yesterday in the Eye on City Hall blog Zack McMillan poses the question ”Has Memphis Ever Had a ‘Great’ Mayor? Can AC Become One?”. It’s an interesting read that lists many of the challenges facing our newly elected Mayor as well as the failures of past Mayors. From the post:
Generations of Memphians have taken history from University of Memphis historian Charles Crawford, and he often makes the point that the problems that plague Memphis, with roots dating back to the 19th Century, are so vast and complicated that even the best and boldest civic administration would have difficulty solving them. Each subsequent generation of Memphians — and by Memphians we include all those who live in the eight-county Memphis metroplitan area — wants to believe that problems just shot up out of the soil, but in fact things like deep-seated poverty, violent crime, lackluster universal public education and a low-wage low-skill job base have been here for a long time.
“He will run into the traditional Memphis problems that previous mayors have run into and that I won’t say are impossible but are intractable,” Crawford said in a story we have running today. “Some of these things are outside the capacity of anyone as mayor to solve.”
You know, on several levels, he’s right. First of all the …” deep-seated poverty, violent crime, lackluster universal public education and a low-wage low-skill job base”… is a problem that has faced Memphis for generations. Even our own city history page lists many of these problems. Further, Crawford’s assertion that many in the metro area want to believe that these issues “just shot up out of the soil” couldn’t be more right. Many of these issues have been going on since the inception of Memphis, which is not to say that solving them is hopeless, but that it presents challenges that are far greater than even we may recognize.
Which gets me back to the point of the post I referenced at the beginning. In order for us to determine whether a Mayor or community leader has been “great”, we have to define what “greatness” is. If greatness is fixing everything, then no, we have had no great Mayors. But as the post rightly points out:
“Some of these things are outside the capacity of anyone as mayor to solve.”
So, if these things are outside the capacity of any mayor to solve, then what really defines greatness in the position of Mayor of Memphis?
The truth of the matter is, under this standard no leader of any stripe could be considered truly great. No matter how many problems any leader might solve, there are a hundred more lurking around the corner waiting to be discovered. Taking this reality into account, how does a leader achieve “greatness” in the face of generational challenges that are, to a large degree, outside of his or her power to fully address?
Think back to the beginning of our nation. While the Declaration of Independence may spell out the foundation of American philosophy, and the Constitution may spell out the rights of citizens and the responsibility of government, the truth of the matter is that what we think of as “freedom” today, wasn’t the freedom of the late 18th Century. Just look at the right to vote. Early on many states had restrictive rules about voting. Unless you were white, male, and a land owner, you didn’t necessarily have the right to vote (Source). Over time, as the nation matured, these rules changed, and became less restrictive, removing property restrictions and other hurdles, then allowing women to vote, and eventually guaranteeing the right to “All Americans of voting age” (though for some, particularly those who have served their time in jail, having their right to vote restored is still a huge hurdle).
Of course, none of these changes came thanks to any one individual. It took the voices and actions of thousands of people working for a common goal to extend these rights to the disenfranchised. And while each of these accomplishments are “great”, with every victory came the recognition of another form of disenfranchisement. A good example of this is protecting the choices of the voters through legislation like the Tennessee Voter Confidence Act which is a long way away from early attempts to bring voting rights to the disenfranchised and is still being fought out.
That said, I don’t think anyone would say that those who fought for voting rights for the disenfranchised weren’t working toward something “great” regardless of whether it was for women, minorities, or the poor. While achieving these goals certainly is great, it isn’t the achieving that defines greatness to me, it’s the willingness to stand up and fight for the betterment of those around you. Inspiring that action in yourself and your fellow man is the definition of greatness. Recognizing that the fight is continually ongoing and continuing work on the big goal, long after the little goal is achieved is the definition of greatness.
So, under that definition what would a great Memphis Mayor be? A great Memphis Mayor would be someone who inspired the public at large into positive action…a Mayor who, through their advocacy, action, and attention worked for the betterment of the city and those who have been wanting for generations. A great Mayor would connect the sick with the healthy, the poor with the wealthy, and the undereducated with the scholarly for the benefit of both sides of the equation in every instance.
True lasting solutions cannot be dictated, they have to be discovered. Connecting people of all stripes and backgrounds is the way to discover our individual and societal solutions. Removing the barriers of class, race and God knows what else, and encouraging people to discover the humanity of their neighbors is the way to transformational change that raises tides and lifts all boats.
So I’ll ask again, what would a great Memphis Mayor be? Well, solving all our problems certainly would qualify, but we all know that’s highly unlikely. How about we start with the small goal? Using the office to bring people together, opening up the lines of communication and helping nurture a community wide conversation that lead to community wide action would start a Mayor down the path of greatness.
Will this be AC’s legacy? Only time will tell.