Sunday, September 27, 2015

Can Memphis do what Nashville has done and elect a woman mayor?

Dr. Sharon A. Webb, the only woman in the 2015 Memphis mayoral race,
faces an uphill battle against formidable opponents. (Photo by Wiley Henry)
       Dr. Sharon A. Webb’s campaign for mayor could end up dead on arrival in the Memphis municipal election on Oct. 8 after failing to resuscitate a poor debate performance at First Congregational Church on July 28.  
Webb is the only woman on the ballot in the mayor’s race and made that point explicitly clear throughout the debate and from that point forward on the campaign trail. “I am the only woman in this race,” she said. “And we need a woman in that office.”
Webb’s point is well taken. But women have not been successful in their bid for the mayor’s job, said attorney Carol Chumney, who ran unsuccessfully for Shelby County mayor in 2002, city mayor in 2007 and again for city mayor in the 2009 special election.
 “I would hope people during some point will give a woman a chance,” said Chumney, a former state legislator and city council member. “We’ve got a lot of qualified women in this city and state. It’s time to break the glass ceiling. All people want is a level playing field.”
The glass ceiling was broken just recently in Nashville when Megan Barry became the first Metro Council member to be elected mayor. She beat David Fox 55 percent to 45 percent after a five-week run-off to become the first female mayor to head the metropolitan government.
But is it pure conjecture or wishful thinking on Webb’s part to believe that she could become the first female mayor of Memphis? Her performance in July, however, just didn’t jell with some voters and drew harsh criticism. To put it kindly, Webb is in a league of her own, one she believes is undergirded by divine intervention.
 “I do believe in miracles,” said Webb, the founder and senior pastor of Life Changing Word Ministries World Center. “I do believe in divine intervention. I feel good about the race. I feel I have just as good a chance as the other candidates.”
So what drives Webb to hedge her bets against four well-financed, politically astute front-runners – Mayor A C Wharton Jr., Councilman Jim Strickland, Councilman Harold Collins, and Mike Williams, president of the Memphis Police Association?
 “The city is going down,” she said. “The city needs to be nurtured back to health. I’m a nurturer. I know how to love the city back to life. Right now, a man doesn’t know how to fix it – and I do. I’m in the trenches every single day. I see what the people need.”
Like Chumney and a field of other contenders, Webb ran for mayor in the 2009 special election. Wharton ultimately won after ending his seven-year tenure as Shelby County mayor. But Webb loss more than she’d bargained for in that race when she drew a blank during a televised forum after she was asked about two actions she would take as mayor.
Webb admits being intimidated by her well-known opponents: Wharton, Councilman Myron Lowery, attorney Charles Carpenter, WWE standout Jerry “The King” Lawler, former school board member Dr. Kenneth T. Whalum Jr., Robert “Mongo” Hodges, former City Council member Wanda Halbert, to name a few.
“During that time I was so afraid,” said Webb. “Fear gripped me and my mind just went blank. It wasn’t that I couldn’t think of an answer, or didn’t know the answer, I just went blank.”
Webb is facing Wharton again and others who are just as formidable and well known. But is she intimidated this time on the campaign trail? Or has she learned to craft her answers to avoid being subjected to mockery and unflattering remarks?   
 “If I didn’t love the people, do you think I would put myself through this again? I care about people, so I can look pass that. The need is greater than what they write or say about me. That’s why I keep moving in spite of the ridicule.”
Despite Webb’s perceived shortcomings – and she admits not being a great debater – Chumney acknowledges Webb’s affability “and a person of faith whose heart is right.” But will these attributes translate into votes and bring her within striking distance of City Hall?
“We’ve had an African-American county mayor, an African-American city mayor, African-American county commissioners and African-American city councilmen and women, but we haven’t had a woman in the mayor’s office,” said Chumney, noting the degree of difficulty for a woman to become the chief executive officer.
There is an exception: Former Shelby County Commissioner Joyce Avery served 45 days as the interim county mayor after Wharton took office at City Hall. Avery made history, but the Commission appointed Joe Ford to fill the remaining nine months of Wharton’s term.  
Former commissioner and businesswoman Deidre Malone, the Democratic nominee for mayor of Shelby County in 2014, tried to wrest the seat from incumbent Republican Mayor Mark H. Luttrell Jr., but she suffered a disappointing loss in the general election.
There are 10 mayoral candidates on the Memphis ballot altogether. But the spotlight hasn’t landed squarely on the so-called lower-tier candidates, which could elevate their profile significantly like the profiles of the big four: Wharton, Strickland, Collins and Williams.
“The media selected four candidates. It’s not fair and it’s not right when there are 10 people in the race,” lamented Webb, who was invited to participate in just a couple of forums or debates although there have been several.
“They didn’t invite me to the forums and debates because they don’t think I’m qualified,” she said. “That’s their choice, but it isn’t right.”
Webb has some political experience. She was elected to the school board of legacy Memphis City Schools and the Memphis Charter Commission, a body that reviewed and suggested changes to the city’s charter.
“It didn’t say you have to have 15 years of government experience,” said Webb, noting that her qualifications to run for mayor put her on the ballot. “When you work in a job or an administration you learn on the job.”
It’s a huge challenge for any woman, Chumney maintains. “Are we holding women to too high standards? Are we sexist? These are questions I grapple with. So how do you break the glass ceiling? You can’t break the glass ceiling unless you run.”
Webb says she’s not discouraged even though huge barriers are blocking her path to City Hall. “I refuse to allow anybody to put me in a box and say what I can’t do. It takes courage to stand up there, to put your name on the list. It takes Jesus.”
It also takes a lot of money to run a successful campaign. “Having $400,000 in your war-chest doesn’t make you a winner. It’s the voters,” said Webb, referencing the huge war chests amassed by the top two contenders, Wharton and Strickland.
“You don’t have to have billboards to win an election,” said Webb, running a grass root campaign instead. “Sometimes it gets hard, but you just get out your Kleenex and keep running. You have to encourage yourself. And I’m going to run to the end.”

