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Front Page - Friday, August 25, 2017

View from the Hill: State panel sheds new light on racial atrocities

State Rep. Johnnie Turner has seen what can happen when old wounds are never allowed to heal.

She’s seen it most recently in clashes between neo-Nazis, Ku Klux Klansmen and white supremacists and those who resist their hatred in Charlottesville, Virginia, where a counter-protester was killed and 19 were injured when a car was intentionally driven into a group of counter protesters. Two state troopers also died in a helicopter crash that weekend.

Now she’s helping shed new light on racial atrocities in Tennessee, helping the state come to grips with an often-inglorious past as co-chairman of the Tennessee Legislature’s Unsolved Civil Rights Cold Case Special Joint Committee.

“Tennessee is doing this,” Turner said moments after chairing a meeting of the committee. “We’re celebrating this today, and folks elsewhere.

“I keep thinking about Charlottesville. It’s just the opposite. We’re dealing with what we know have been atrocities. They deny them.”

The Memphis Democrat acknowledges the town of Charlottesville isn’t necessarily responsible for the violent march because most involved weren’t residents of the city.

“But it’s symbolic in that they felt secure enough that they could go and do what they did,” Turner points out.

Turner’s committee is buoyed by the Tennessee Historical Justice Coalition, a volunteer legal support team formed by Nashville attorney Alex Little, a former U.S. prosecutor, and retired West Tennessee attorney Jim Emison.

The group will put together a comprehensive study of issues related to the investigation and prosecution of unsolved civil rights crimes and cold cases and make recommendations for the possible formation of a commission or other entity to follow through on investigations and ask district attorneys to prosecute cases.

Little hopes the work of the task force and coalition will encourage people to come forward with untold stories and details about what happened to their grandparents and other family members who were lynched or killed using other methods.

“There may be some cases where the perpetrator is still alive,” Little explains, noting the effort will be well worth it if just one case is prosecuted.

Of course, not all crimes can be prosecuted because witnesses die and stories are lost in the dust of time.

“That doesn’t mean they should be forgotten,” Little says of the victims.

Little’s Nashville law firm – Bone McAllester Norton PLLC – will lead the effort, and law students from Vanderbilt, Belmont, Memphis and Lincoln Memorial will help collect data, possibly including new information on unknown crimes.

In addition, the coalition will put together plans for recognizing victims in situations when prosecution isn’t possible, an effort to memorialize those who died and bring about reconciliation, as well as putting together ideas for legislation the General Assembly could consider to bolster the effort.

The importance of such work isn’t lost on Emison, a friend of Sen. Ed Jackson, a Jackson Republican co-chairing the panel.

“We’re in a position to be a beacon to guide our fellow countrymen on a very important mission,” he points out.

Emison doesn’t try to sugar-coat Tennessee’s past, either, noting civil rights history here is replete with instances of violence and tragedy.

Yet, he says, “There’s never a need to fear the truth in looking at our past. The truth will set you free.”

A tough story

The testimony of Memphis resident Charlie Morris played a role in passage of legislation this year creating the special joint committee. Morris’ brother, 21-year-old Jesse Lee Bond, was lynched in Arlington in 1939, shot, tied up, castrated and thrown in the Hatchee River.

In an interview by the Lynching Sites Project Memphis, the 97-year-old Morris says the murder of his brother stemmed from his request for a receipt or invoice when he went to buy merchandise at Sam Wilson’s store in Arlington on April 17 that year.

“Back then nobody got receipts or invoices. You didn’t know what you owed other than what was on the ledger. It was a custom that people bought merchandise in the spring and paid for it in the fall,” Morris says, explaining how store owners would take advantage of poor people and black sharecroppers.

“At the end of the year, merchants would say you owed $500. Poor people and sharecroppers never got out of debt. So, my brother insisted they give him a receipt. Wilson finally gave him a receipt.”

Morris describes how “Old Man” Wilson came to the store the next day and was outraged that his son gave Bond a receipt and ordered people to go get him. When Bond walked into the store, they were shooting at him, Morris says.

His brother ran out and hid in an outhouse, but they shot into the privy, and he staggered out into the street where they bound him, castrated him and dumped him in the Hatchee.

The official cause of death was drowning, and the case was never investigated.

Morris was in school in Memphis the day his brother was killed. He wanted to go to Arlington with a weapon and take revenge, but he had only four bullets, and his grandmother talked him out of it. He listened.

The lynching affected him for decades. His mother, who had three sons, had died more than a decade earlier.

“The last thing she said on her death bed was, ‘Mama, keep my boys together.’ This was broken when they killed Jesse,” Morris says.

