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A Black History Education Quilt Special
PROFILE: THOMAS LONG
By Arelya J. Mitchell, Editor-in-Chief
The Mid-South Tribune
And the Black Information Highway
Thomas Long got his first lesson on driving when he was 17. That was when his father told him that he could get a car. His dad had even made arrangements to purchase the car, but when the woman who was to sell his dad the car came over, his dad told her that his son wasn’t ready for one and that whatever expenses she incurred for the trip, he would pay her. “That lady left with the car,” recalls Long, obviously still thinking about that 1967 Powder Blue Fairlane.
It was the first lesson he learned about owning a car – or rather about not owning a car. That next year, turning 18, he decided to get his own car. And did just that only to let the guys riding with him goad him into seeing how fast it could go.
“I was so frustrated and upset. I wanted to use some harsher words but being 17, you weren’t supposed to use words like that… so when I got to be 18, I didn’t need my daddy’s permission. I purchased my own car. It was a 1962 red Catalina Pontiac.”
He then related how he and his buddies were cruising down McCallie Avenue in his native Chattanooga, Tennessee when he one of his buddies insulted his car by saying that ‘this jalopy won’t run’. I took up the challenge and ran four red lights doing 90 miles an hour in a 30-mile zone.”
They finally stopped at his favorite hamburger place to pick up a couple of burgers. They left the car, and then someone needed a screw driver. Long went back to get the screwdriver out of his car. When he closed the glove compartment, he turned around and there was a policeman. Long knew the law enough to know that since he was caught coming out of the car that ran the four red lights in a 30-mile speed limit zone then he was caught red-handed. He said that he can’t remember now if they took him down to jail or if he just had to pay the fine. He doesn’t even want to remember, he says laughing now about how devastated he was. But what he does remember was that his license was taken away for two years, and being in court was not a fond memory either.
So Thomas Long, who is now Memphis City Court Clerk and who has the distinction of being Memphis’ first African American to hold this position, knows first hand how it feels to be deprived of your license. And this first experience of license deprivation was a catalyst in helping him create and then implementing what has become the popular “Drive While You Pay” (DWYP) program which, of course, has a more mature point of view: People need cars for work and not joy-riding.
As City Court Clerk he thought it didn’t make much sense for a mainly law-abiding citizen’s license to be taken away for what seemed to almost be an indefinite time period due to the fact that they didn’t have the money to pay the fines. When you’re faced with losing your job because you can’t get there or need your automobile for your job, you take your chances—even if you might get caught again, Long reasoned. And this is exactly what most people were doing. And that, Long, discovered wasn’t doing anybody any good—city or citizen. It had what he labels as a boomerang result of affecting families and communities. Decent law abiding citizens just got caught up in a bad situation and simply had no money to deal with the fines, he says.
Anybody who knows Long and his background in business knows that the County Clerk believes strongly in researching and crunching the ‘numbers’ when it comes to seeing how viable a program can be.
In 1997, he came up with the Drive While You Pay plan based on a very practical plan that would let people pay their fines in installments while maintaining their license. It was a common-sense plan. He started working with the Tennessee legislature to get a bill passed. Behind closed doors most of the legislators dubbed it a ‘Black’ bill because it emanated from an African American official in Memphis, the hub of Tennessee’s African American population. Again, Long went back to crunching the numbers and his figures showed that it was not just a ‘Black’ Bill to aid Blacks in paying off fines.
He asked the state for stats regarding the breakdown of license revocation in each county and was told that he could have the figures for $20.00 for a diskette. “But they couldn’t mail me the diskette, so I had to drive up to get it.” He and one of his executives in his office took off, and as Murphy’s Law would have it, his fellow executive received a ticket for speeding. Anyway, the got the diskette and drove back all in a day’s work.
But long story short: the bill ended up being passed just on a local level. But a good word spreads fast, and soon others in Tennessee non-Black bill areas began inquiring seeing that ‘inquiring minds’ wanted to know why their respective counties did not have this ‘Black Bill’. Long had already proven through sheer number crunching that the Drive While You Pay Bill could benefit the state’s economy as a whole and yes, cross color lines. Again, once the word spread on how well it was working in the Memphis and Shelby County area, other counties wanted it.
Long recalls how they drove up again one day and how it took only one day for the bill to pass. Locally, it had gone into effect in 1999. But as the word spread and with that one-day passage legislation, it went state-wide in 2000. Thanks to Long—and, yes, maybe to his daddy denying him wheels and that speeding ticket he got when he was 18.
Long is now gearing up to introduce another piece of legislation that at the end of the day would help families. It is another pay while you ride that will be attached to child support, and would allow fathers who lose their licenses an installment plan that would keep them working to catch up on their child support payments. It has been a Catch 22 situation when it comes to mainly men being locked up for child support which brings about loss of job and overall loss of income. “If you’re thrown in jail and lose your job that does nothing to alleviate the child support problem,” argues Long.
