A C Wharton Jr.
Mayor of Memphis, Tennessee
Mayor Wharton

I was born and raised in Lebanon, Tennessee, a small agricultural town in the foothills of the Cumberland Mountains.

My daddy saved his money as a sharecropper, and when I was born in 1944, they moved from the country into Lebanon. They ran a grocery store/restaurant until I was six. The building is still there. I remember delivering lunches to the laundry when I was about five years old for the black folks who worked in the back. There was a lot of steam, and every time one of the machines let out a blast — PSSHHT! — it scared the daylights out of me!

Daddy sold that store after I started school. He worked nights for Lebanon Garment Company and worked some days at a produce house owned by Herman Tatum, a white man.

by Terre Gorham
Photo by Steve Roberts

We always had a hog operation, chickens. Always had a turnip greens lot where we sold to local restaurants. We were always in the business of producing and selling. Daddy wanted his children to really get into that. Everything you did had to produce something.

One day, Daddy saw a little shed with screen-wire windows — a former fireworks stand. He bought it and moved it into our yard — you didn’t have to worry about zoning back then — and after school, we sold sodas, cigarettes, ice cream, whatever. Mother would open it up early in the morning, start the fire, and get it warm. My grandmother ran it from 8 till 12:30 when Mother got home from her part-time job at the hospital. Mother ran it in the afternoon, then I’d come home from school and run it until 9 or 10 o’clock. It did well!

Eventually, my dad bought a lot near a bypass, got into the gasoline business, and expanded his restaurant supply operations. That business still exists.

My daddy was short in stature, but he knew how to use his head.

He didn’t have book training, but he was smart. There was nothing he couldn’t do. I helped him build fences, take care of the livestock. When they told me I had to go to school, that was the saddest day of my life. Daddy had a third-grade education and was my hero, and Mother had an eighth-grade education and was brilliant — so what could school do for me? I’m serious!

But because my parents saw the necessity of their children going beyond what they did, it was only by that blessing that I am not somewhere in prison now — or dead. Some of us were fortunate enough to have a circuit breaker in the form of our parents.

I was small for my age, and I wondered what a little, skinny kid could do in life. In eighth or ninth grade, I witnessed two white police officers beating a black man. The beating itself didn’t really register with me because this was before the Civil Rights Movement. They didn’t charge the cops; they charged the man who had been beaten.

We heard that a black lawyer from Nashville was coming to defend him. We assumed that lawyers were rich people and that to be a lawyer — especially a black lawyer — you had to be larger than life to take on the world. So we envisioned a huge man driving a big black Cadillac or Buick.

But it turned out to be Avon Williams, an upstart at the time, and he had neither a Cadillac nor a Buick. He had a little stripped-down Ford Fairlane, which really let us down! And not only that, he wasn’t even very big, either!

The trial was in the little city court — about the size of my desk. Avon said to the judge, “Look. This man has a right to have his trial in a place big enough where his friends can come in, too.” That frightened me to death. I thought, “God, they’re going to kill him!” But the judge agreed, and the trial was moved.

Something at that moment struck me: You don’t have to be a big muscleman to be brave, to get things done. And if that skinny man can do it, this skinny boy can do it, too. That stayed in the back of my mind, but at that time, black boys didn’t usually go to college.

I was about to graduate from high school when two student teachers from Tennessee State University approached me in the library. They asked what I was going to do, and I told them I’d get a job at Ross Gear and Tool Company and own a ’62 two-door Chevy Impala, white with red interior and a 409 engine. They started bringing me college applications. But even attending Tennessee State would be too much of a financial strain on Daddy and Mother, so I pretty much gave up on college.

And then miraculously — I’ll never forget the day — I was sitting on the front porch and my high school principal showed up. He told me he had gotten me a scholarship to Tennessee State. The $55 per quarter made the difference. In 1962, I graduated with honors.

I met my wife, Ruby, in 1965, and over the years, raised six boys.

I graduated with honors from the University of Mississippi Law School in 1971, moved to Memphis in 1973 to become executive director of Legal Services, then was appointed Chief Shelby County Public Defender in 1980. My wife and I set up The Wharton Law Firm that same year. I was honored to become the first black mayor of Shelby County in 2002, and was further honored when I was elected the mayor of Memphis in 2009. My life has exceeded every expectation.

After learning I was elected mayor of Memphis, I
meditated, prayed, pinched myself! I have a little diary in the car, and I jotted down: This is it!

The name A C is my father’s name. It does not stand for anything, but it was a very common name in that part of the country. Daddy ended up with it; I ended up with it; and I said I would never do it, but lo and behold, when my firstborn turned out to be a boy, I stuck it on him!

I first wanted to be a veterinarian because of Dr. Derry, our local vet who made farm calls. He could work wonders. Animals were your livelihood, so the ability to heal them was a supreme value.

