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Tennessee's legislature is acting like it's still 1968

It would seem that the Tennessee GOP has enough to concern themselves with this session to not get caught up in retal...

Posted: Apr 20, 2018 6:31 AM
Updated: Apr 20, 2018 6:31 AM

It would seem that the Tennessee GOP has enough to concern themselves with this session to not get caught up in retaliation over the removal of Confederate statues in Memphis. Poverty, education, and health care are all pressing issues in the state. But instead of focusing on solving the challenges related to these constituent concerns, lawmakers filed multiple bills at the beginning of the session in January to provide additional protections to the statues. While the Tennessee House did not pass any bills in the first 3 weeks of their 15 week session (and the Senate passed only one), causing intraparty concern, House members did spend ample time debating the legality of the removal of these statues from Memphis. Their removal had been championed by black community leaders off-and-on for years in the majority-black city, which is also the largest in the state.

The harshest of these bills proposed making removal of confederate statues a felony, putting mayors and city leadership at risk for enacting the will of their residents. Had this bill been a law in late 2017, the statues of Nathan Bedford Forrest and Jefferson Davis would more than likely still be standing in Memphis. While the bill would not have applied retroactively, it would have a major impact on future decisions across Tennessee, especially in metro areas such as Nashville, where residents have also been calling for removal of Confederate monuments.

Fortunately, the bill wasn't passed, but can be resurrected in the next session. Unfortunately, the House found another way to "punish" Memphis -- by amending its budget to remove $250,000 earmarked for the city's upcoming bicentennial celebration in 2019. We can be sure the legislature will continue to find ways to get back at Memphis for removing two racist slave owners from our public parks.

Opponents of the removal in the legislature feel burned after Memphis found an unconventional route to accomplish its goal of removing the statues. Memphis initially sought a waiver from the Tennessee Historical Commission under the Tennessee Heritage Protection Act, a law governing the removal, relocation or renaming of memorials on public property -- but was denied. Spurred by the recent community-led movement, #takeemdown901, the city council passed legislation allowing it to sell parkland to a nonprofit for less than fair market value; this provision also allowed the private entity to remove statues from its land. The city council then voted unanimously to sell the two parks with statues in them to a nonprofit, facilitating their removal.

One of the sponsors of the punitive amendment, State Rep. Steve McDaniel, acknowledged the retaliatory nature of the House's funding measure: "Memphis did something that removed historical markers in the city. It was the city of Memphis that did this and it was full knowing that it was not the will of the legislature."

If spending a large chunk of time finding ways to spank Memphis weren't enough to earn the Tennessee House the "most racist legislature" award for 2018, they doubled down on their actions by twice refusing to denounce white nationalism and neo-Nazism. Tennessee has every reason to make this declaration. In 2017, white nationalists came to Tennessee to engage in "white lives matter" marches. In January of this year, neo-confederates descended upon Memphis and rode around the city and its highways in protest of the statue removal. This February, Matthew Heimbach, one of the organizers of the white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, chose the University of Tennessee - Knoxville as the location for a series of lectures on white nationalism.

With a rising interest in the white supremacist movement happening inside our state, one would think it would be a no-brainer to denounce these hate-fueled groups. For the Tennessee GOP, however, it was easier to focus on confederate statues than make a hard stand for equality -- even though the second version of the resolution was proposed by one of their own, House Republican Caucus chair Ryan Williams (who withdrew it after "feedback" from his Republican colleagues).

It is important to note that many members of the Tennessee House come from small rural areas with populations that would fit on a Memphis city block. Andy Holt, the Republican noted for saying "bad actions have bad consequences" when chastising Memphis' statue removal, lives in Dresden, Tennessee, with a population of 3,005 in the 2010 census, which is over 90% white. In contrast, Memphis has a population of nearly 650,000 and is 63% black. The patriarchal tone to the efforts to punish Memphis for making a decision that makes sense for our community is steeped in the classism and racism that plague our state legislature. Republicans in the Tennessee House apparently believe in small government when it works for their constituency. Their tune changes when it comes to black people in Tennessee self-advocating.

It's not just the Memphis city government taking heat for the removal of the Confederate statues, either. It's anyone who publicly fought for them to come down -- myself included. In February, Democratic State Rep. Barbara Cooper put forward four resolutions to honor members of her sorority, Alpha Kappa Alpha, Incorporated, for their work in social justice. I was one of them. The resolutions passed, but then Republican State Rep. Glen Casada was notified that I was one of the people honored with that vote. Casada recalled the resolution for a revote, saying (incorrectly) that my work with the movement for black lives included advocating for the killing of police officers and taking issue with my leadership of #takeemdown901, the movement which fueled the removal of Memphis' Confederate statues. Eventually, the resolution was passed again, but was amended to remove the names of the House GOP as supporters.

As the 2018 session of the Tennessee State Legislature draws to a close this month, we can only wonder what additional retaliatory actions will be taken against Memphis. The Tennessee GOP shows its disdain for our majority black city as often as possible. Private citizens, public officials and funding for city initiatives are all on the line because of the movement work that led our city to take action and remove these statues. All lives don't matter to the Tennessee legislature, but it's clear Confederate ones do.

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