He believes that education can be, as he has done with the Drive While You Pay installment plan, extended to government where common sense can go a long way. If the parents are helped then families are helped and this help extends to children who are students in the school system and these students will grow up to productive citizens. In an area where poverty abounds, it makes sense to use installment plans from driving arrears to child support arrears. A big footnote, in 2006 Long introduced the amnesty program for traffic tickets ten years old.
He is about common-sense. That’s where his innovations emanate in making the City Court Clerk’s office more efficient and human-friendly. He even used Mother Wit when he first became Memphis’ first African American City Court Clerk, a goal he had been working on since 1983 and continued to be on a running and losing streak. He explains how he’d spent so much money on losing campaigns that his wife wasn’t happy about it. Finally, he promised her that he would not run for public office anymore. But when he got a call in 1995 from Ms. Joyce McMackin, the incumbent who had beaten him, telling him that she was not going to run again and that, in fact, she would support him. He was rather surprised to get the call and that she, a white woman, would want to come out and support him. He asked her ‘why’. “She told me that she was supporting me because she liked my behavior and how I carried myself and that I didn’t attack her on the issues, and that I always treated her with the respect of a mother. She said she felt in her heart that I would do a good job in the clerk’s office. So needlessly to say, I got Ms. McMackin’s support.”
But the problem, he says, was that he had promised his wife that he wouldn’t run for anything else. “You know how you say ‘yeah, yeah’ just to get your wife off your back,” he says good-naturedly, recalling how he was stuck in between an endorsement from the incumbent and the promise he’d made to his wife. “So what I did was get the petition, and I took some non-stick tape and put it over the first three lines. What I was saving those lines for were for my wife’s signature, and one of my children’s signature, and my signature. But I couldn’t wait until the last minute so I continued to beg her until she came around, and she eventually agreed to let me run. She signed it, saying that I was so certain she would say ‘yes’. I had prepared like a Boy Scout.”
He ran for office and got elected in 1995, and as they say the rest is history.
And when Long got into office, he did not jump the gun by firing everybody. Even Ms. McMackin’s Chief Deputy Wanda Cochran gave him her resignation, but he told her that he would not accept it. “I remember when she came in with it saying ‘I know you want to bring your own people in’… I put it on my desk and told her that I had not made any decisions. She had been working in the clerk’s office for 25 years, and I figured she knew more than I did and she would probably forget more than I could ever learn,” he says humbly. “Keeping Wanda was the best decision I could have made.”
In fact, he came into the office already having made up his mind that he would not do anything for six months and that he would give each employee a voice in helping him make decisions via a questionnaire he’d passed out. He has kept copies of the questionnaire each employee filled out. “I had four questions on that questionnaire,” he said. “First I asked them ‘what did they like about the clerk’s office?’ second, ‘what they didn’t like’; third, ‘if they were clerk for a day, what would they do?’; and fourth, ‘if you can change anything, what would you change?’”
In the meantime, he did what probably what a newly elected official who held a prestigious appellate would do and that was to assign himself the duty of working in every position in the clerk’s office, including answering the phone.
“I think before you can lead, you need to understand the operation. You must also evaluate the staff to make decisions,” he says.
Long, who was working in the Memphis City Schools System prior to his election, would take some hours off to go into the clerk’s office to familiarize himself as he transitioned himself from one position to another. “I believe in cross-training,” he says.
There are several men he admires and would like to pay respect to during Black History Month 2011. The first, of course, is his father, Claud Long, Jr. who took that first car away. “Daddy kept me on the straight and narrow.” Another man is Dan Suggs. There is a photo of Suggs on his office wall. In a gallery of wall photos, this is the only photo with a caption which simply says: “Thanks, Mr. Suggs”. The late Mr. Suggs was his mentor when he first got to Memphis. “He knew about everything from real estate to politics in this town. He was a good man. The other is his father-in-law, Albert D. Miller, who was a principal in the Memphis City Schools System and was a football coach. Long says that what impressed him about Miller was that former students and football players would come back to see him. “He helped me to grow up and become a better man.” He also admired his grandfather Sam Ben Daniels who was his mother’s father. Daniels was a sharecropper who worked a 500-acre farm in Franklin, Georgia. “He taught me the work ethic. He was 94-years-old when he died.”
Two other men he respects are: Dr. W.W. Herenton, Memphis’ first elected African American mayor and the city’s first African American school superintendent, and the other is Harold Ford, Sr., Tennessee’s first African American to serve in the U.S. House of Representatives.
He picks up on his father again, telling how he himself expected so much from his own children. “As a young father I used to be hard on my children, and my father gave me the advice that you have to raise children like you’re fishing. In the ocean when you catch a big one, you have to reel then let it run out on the line, then reel again, then let it run out on the line again, and keep reeling and letting him run… eventually the fish will get tired and you can bring him on in. My daddy said, ‘I remember a child who was like that and he didn’t turn out too badly’.”