Meet Tennessee Rep. Dawn White and Sen. Joey Hensley. They want to punish the Memphis City Council for ridding the city of its most galling tributes to white supremacy. And they want to use state law to do so.
This is how we got here. In December, the Memphis City Council voted to sell two parks with three Confederate monuments to a newly created nonprofit.
The nonprofit, Memphis Greenspace, immediately removed the monuments of Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest, Confederate President Jefferson Davis and a lesser known Confederate hero, much to the relief and delight of many (most?) residents in this two-thirds black, decidedly blue city. The Dec. 20 removal took advantage of a loophole in the state law designed to keep local government from removing or altering historical monuments — a law passed after the council renamed Nathan Bedford Forrest Park and Confederate Park several years ago.
Tennessee’s GOP-controlled legislature has a habit of using pre-emptive legislation to keep Memphis and Shelby County — the state’s only majority black city/county — from governing its own affairs. (See a 2012 law that pre-empted Memphis from living wage ordinance and a 2013 school secession law that allowed the mostly white suburbs to abandon the unified city-county school district. The secession left the district with a $1 billion liability for retirement benefits. )
In response to the felling of Forrest and Davis statues, White and Hensley introduced House Bill 2552/Senate Bill 2758 earlier this month. The proposed law would charge local elected officials — like those on the majority black Memphis City Council — with a Class E felony if they vote for ordinances like the one that banished these stone tributes to slavery.
House Bill 2552 reads:
“If a local governmental body votes for and approves the adoption of an ordinance or resolution that expressly conflicts with state or federal law relative to immigration or the disposition of memorials, as that term is defined in § 4–1–412, each member of the local governmental body who voted in the affirmative to approve the ordinance or resolution and who did so with the knowledge that the ordinance or resolution expressly conflicts with state or federal law commits a Class E felony, punishable by a fine only. … A member of a local governing body who violates this section is subject to indictment in such courts as the general assembly may direct and removal from office in accordance with the Constitution of Tennessee, Article V, § 5.”
Note how this pair also managed to throw in anti-immigrant xenophobia. For example, voting to declare Memphis a sanctuary city for undocumented immigrants — could also result in a felony charge and being booted from elected office.
The House version is scheduled to be heard Tuesday in subcommittee.
This is the second piece of legislation White has filed related to the monuments. The other bill would keep the council from selling a memorial or monument to circumvent the state law that requires permission from the Tennessee Historical Commission to do so.
“What Memphis did was wrong, and I just want to make sure no other city, county, whatever does the same thing Memphis did,” White told the Tennessee Ledger.
“Asked if she understands how Memphis residents could be irritated by Forrest’s position as the first grand wizard of the Ku Klux Klan, White says he also had ‘his redemption,’” wrote Sam Stockard of the Nashville publication.
“We learn from history so we do not repeat history, the bad parts, again,” White said. “So I think just taking down a monument doesn’t erase what he did or did not do.”
How is this racist?
Neither White nor Hensley need to use the n-word to act in service of white supremacy. But yet again, white legislators from outside Memphis are using their power to usurp the authority of local elected officials — most of whom are African-American — to do the bidding of their constituents, most of whom are also black.
These bills are paternalistic, punitive and crafted to send a message, less immediately violent than lynchings, but just as clear: People of color have no right to self-determination, to speak up, to act out or to dictate who will occupy a space of honor where they live.
Where Do We Go From Here?
Speak up: Rep. Dawn White can be reached at email@example.com or 615- 741–6849. Sen. Joey Hensley can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 615-741–3100.
Catch up: Read more about the battle and backlash to removing Memphis’ Confederate monuments.
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