Black Shelby County commissioners solidified their focus Monday with the formation of a Black Caucus, charged with working on issues facing Black communities.
Commissioners adopted a resolution creating the caucus, which will provide the legal foundation for Black commissioners to meet and collaborate on “legislative policies and reforms for the betterment of black communities and others of similar experience and situation in Shelby County,” the resolution says.
“It will just allow us to work intentionally to address issues in the Black community,” said Commissioner Tami Sawyer in a committee meeting last week.
The seven Black commissioners already hold a majority on the 13-member body. All seven sponsored the resolution along with white Commissioner Michael Whaley. Twelve members voted in favor of the measure, while Commissioner Eddie Jones, also a sponsor, was not present when the vote was taken.
It’s up to the commissioners to decide when the caucus meets and how it functions, but Sawyer hopes it will grow beyond just a formality.
“I would love to have a conversation with fellow commissioners, and plan to, about what it looks like to have the caucus actually meet … Just to discuss where our role as commissioners intersects with the Black community and if there’s anything we want to bring to the forefront,” Sawyer said.
Black Commissioner Edmund Ford Jr. agreed, and suggested the caucus make its first priority helping to develop Black businesses including by taking on predatory lending in Black communities.
Shelby County is more than 54% Black and 41.9% white, while 23% of Black county residents live in poverty compared to 6.8% for white residents.
The resolution was adopted with little discussion. However, white Commissioner Mark Billingsley asked that white commissioners not be forgotten when the caucus is developing new legislation.
“The concerns of Black communities are not just the responsibility of our African American commissioners,” Billingsley said in a committee meeting last week. “I also wanted to be sure that the Black commissioners understand that please don’t exclude us from efforts that you’re doing.”
The caucus can’t bar commissioners from participating in the meetings based on their race without violating Tennessee discrimination laws, the resolution says. But Sawyer said the caucus isn’t about leaving non-Black commissioners out, and that Billingsley’s comments were meant as political cover for his vote.
“The real concern is that we already have a Black majority and that this might unify us,” Sawyer said. “You’re also saying to your base, which is Republican and varied in how they support Black communities, ‘I voted for this, but I did so with reservation,’” Sawyer said.
Billingsley could not be immediately reached for comment.
Carrington J. Tatum is a corps member with Report for America, a national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org
This story is brought to you by MLK50: Justice Through Journalism, a nonprofit newsroom focused on poverty, power and policy in Memphis. Support independent journalism by making a tax-deductible donation today. MLK50 is also supported by these generous donors.