Confederate remnants

At the same time, the joint committee is delving into unsolved civil rights crimes, Tennessee is debating its Rebel past, memorialized in monuments on public squares across the state and, most notably, with the bust of Confederate Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest in the State Capitol near the House chamber.

Known for bedeviling Union commanders with backwoods sense and guerrilla warfare, Forrest gained legendary status among Southerners, a standing that carries forward for more than a century and a-half.

His legacy carries a dark veil, though, in that he gained his wealth through the slave trade, led the slaughter of black and white soldiers at Fort Pillow near Memphis and was named grand wizard of the Ku Klux Klan at its formation.

Forrest’s grip on Tennesseans some 150 years after the war won’t die easily. In fact, it is heating up in the aftermath of the Charlottesville rally, which stemmed from city fathers’ decision to remove a statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee.

Legislation failed two years ago to force the removal of Forrest’s bust from the Capitol.

It was proposed in the wake of the South Carolina church shooting in which nine black congregation members were gunned down by a young, white terrorist who cloaked himself in the Confederate flag.

In the days after the Charlottesville tragedy, lawmakers are renewing their call for Forrest’s banishment. State Rep. Raumesh Akbari, chair of the Tennessee Black Caucus of State Legislators and a Memphis Democrat, points out the Virginia incident “is a painful reminder of the devastation and hurt that racism and hate can cause.

“White nationalism, white supremacy, neo-Nazism and racism have no place in our society. We express our sincere condolences and support for the family of Heather Heyer, who tragically lost her life fighting against such hate, for the families of the two Virginia state police officers, and for those injured in the demonstration.”

The Black Caucus is encouraged by a rally at the State Capitol where Tennesseans called for the removal of the Forrest bust, she adds.

“The U.S. slave trade is the darkest stain on this nation’s history and should be remembered as the ultimate test of faith, endurance and fortitude of a people enslaved and deprived of even the most basic human rights,” she says in a statement.

“This part of our history should be learned from and not celebrated. Our public buildings, parks and other areas where we gather, and where our children play, should be free of reminders of bigotry and hate.”

The group plans to work with Memphis Mayor Jim Strickland to relocate another statue of Forrest on horseback from a Memphis park, as well as relocate his remains, a matter being challenged in court, and with Gov. Bill Haslam to relocate the Forrest bust from the Capitol.

“While this won’t be an easy process, we are not daunted. We will remain strong and steadfast until these hurtful symbols are moved to the history museums and cemeteries where they rightfully belong,” Akbari explains.

Akbari sent her message as Gov. Haslam is urging the Capitol Commission and Tennessee Historical Commission to take action to remove the Forrest bust.

Tennessee Commissioner of Finance & Administration Larry Martin could be taking Haslam’s request to heart and scheduling a meeting of the Capitol Commission to discuss the matter. It might have to go through the Historical Commission, though, where a two-thirds vote would be needed to move Forrest elsewhere.

The Historical Commission isn’t exactly fleet of foot, either, still “promulgating” rules and failing to consider MTSU’s request to drop Forrest’s name from its ROTC hall nearly two years after the university sought a different name. The matter won’t be deliberated until February 2018.

Why this is such a difficult decision is perplexing. Nobody is calling Forrest a terrible general or downplaying his significance as a cavalry leader.

It should be noted that the other Tennesseans honored inside and outside the Capitol, though they might have been slave owners such as President Andrew Jackson, were state lawmakers, governors or the president of the United States. Forrest was none of those.

Though his defenders argue he is misunderstood and can’t be critiqued in modern culture, the fact is he fought like hell to secede from the Union. In most places, they call that betrayal.

It doesn’t really matter whether he was defending Tennessee from Northern invaders or trying to keep the institution of slavery, and his business, alive and well. He helped lead a bloody rebellion.

Few other nations in world history would allow a Confederate flag to be flown, much less those Rebel monuments to be erected.

But Jim Crow law took hold in the absence of decent leadership, allowing terror, lynchings and segregation to cast a pall across the land for another 100-plus year.

Based on the actions of those tiki torch-toting idiots in Charlottesville and the refusal of our commander in chief to condemn their actions, instead blaming those who dared to counter them, we’re stuck in a silly national dialogue over right and wrong and the same crap that led to the Civil War in 1861.

Fortunately, we have people such as Rep. Johnnie Turner, Alex Little and Jim Emison willing to lead Tennessee out of a tainted past and into a brighter future.

Says Emison, “If we face the truth and acknowledge wrongs, we can right them.”

Sam Stockard is a Nashville-based reporter covering the Legislature for the Nashville Ledger, Knoxville Ledger, Hamilton County Herald and Memphis Daily News. He can be reached at sstockard44@gmail.com.