The themes that bind together A C Wharton's life - and his public service - are about overcoming hardships, inspired leadership, courage of convictions, and a compelling confidence in a better future. They culminated in his election in 2009 as Mayor of the City of Memphis with a 61 percent mandate for his gospel of "One Memphis" and his bold vision to make Memphis a true city of choice for all people.
His early life began in Lebanon, Tennessee, in the foothills of the Cumberland Mountains, where it was assumed that he was destined to the life of a farm laborer. And yet, through the life-altering encouragement of two student teachers from Tennessee State University and his personal dream for a better life, he was accepted to Tuskegee Institute, where he had initially hoped to pursue a degree in veterinarian medicine.
However, he could not afford to attend college, and at the moment when his ambitions for a college degree seem shattered, his high school principal unexpectedly visited him and presented him with a scholarship to Tennessee State University. At TSU, he excelled in a major that foreshadowed his future - political science - and he graduated with honors in 1962.
A native of Lebanon, TN, former Mayor Wharton attended Tennessee State University on an academic scholarship, graduating with honors in political science in 1962. Six years later, he entered the University of Mississippi Law School, where he was one of the first African-American students to serve on the Moot Court Board and the first African-American to serve on the Judicial Council. He graduated with honors in 1971 and later became the University's first African-American professor of law, a position that he held for 25 years.
Wharton served for two years in the Office of General Counsel of Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in Washington, D.C. before moving to the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law to head the Public Employment Project funded by the Rockefeller Foundation. In November, 1973, Wharton chose to accept a job as Executive Director of Memphis Area Legal Services, a non-profit organization that provided legal assistance and counseling to our community's poor. Under his leadership, MALS thrived and was recognized nationally for its innovative programs, including one of the nation's first legal services office for seniors.
In 1980, then Shelby County Mayor Bill Morris appointed Wharton as Chief Shelby County Public Defender, where his concern for the mentally ill in the criminal justice system gave birth to the Jericho Project, another nationally-renowned program. He was also chosen to chair Shelby County's Jail Overcrowding Committee, which developed new ways to ease overcrowding without sacrificing public safety.
In 1982, he wrote and passed one of the first state laws in the U.S. to combat domestic violence, and at a national level, he worked for a special appropriation for one of the nation's first transitional living facilities for juveniles.
Elected as the first African-American Shelby County Mayor in 2002 with 62 percent of the vote and easily reelected in 2006 with 77 percent of the vote, Wharton developed the county's first financial plan that is decreasing the county's debt payments, reduced the county payroll, kept The Med open, expanded Head Start, increased efficiency, developed the first smart growth and sustainability plan for our community, inspired Operation Safe Community, the first comprehensive crime-fighting plan in our history, and limited county government to only one tax increase in seven years.
While serving as Shelby County Mayor, A C Wharton also created notable programs such as Ready, Set, Grow and Books from Birth. As well, he lead several initiatives including the repositioning and funding of Shelby Farms Park, empirical data collection and assessment of Shelby County's infant morality rate, and a county-wide increase in minority contractors - from 2% to 11%.
In October 2009, the City of Memphis was faced with a special election to choose their first new Mayor in 18 years.Former Mayor Wharton entered the race and, backed by a coalition of supporters that was unprecedented in their diversity and depth, was propelled to an overwhelming victory against a field of two dozen challengers.
Within his first six months as City Mayor, Wharton and his team enacted new standards for government transparency and employee ethics; made urgent changes at the Memphis Animal Shelter and the auto inspection stations; launched the third season of the city's Diversity Development Incubator; established the new Office of Talent and Human Capital to develop, attract, and retain the best and brightest young workers; and laid out a new blueprint for comprehensively restructuring the operations and business model for city government.
His record of leadership is well-known among national organizations dealing with the issues facing cities. He has testified before the U.S. Congress and has spoken at numerous major conferences, including those of the Brookings Institution, CEOs for Cities, and National Association of Counties. New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg invited Mayor Wharton to help review his city's anti-poverty plans, and Mayor Wharton is a member of the Mayors Against Illegal Guns Coalition headed by Mayor Bloomberg and Boston Mayor Thomas Menino.
Mayor and Mrs. Wharton have raised six sons.