The setting for Shelby County Mayor Mark H. Luttrell Jr.’s last State of the County Address was a downtown church – Historic Clayborn Temple. As he prepared to take his seat, the term-limited Luttrell jokingly said that he could preach.
While there is no indication that ministry is Luttrell’s future, he was quite serious about the need for the topic he was addressing to be embraced in pulpits, at community gatherings, fraternity and sorority meetings and along the streets of Memphis and Shelby County.
“I am shocked and grieved by the lack of participation in the political process,” said Luttrell in response to a question by CME First District Presiding Prelate Bishop Henry M. Williamson Sr.
On a really good election day in Shelby County the turnout is 25 percent said Luttrell, lamenting “how few people are dictating the future of this community. We have got to be more engaged. … This is particularly true among our younger generation…”
Williamson said Luttrell had demonstrated a commitment to bring people together. “We might need a summit called by you to bring us together … for best practices,” said Williamson.
Luttrell did not directly address the summit, choosing to focus on civic engagement, which, he said, “is how you fix issues of poverty, it’s how you address economic development…It’s how you address social change.”
Luttrell spoke before the Downtown Rotary Club. In an address about 15 minutes long, he reported Shelby County government’s financial health as strong and noted the cutting of the public debt from $1.8 billion to just under $1 billion.
That debt reduction came as funding was increased for education and school facilities and $3.5 million invested in pre-k programming. The achievements were the result of work on the part of many, he said, singling out county employees and the county commission.
While the county unemployment rate is under 4 percent, Luttrell said, “Where we struggle is in economic diversification and high-wage growth. …Building a more diverse economy, with higher wage jobs, will require more emphasis on science, technology, engineering and math-focused education and workforce.”
Rotarian and WMC TV anchor Joe Birch noted that during Luttrell’s watch Memphis City Schools had surrendered its charter, giving way to Shelby County Schools and then municipal school districts. He asked Luttrell for a hindsight assessment and an idea of what Luttrell would like to see happen.
The “people,” Luttrell said, had made decisions, including ratifying the move to surrender the charter and moving to set up separate districts. It was his responsibility to make what the people wanted work, he said.
Then he moved to what was somewhat of a recurring theme.
“I can’t over-emphasize how important it is to recognize that what we are facing in the Shelby County school system is that we are dealing with a system…in the grip of poverty. Poverty is an issue,” he said.
“Homelessness is an issue. I can’t tell you the number of students in the Shelby County School system that may be served in three or four schools in the course of year. That is unsettling. We have some huge problems in our Shelby County School system that must be addressed not just by the Shelby County School system but by our community…
“Go back to the issue of poverty and workforce development…if we can get education addressing workforce development to lift people out of poverty, that is going to have an impact crime, impact on health, impact on every aspect of life. Then we are going to start seeing some movement in our school system….”
The Rev. Charlie Caswell Jr., pastor of Union Grove Institutional Baptist Church, praised Luttrell for having a hand in efforts that have led to decreases in infant mortality and teen pregnancy in Frayser. He asked if Luttrell would consider using his influence to get adverse conditions facing many of today’s youth considered as a health issue. That would open more financial avenues of support, Caswell said.
Luttrell did not say yea or nay to that. He praised worked being done on the state and local levels to help children and then said, “If we are going to truly raise up a younger generation, we are going to have to focus on early childhood development.
“We are going to have to focus on parents doing what parents should be doing, what the faith community is obligated to do…what we are doing in our fraternal organizations throughout the community…”