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Front Page - Friday, May 5, 2017

View from the Hill: Is Forrest spat a sign of bigger issues?

Legislation that slipped through the House of Representatives honoring an unknown author who penned a Nathan Bedford Forrest apologist biography was enabled by the climate within the Republican-controlled body, a Memphis legislator says.

“… There’s a culture here at the Tennessee Legislature that there are certain acceptable norms when it comes to African-Americans or the African-American population in Tennessee. But those same norms would not be acceptable with other races of people.

“And I’m not trying to play the race card, but I just want to point something out to you. I want you all to see this,” state Rep. Antonio Parkinson told reporters. “Never in a million years would that have been attempted on a Jewish population in regards to the Holocaust.”

When it comes to African-American communities, legislative attempts to control and experiment with minorities are rampant, the Memphis Democrat says. An attempt to institute vouchers to send low-income public students in Shelby County to private schools is just one example, he adds, noting other communities have problem schools, too.

A double standard is evident, he explains, and this latest effort to push the Forrest redemption view is part of it.

“Had we [African-American lawmakers] brought a resolution to honor someone like a Nat Turner or Minister Farrakhan, we’d have been run out of here with rakes and pitchforks,” Parkinson says, referring to the leader of an 1830 slave rebellion in Virginia and the leader of the Nation of Islam.

“But the culture of the Tennessee Legislature allows for things like what happened to happen. And I’m not saying every one of my colleagues across the aisle are guilty or a part of this thing that happened with regard to Rep. (Mike) Sparks. But I am saying the culture was created by the governing party. We’re not the governing party.”

Rep. Johnnie Turner backed up Parkinson’s concerns, pointing out Georgia Congressman John Lewis was not allowed to speak on the House floor in 2013 when he was honored in Nashville for his civil rights efforts on the 50th anniversary of the sit-in movement.

“We were denied that opportunity for a man who has done so much so we could be here as brothers and sisters,” adds Turner, a Memphis Democrat who also participated in civil rights marches and sit-ins.

Rep. Raumesh Akbari and Rep. Joe Towns, both Memphis Democrats, are hoping to repeal the resolution, which has been signed by House Speaker Beth Harwell, though it’s unclear whether she read it amid the myriad or measures that come before her. Towns also says he hopes to bring a late bill this week removing references to slavery in the Tennessee Constitution.

“If you violate the laws of the land and you go to jail you’re technically considered as a slave in this state,” Towns points out. “This was a perfect time to address it.”

How it happened

Parkinson, Akbari and members of the Black Caucus sounded off on a resolution pushed through the House of Representatives by Sparks on its April 13 consent calendar, a measure honoring author pastor Shane Kastler of Lake Charles, Louisiana, who wrote the book “Nathan Bedford Forrest’s Redemption.”

The agenda he put it on is designed specifically for items deemed so uncontroversial they don’t have to be discussed or sent through the House committee system. They go straight from the legislator to the calendar.

Yet Sparks, a Smyrna Republican, incorporated language from an initial bill he sponsored recognizing Tennessee’s rich history, including the accomplishments of Sampson Keeble, the state’s first black legislator after the Civil War, and Forrest’s purported transformation from slave owner to Confederate general to civil rights advocate after converting to Christianity. Maybe he saw the light on one of those cavalry raids or retreats.

Sparks tried to apologize to anyone in the House who might have been offended, saying he didn’t use trickery but was only trying to honor someone who wrote a book about redemption.

But Akbari, who advised Sparks to split his first resolution and present the matters separately, says she assumed the resolution dealing with Forrest would be filed next year so it could be discussed on its own merit. Calling Forrest’s so-called redemption “highly disputed,” she points out there is no debating he was a slave trader in one of the “cruelest parts” of our nation’s history and called Sparks’ move “disingenuous” at best.

Parkinson wasn’t nearly as kind, reading a Memphis advertisement from Forrest & Maples, slave dealers from the 1800s, and pointing out how it described people as “stock” or “cattle.” He discussed another article detailing how Forrest joked about selling girls to men who would rape them. He also touched on the massacre at Fort Pillow, in which a congressional inquiry found Forrest committed war crimes.

