'Mayor Of All Of The People'

Mayor-elect Willie Herenton spoke to a room filled with supporters at the Peabody Hotel as he proclaimed victory in the mayoral election in October 1991. (Lisa Waddell/The Commercial Appeal)

October 4, 1991

When Memphis chose Willie W. Herenton as its first elected black mayor — by a 172 vote margin — the huge headline proclaimed CLIFFHANGER! in the early editions.

But when subscribers picked the final edition off their driveways, the headline was far more conclusive: HERENTON WINS.

Even then there was a hedge. Reporter Michael Kelley reported Herenton "appeared" to have won. The candidate was far more certain when he spoke at his victory rally at The Peabody.

This victory tonight represents a new beginning for Memphis, a new beginning that will move this city toward unprecedented unity and prosperity for all of our city... I want to say this to all of the white citizens of Memphis that I pledge to be a mayor of all of the people.

Looking back: Herenton said that just prior to stepping to the microphone, he was told his mother had fainted in the crowd, so he wasn’t just overcome with emotions of the moment, he was worried. "I remember in the '40s and'50s — the only way I could get in to The Peabody was if I was waiting tables — and there I was announcing my election as mayor. I felt the aspirations of a people that had been denied and rejected."

The raw emotions of the evening are seen on Mayor Dick Hackett as he exits a campaign event with his wife Kathy after losing his bid for a third term to Herenton. He was being rushed away because of telephone threats against his family.

Looking back: Hackett, now 66, said his thoughts that night turned to Dr. Adrian Rogers, pastor of Bellevue Baptist Church, who had long counseled him to stay connected to God and family because his political power wouldn't last.
"There is a sequel to this story and every word of his advice continues to live with me."

It appeared that former superintendent of schools Willie Herenton had won the election as Dick Hackett, seeking a third term as Memphis mayor, left his election headquarters in the very early morning of October 4, 1991. (Karen Pulfer Focht/The Commercial Appeal)