Commemorating the 1991 African American People’s Convention

The team l-r; Brunette Mays, Tony Jones, Shep Wilburn (featured in the documentary), Anniece Robinson, Arthur Robinson, and Zellner Madkins Courtesy photo

By Wiley Henry

MEMPHIS, TN – On April 27, 1991, a group of young Black political strategists and activists convened the African American People’s Convention at The Mid-South Coliseum and changed the paradigm of Memphis politics forever. 

To commemorate the 30th anniversary of the People’s Convention, noted documentarian Chuck O’Bannon was tapped to produce a 60-minute documentary to preserve that moment in history.

Entitled “Reflection and Reconnection,” the documentary chronicles the grass roots strategy and the successful outcome of the People’s Convention as told by the pioneers who convened it. 

One of those pioneers is Anniece Robinson, project manager for the 30th Anniversary of the People’s Convention and the executive producer for The 1991 People’s Convention Documentary.

“As I was being interviewed in late March for a recent award and was responding to an inquiry about my role in the People’s Convention, it was then that I realized it was the 30th Anniversary,” she said.

Robinson said she had an epiphany to commemorate the People’s Convention and didn’t want that moment in history to be forgotten. Then she assembled a team to help her pull it all together.

“I was divinely instructed to not let this moment go by,” she said, adding: “An in-depth accounting of the story has never been told.”

The story will unfold Saturday, May 1, when the official trailer of the documentary airs on Comcast Channel 17 at 5:30 p.m. on The Rainbow Connection, a community affairs program. The full documentary will premiere at a red-carpet black-tie event Saturday, July 3, at a local theatre that will be decided during the post production.   

Several pioneers, including Robinson, are featured in the documentary recounting their role in the People’s Convention, which led to the selection of Dr. Willie W. Herenton, former superintendent of the legacy Memphis City Schools, as the consensus candidate to challenge the two-term Republican incumbent Mayor Richard “Dick” Hackett Jr.

Herenton, a Democrat, eventually succeeded in wresting the seat from Hackett by a mere 142 votes in the 1991 mayoral election to become Memphis’s first elected African-American mayor and thus made history in one of the city’s most important exercises in democracy.

The city had been largely devoid of Black representation on some levels of government and dominated by white powerbrokers wielding considerable influence in Memphis politics, even though Memphis, in 1990, was 60 percent Black according to that year’s census. 

On the day of the Convention, a downpour thrashed the city. But the inclement weather did not deter the 5,500 people who waded through pelting rain and mud to choose a consensus candidate to take on Hackett. He was thought to be a shoo-in for a third term since no Black candidate had been able to wrest the seat from a white mayor or contender vying for the seat in any mayoral race due to the runoff system. The People’s Convention successfully subverted that process for the first time in Memphis history.

The convention’s architects – the late Dedrick “Teddy” Withers, the late Vernon Ash, Shep Wilbun and Robinson – could not have been more relieved after watching the influx of Black people file through the coliseum door.

What the architects envisioned was a Black consensus candidate who could challenge the incumbent in a one-on-one match-up without other Black candidates splitting the vote. Vote-splitting was common and a factor in loss elections for Black aspirants seeking public office. 

There had been some advancements made on the political front prior to 1991. For example: civil rights attorney A.W. Willis’s historic victory to the Tennessee House of Representatives in 1964; attorney Russell B. Sugarmon’s successful bid for a state Senate seat in 1966; and Harold Ford Sr., the first African American to represent Tennessee in the U.S. Congress in 1974. Citywide races, however, proved difficult to win.

Even though significant milestones were achieved by other African Americans holding public office, the office of Memphis mayor had been elusive and never occupied by an elected African American. An interim stint was as much as any Black aspirant could achieve.

There was a reason for this. Whites had maintained their grip on power since 1966 after the Memphis City Charter was overhauled by mostly white men who decided there should be seven district seats and six at-large seats.

According to the revised charter, if a candidate vying for an at-large seat or a mayoral seat fell short of the majority vote, there would be a run-off between the two top vote-getters. 

For example, a Black candidate could win 49 percent of the vote versus a White candidate’s 43 percent and still lose the race in a run-off. To avoid a run-off, the candidate would have to get 50 percent of the vote.

This came to an end in 1991 after the United States Justice Department filed a suit against the election process in Memphis based on the provisions of the 1965 Voting Rights Act.

The late Dr. Talib-Karim Muhammad, a freedom fighter who won a seat on the City Council in 1995 from Super District 8-Postion 1, filed a suit in 1988 against runoff elections. His suit was folded into the DOJ suit in 1991.

The late U.S. District Judge Jerome Turner had declared that run-off elections in city-wide races discriminated against Black candidates and thus had given white candidates an unfair advantage. There would be no run-off in the 1991 mayoral race and others going forward.

“Prior to 1991, attaining the coveted mayor’s seat was not successful,” Robinson said. After Herenton was elected mayor, she added: “It gave a renewed hope of what is attainable when those of greater good are on one accord.”

The victory was hard-fought. “It was our journey. I made history because the people empowered [me]…” Herenton said. “I was just an instrument. We made history. We were unified.”