Sunday, September 13, 2015

Guardian of a radio pioneer's legacy

Joan Patterson, the daughter of A.C. "Moohah" Williams, peruses the pages of
her father's scrapbook and other artifacts in her possession and ponders how she
can preserve them for posterity. (Photo: Wiley Henry)
       The black, tattered scrapbook is filled with newspaper clippings, invitations, letters and proclamations from government officials, hand-written notes, and seldom-seen photos chronicling a bygone era that Joan Patterson knows so well.
The collection of artifacts is of cultural and historic significance to Patterson, the daughter of the late legendary Andrew Charles “Moohah” Williams Jr., a trailblazer who left behind an enduring legacy that coincided with WDIA-AM 1070 and a group of Memphis teenagers that he’d taken under his wings.
Known across the Mid-South in those days as “Moohah” – an Indian name meaning “the mighty” – A.C. Williams had indeed become a “mighty” radio announcer who used his influence to shape the careers of others and helped to set WDIA on a trajectory of historic proportions.
The scrapbook is a memoir of sorts and a treasure that Patterson keeps close to her heart. Williams’ contributions to WDIA and his founding of the Teen Town Singers is still the talk of the town among those who watched the announcer work his magic.     
Patterson was in 7th-grade when her father launched the Teen Town Singers in 1949 shortly after WDIA switched from country and western music to all-black on-air personalities and programming to attract black listeners.
The group disbanded in 1970. Standouts included Carla Thomas, an early star at Stax Records who was crowned “The Queen of Memphis Soul,” and Regina Bennett-West, who would make a pivotal move to Rhythm and Blues and gospel, including an oversees stint with The Platters.
Mark Stansbury, the former assistant to the president of the University of Memphis, was a Teen Town Singer, too. The relationships he’d cultivated since then has kept him on the air at WDIA for 57 years.  
 “When we were the Teen Towners, we were popular with our peers,” said Stansbury, recalling his student days at Booker T. Washington High School when the pianist for the Teen Town Singers, Cathryn Rivers Johnson, urged him to join the group.
“I couldn’t sing, but A.C. Williams saw something in me,” said Stansbury. “He saw other qualities in his students” even if they couldn’t sing as well.
Bennett-West’s father died when she was 11 years old. So Williams, she said, stepped in as her surrogate father, calling him “Daddy,” like most others.
Bennett-West, one of the youngest members then, stayed with the group for 5 years. Her two older sisters, now deceased, sang too. She vaulted from that point in her life and emerged as a recording artist – a well-rounded singer, lyricist and musician. Williams, she said, taught her so much about life.  
Patterson joined the chorale of junior high and high school students from seven schools and sang with them on Saturday mornings at the radio station. Her six-year stint with the group ended after she graduated from Booker T. Washington High School en route to Tennessee State University, her father’s alma mater.
 “He loved working with kids. That was his thing,” said Patterson, who opted to pursue her own path in the world. Radio, she said, just wasn’t her thing. So as her father’s star kept rising at WDIA and in the community that he loved so well, she pursued her own career without the fanfare that surrounded her father.
 “When I would meet people, I wouldn’t tell them that my father was A.C. Williams,” she said. “They (Patterson’s parents) had goals for me. Therefore, I tried to achieve those goals rather than everybody knowing who my father was.”
