Judge Higgs lost races for mayor, but won hearts | People
Memphians are celebrating the life of W. Otis Higgs, a respected lawyer, criminal court judge, interim Shelby County Sheriff, and minister of the Gospel. Higgs passed away on Friday, February 15 at the age of 75. But Higgs’ spirit of service will remain for years to come.
We dug into the Action News 5 archives this week to revisit election night, November 12, 1979 when Higgs lost a second consecutive Memphis Mayor’s race to incumbent Wyeth Chandler. Higgs attracted significant white support in the 1979 contest but fell only 16,000 votes short. The city of Memphis still had a run-off provision in the 1970s, requiring a run-off between the top contenders in case no one got more than 50% majority. A federal judge later abolished the run-off provision , calling it a deliberate barrier to the election of African-Americans in citywide races. In his 1979 concession speech, Higgs noted that his campaign attracted diverse support.
Higgs said, "They don't have the broad cross section of this city reflected in their headquarters. They don't have it. And I thank God tonight. And even while we've lost we can take this momentum into the city at large and continue to work for a better Memphis. We can continue to work and I would urge all of you: channel your energies. Channel your enthusiasm. Channel your positive attitude into the making of a new Memphis. We have it here. We can translate this extraordinary spirit into the city at large.” I know we'll be a better city.”
Even Mayor Chandler had only compliments for Higgs as he celebrated re-election, “I want to tell every one of you that Otis Higgs has conducted himself throughout this campaign as a gentleman. He has conducted himself well. He has never involved himself in any activity that would be considered anything but of the highest level. I want to say to him that I appreciate the way he's run his campaign. We have run ours on the same level. We appreciate him and wish him well in future service to this city."
Higgs was appointed judge in 1970, won election to the bench and served until he made his first run for Memphis Mayor in 1975. After the 1979 campaign, Higgs made a third and final attempt at the Memphis Mayor’s office in 1983 but Richard C. “Dick” Hackett, a Chandler protégé, prevailed. Higgs ran for Shelby County Mayor after that but never could put together the victory he worked so hard to produce. But Higgs won on so many other levels. He returned to the Criminal Court bench in 1998 and was re-elected resoundingly election after election. A legal scholar, Higgs became a role model for judicial excellence. Late in life, the eloquent speaker became a pastor, working to win souls as an ordained minister in the Christian Methodist Episcopal church.
Higgs ended his 1979 concession speech quoting poetry, “I know we'll be a better city and so I leave the stage but I'm reminded of that poem Invictus: my head is bloodied but I am not bowed.”