Tennessee Lawmakers Adjourn Without Addressing Race, Reform

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) -- Tennessee’s Black lawmakers came back to the Capitol earlier this month with a request for their white colleagues: Advance public policy to send modest signals that say, "Yes, Black lives do matter."

“You can’t just like black people,” said Rep. Harold Love, a black pastor from Nashville, speaking in somber tones in front of the House chamber on June 1. “You have to also make policy that helps them and doesn’t lower their value.”

Nearly three weeks later, the GOP-dominant General Assembly has adjourned after largely ignoring measures proponents said would right some of the wrongs of racial injustice in Tennessee.

Legislation aimed at improving health care for some minority women stalled. Lawmakers chose not to remove the bust of a former Confederate general from the Capitol building, even though similar monuments in many other states are being taken down - either forcibly by protesters or through government action. Efforts to reform policing fizzled.

The Legislature adjourned Friday - leaving black lawmakers convinced that their colleagues had failed to rise to the moment.

“The entire world is speaking out, but are Tennessee legislators listening?” asked Rep. Antonio Parkinson, a Black Democrat from Memphis.

A Democratic-backed police reform proposal was blocked on the House floor. A budget request to expand postpartum health insurance for low-income and uninsured women — to halt “preventable” deaths of new mothers, which historically have had a disproportionate impact on women of color — was shot down.

Instead, white Republicans in charge of both the House and Senate pursued reforms of their own. A bill that would have increased penalties against protesters who violate certain laws gained more support among top GOP leadership, though it was eventually abandoned in the final hours of session. The proposal would have made it a felony to camp on or vandalize state property with graffiti — a violation that is currently a misdemeanor.

A breaking point came late Tuesday when Republican House lawmakers refused to advance a resolution honoring a Black gay teenager who had been shot and killed earlier this year, a measure with no practical impact beyond a simple show of support.

Resentment lingered into Wednesday, forcing House Speaker Cameron Sexton to call a closed meeting between leaders of both parties to address the racial tension. The frustrations had even exploded into typically mundane budget debate — with both political parties trading claims of racism.

“We are inclusive of everybody in this state and we want everybody to benefit,” said House Republican Caucus Chairman Jeremy Faison.

House lawmakers have remained tight-lipped on what exactly was discussed between Sexton, GOP and Democratic leaders. However, Parkinson stood before the chamber later Wednesday and described the meeting as an “uncut, truthful conversation.”

The Senate passed the resolution later in the week. It has avoided most of the high-profile clashes seen in the House — but not all.

Sen. Brenda Gilmore, a Black Democrat from Nashville, announced earlier this month that she could no longer support legislation on a bill that had originally sought to stop observance in the state of Nathan Bedford Forrest, a Confederate general and early Ku Klux Klan leader. In a rare move, she stripped her name as a co-sponsor after the bill was suddenly tweaked to draw in more support from GOP lawmakers.

Under the version enacted into law without Gilmore's name on it, the governor is no longer required to sign an annual proclamation acknowledging Forrest. But July 13 will retain the formal designation as Nathan Bedford Forrest day. Meanwhile, a bill to remove Forrest's bust from the Capitol stalled.

Race issues are nothing new inside the Tennessee Legislature. Last year, the Legislature stripped the powers of community oversight boards just months after city leaders in Democratic-leaning Nashville passed a referendum establishing such a group to investigate police misconduct claims. In 2018, lawmakers punished the city of Memphis for removing Confederate monuments by taking $250,000 away from the city that would have been used for a bicentennial celebration the following year.

Yet when lawmakers returned to the Capitol in early June to address budget cuts caused by the pandemic, some wondered if the momentum of the nationwide protests against the death of George Floyd - who died after a Minneapolis police offer pinned him down with a knee to Floyd's neck - might translate into meaningful changes.

That didn't happen. Yet many Black Democrats vowed to return next year to tackle the work left undone.

“Happy Juneteenth,” said Rep. London Lamar, a Black Democrat from Memphis, said at 3 a.m. Friday — noting the Legislature was concluding on the holiday that commemorated the emancipation of enslaved African Americans.

Her colleagues briefly paused and then politely clapped.