Getting a good education was germane, and A.C. and Joan P. Williams wouldn’t let their daughter forget it. Williams taught biology at Manassas High School, so Patterson decided that science would take her where she wanted to go in life without the benefit of her father’s burgeoning reputation.
Williams worked at WDIA for 34 years as a D.J. and director of community relations. Twenty-one of those years were spent organizing and directing the Teen Town Singers, an idea that emanated from Manassas, where he’d first organized a boys choir.
According to Williams’ handwritten notes, the idea would come to fruition after listening for some time to a radio program of singing white youth and wondering if he could corral a group of young African American students to do somewhat the same thing.
Writing in the third person to document the origin of the Teen Town Singers, Williams wrote, “Having listened for some time to Young America Sings, he (meaning himself) wondered if some such program could not be done with Negro youth.”
Williams pitched the idea to a program director at WMC-AM in 1947. The program director tossed the idea to other radio stations. But no one was interested – that was until the co-owner of WDIA, Bert Ferguson – who had a similar idea – saw its potential.
Ferguson initially brought in Williams for another type of on-air program. He offered the live glee club show idea to a Matt Garrett, who turned it down. This was the opportunity that Williams needed to pitch the Teen Town Singers to Ferguson, who aired the first program on June 11, 1949.
Much of Patterson’s memories are intertwined with hundreds of Teen Town Singers, whose members – numbering in the hundreds – meet twice a year for a reunion in honor of Williams, WDIA’s first fulltime disc jockey. Williams died Dec. 3, 2004.
During his tenure, Williams developed and promoted other programs as well, including “Feature for A Wonderful Teacher,” “Soul of School Award,” “Top Scholar Program,” “Saturday Night Fish Fry,” “Delta Melodies” and “Wheelin’ on Beale.”
Williams also was instrumental in the success of WDIA’s “Goodwill Revue,” a Christmastime show promoting the best gospel, blues, R&B, and soul performers in the nation, and the “Starlight Revue,” both charitable causes.
Stansbury credits Williams and other WDIA luminaries – such as Nat. D. Williams, the first African American to host a show on the station, and Theo “Bless My Bones” Wade – with helping to create a pathway for him in radio.
 “I spun the records for Nat D., A.C., Theo Wade and others,” said Stansbury, pointing out that the aforementioned pioneers taught him a lot about the business while making significant contributions in radio.
The memories are sweet – unforgettable – for Patterson who, from time to time, reflects on the life and legacy of her father. The scrapbook is just a snapshot of his life and a transport back to her youth in the Williams household.
“They were regular folks,” Patterson said about her parents. “Dad was a teacher and Mom was a Girl Scout leader. Both were religious people. They were pretty good parents who led by example. So I had a pretty decent childhood.”
Her mother could sing, too, she said. “She had a voice like Marian Anderson,” one of the most celebrated contraltos of the 20th Century.
But it was her father’s voice on WDIA that reverberated near and far and helped to change the course of a once failing radio station.
“I always knew I had to share my father,” said Patterson. “But I didn’t mind sharing him with others.”
Now she’s trying to find the best way to preserve her father’s storied collection. Until then, she’s settling for being the guardian.