“This is who I was caused to vote for and to celebrate,” Parkinson says. “It’s sickening, it’s underhanded, it’s crafty, it’s conniving, it’s shady. If there was any way I could undo my vote, I would undo my vote in a heartbeat.”

Sparks didn’t respond to those comments on the House floor but pointed out later he had stood with the Black Caucus when it presented initiatives and fought for the reopening of a predominantly black church as it dealt with the city government in La Vergne.

“What other leader in the state of Tennessee had 3,000 African-Americans attend his funeral?” Sparks says, referring to reports on Forrest’s burial. “So, he had to have a story of redemption. I’m not trying to offend anybody. It’s just honoring the author who told the story of Nathan Bedford Forrest, his religious conversion and becoming a Christian and advocating for African-Americans.”

If Sparks wasn’t trying to offend anyone, he sure as heck succeeded in pissing off a lot of people. And while many white Tennesseans aren’t offended by Forrest, many seeing him as a Southern hero, it’s hard to get around the undisputed fact he was a slave trader and first grand wizard of the Ku Klux Klan.

After a House committee sent Sparks’ first resolution to a summer study committee, even though he tried to amend it to honor Sampson Keeble alone, he refused to let the matter lie and more or less turned the section recognizing Forrest into the separate resolution he slipped through the consent calendar. It passed on a 94-0 vote.

Sparks definitely knew the matter was controversial. In fact, he came up with the idea after listening to debate and talking to students at MTSU, where a university committee last year recommended changing the name of Forrest Hall, the college’s ROTC building.

Even after Rep. Johnny Shaw, a member of the Black Caucus from Bolivar, told him he was “highly insulted” by the resolution, and committee chairman Republican Rep. Bob Ramsey said the resolution had a “shadow” on it, Sparks persisted.

That persistence, which is the hallmark of Sparks’ political career, could be his undoing as well, no matter how honorable the legislation he sponsors. Even if he wins more elections, he’ll have a hard time regaining the trust of the Black Caucus and maybe even the Republican Caucus.

House Majority Leader Glen Casada and House Majority Chairman Ryan Williams stood with Akbari and the Black Caucus as she denounced Sparks’ actions. They could have delivered a harsher message to their fellow Republican, but nobody from the GOP said a word, even though Parkinson said several Republican lawmakers privately voiced their frustration about Sparks.

“What happened in his strategy to get this through consent not only affects us, not only the African-American legislators, not only the Democrats, but it affected everyone that voted yes on that consent calendar,” Parkinson says.

Williams later said it was “disappointing” the measure went through even after the Black Caucus told Sparks they disagreed with it.

But both he and Casada disagree with Parkinson’s contention that any atmosphere within the House enabled the resolution to pass.

“That’s simply not true,” Williams says. The measure went through because staff members and legislators dropped their guard because of the “level of trust” they hold in the consent calendar.

Casada says he started reading the resolution but saw it was a “do-nothing” measure and quit before the bottom.

“The only thing I know of is 99 people missed it, so everybody is equally guilty,” Casada says.

The final analysis

Both Keeble and Forrest have busts in the State Capitol, not far from where legislators enter the House chamber. Don’t expect Forrest to be removed any time soon, though, because state law recently won’t allow it.

The Tennessee Historical Commission is already sitting on the Board of Regents’ recommendation to remove Forrest’s name from the ROTC building at MTSU. And it would likely be slow to act on the Forrest bust.

Sen. Bill Ketron, whose legislation led to the law, also served on the Forrest Hall committee at MTSU, where he said he opposed renaming the building.

Asked about Sparks’ resolution, though, even Ketron disavowed it.

“I’m just glad it was a House resolution and not a joint resolution” with the Senate, Ketron points out.

Unfortunately for Sparks he didn’t seek Ketron’s counsel before he passed the resolution, and he refused to listen to the Black Caucus. Without credibility, he’s going to have an even harder time getting anything done during his legislative tenure.

As for Forrest, Memphis Democratic Rep. G.A. Hardaway says it best, “The man is dead. His ideas were never worth living. Let the man be dead and buried along with that racist, discriminatory life that he lived.”

Forrest’s past certainly is conflicted. But for anyone to make him out as a post-Civil War Apostle Paul is ridiculous.

Sam Stockard can be reached at sstockard44@gmail.com.