As a child, I played … not much! I was so much ingrained in the world of work that there wasn’t much time  — there wasn’t a value to playing, so to speak. I worked in the store while Mother cooked breakfast, went to school, went to my after-school cleaning job at the jewelry store downtown, then worked the grocery store at night. Saturdays, I stocked groceries at the wholesale house, worked the jewelry store, then went back to run the grocery store. It was only a few years ago that I took up golf!

I have never strayed from my plain, old country values.

The biggest difference between being a county mayor and a city mayor is that the buck stops with the city mayor, whereas in county government, you could pass the buck on. But there isn’t any passing it on here.

In college, John Ford was the nerd! Remember the cartoon character Mr. Peabody, who wore big glasses and carried around a big briefcase? That was John! We lived in the same apartment complex and were members of the same fraternity. He’d carry boxes of vocabulary-building cards with him at all times, and he’d craft long sentences with big words. He’d say to girls, “My, my! You are the epitome of feminine pulchritude.” He worked four or five jobs. That’s one thing about the Fords I really admire. They are one of the most industrious families!

Lebanon today still has Tater Peeler Road. Legend has it that a farmer was taking a wagonload of potatoes to market, and the road was so rough — and it was rough! — that by the time he got to Lebanon, the potatoes had jostled and rubbed against each other so much, they were peeled!

Most people don’t know that I love country music.

The time I was most afraid was one summer while working on Mr. Tatum’s hog farm on Tater Peeler Road. I was in grade school, and I worked there raking rocks and throwing them in a sinkhole. One day, Mr. Tatum, who was white, said, “Bullet” — black boys were never called by their first name — “we need to finish this project tomorrow.” I said, “I’ve got to go to school tomorrow.” He said, “You can go to school any time.” I knew what my daddy’s expectations were: I had to go to school tomorrow. But what a white man said was gospel. Did I follow the law of the white man’s land or did I follow the law of my household? That night, I finally told my father. He looked at me calmly and said, “Okay.” The next morning after he came in from his night job, Daddy drove me over to Mr. Tatum’s. My stomach started to hurt. What if Mr. Tatum fired Daddy? What would happen to our family? And all because of me! When Mr. Tatum answered the door, Daddy said, “When I’m at work here, I’m going to follow your rules. But I set the rules in my house, and my boy is going to school.” That was that. Daddy was willing to put everything on the line to make sure I didn’t follow in his footsteps.

When my first child was born it hit me like a ton of bricks. I walked outside of the back of the hospital and said, “Gee whiz … it ain’t about me anymore!”

Growing up, the household chore I hated most … Hmm, there were so many! I guess bringing in the coal for the stove. The bucket wasn’t balanced. It would tip, and the coal would spill out. Also, cleaning out the chicken house — a terrible job!

I’d like to ask God, “Am I doing what you intended for me to do?” The ultimate test of the value of real estate is, what is its highest and best use, and I often wonder: Am I doing what is my highest and best use for what God wants me to do?

What I like least about politics is the absence of a rule book. As a lawyer, we had rule books, and there were consequences to making misstatements and telling lies. In politics, there are no consequences for dishonesty. I detest it.

What I most admire about my predecessor is his candor, even when he stepped on toes. Willie Herenton was willing to flat-out tell it like it is. It’s something I wish I could improve in myself. To do what’s right, you sometimes have to hurt people. My style is to let people down easy, which is really not always the best way. When somebody is just dead wrong, you need to just tell them they’re dead wrong! I tend to cross-examine and get them to conclude they’re dead wrong!

Wine or beer … a little wine — and this is out of the Bible — is good for digestion!

I’ve always wondered about … I’ve never doubted the existence of God, but man’s inhumanity to man — how does that fit into the concept of a loving, caring, and protective religion? What is it in a creature created by God that would allow that creature to commit such horrible acts? Did God create that? And if he didn’t create it, how does he allow it?

The one person I’d like to get to know is Nelson Mandela. How do you endure long suffering when you know you’re right, and then walk this earth without being bitter and mean? Mandela is the epitome of living it.

As Shelby County’s first black mayor, I felt my faith restored in the goodness of people — black and white — who said that this county would never, ever tolerate two black mayors no matter how good they are. The most rewarding thing was what the people accomplished by showing they could transcend color.

Before I die, I want to visit Italy. I love Italian food, cars, clothes, and wine — for my stomach! I also want to help my wife achieve her dream of opening an academy for troubled inner-city boys.

I’m not easily angered.

My final 2 cents … My campaign’s slogan was One Memphis. I analogize One Memphis as a period of gestation that was born when I was elected city mayor. And just as it takes a village to raise and nurture a child, it’s going to take a village — and not just one political candidate — to raise and nurture One Memphis, bring it to adulthood, and give it a long and vigorous life in the hearts and minds of every resident of our good city.