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Editorial


Front Page - Friday, March 30, 2018

View from the Hill: Crockett’s fine, but let’s not get carried away




The Tennessee General Assembly is making some monumental decisions these days – literally.

Not only is the Legislature prepared to put a statue of Tennessee folk hero Davy Crockett in front of the State Capitol, replacing obscure Nashville politician Edward Carmack, it’s also likely to erect a monument, or memorial, to unborn children in the ongoing battle against abortion.

At the same time, Republican legislators continue pushing legislation designed to retaliate against Memphis for the removal of Confederate statues from former city parks, including President Jefferson Davis and Nathan Bedford Forrest.

Politicians used to go to Nashville promising to balance budgets, create jobs and bolster education. Having apparently accomplished all three – they’re required by law to balance the budget – they are now free to spend most of their energy fighting over social issues.

One of the newest topics this session is the movement for a Tennessee Monument to Unborn Children, asking the State Capitol Commission to put such a memorial on the historical grounds that sit high above Nashville. The initial press release also included miscarriages, though that isn’t in the resolution coming from East Tennessee Republican Rep. Jerry Sexton, sponsor of the defunct measure to make the Bible Tennessee’s official book.

In introducing the measure, state Rep. Bill Dunn points toward a monument to African slaves on the Capitol’s southwest side, millions brought to America centuries ago, many of whom died in the passage. He also references a monument surrounded by cedar trees on the southeast side of the Capitol to the millions of people who died in the German Holocaust.

“Both of these monuments that are already here recognize the atrocities occurred because human beings were treated as less than human,” says Dunn, a Knoxville Republican who spoke for Sexton at a press conference introducing the bill.

“In both cases, the vulnerable and defenseless were subjected to the will of the powerful. The taking of life of the baby in the womb is related to this brand of inhumanity.

“While the baby can be seen as the obvious victim, this memorial will also be for other victims, the women coerced into abortion, the fathers who can’t protect their unborn child, the brothers and sisters who lose a sibling and the society as a whole who becomes coarsened because life is cheapened.”

No doubt, the people who go through abortions need prayer and support. But asked if he is comparing women who have voluntary abortions to Adolf Hitler or American slave traders, Dunn points out slavery and Jewish persecution were legal, as well, when they took place.

“I’m saying the common thread that goes through all three of those is that it was a time that society said some human beings are less human than others, that some human beings can be subjected to inhuman treatment for it,” Dunn adds.

The measure was to be considered this week in House and Senate state government committees. And if it’s like most abortion-related bills it will keep moving until it reaches the floor and receives overwhelming support by Republican supermajorities – around 28-5 in the Senate and 74-25 in the House.

Democrats are responding to such a bill with predictable disgust.

“What about a monument to the children that come into state custody that (Republicans) don’t help and that they send back to people who abuse them constantly. Maybe that’s where they need to go,” says state Rep. Sherry Jones, a Nashville Democrat.

Says Rep. Darren Jernigan, a Democrat from Old Hickory, “We could put an amendment on there to put a monument up for the children that die in schools. That would certainly be a friendly amendment.”

And Nashville Democratic Rep. Bo Mitchell chimes in, saying action is needed to toughen gun laws instead of weakening them in light of the slaying of 17 students in Parkland, Florida.

“Maybe we’ll take care of the kids that are alive in our schools,” he adds.

None of them mention the monument to slaves shipped to America sits a few yards – below, of course – the statue of Sam Davis, boyhood hero of the Confederacy, a Southern spy who said he would rather die than betray a friend after being caught with sensitive information during the Civil War.

The Smyrna native was subsequently hanged to death in Pulaski, future home of the Ku Klux Klan. His story is still celebrated in Smyrna, but the home place is not doing well financially.

Speaking of the KKK

The celebrated organization’s first grand wizard has a bust inside the State Capitol, even if he no longer parades at Health Sciences Park in Memphis after the city sold the property to nonprofit Greenspace, which promptly removed the statues of Forrest and Davis, igniting a legal argument that remains in limbo.

More than likely, it will be easier to persuade the Capitol Commission to put up a memorial to thousands of abortion victims, including the men and women still living with the pain of the decision, than it will be to remove the monument to Forrest, who reportedly found redemption after making a pre-Civil War fortune buying and selling slaves and working them to death in the Memphis delta heat.

Don’t forget, either, the Legislature – unknowingly – passed a resolution in 2017 honoring an obscure Louisiana author who wrote about Forrest’s redemption. Rep. Mike Sparks, the Smyrna Republican who sponsored the resolution, didn’t bother telling anyone what the resolution said after he promised to drop a measure recognizing the lives of Forrest and Sampson Keeble, the first black Tennessee legislator during Reconstruction.

Members of the Black Caucus felt betrayed, but the resolution vote remained in effect.

Meanwhile, a raft of bills slapping Memphis for its statue sleight of hand continues moving. One that would have enabled the state to charge local lawmakers with a felony and fine them for violating state laws dealing with immigration and monuments died because it’s likely unconstitutional. But don’t be surprised to see the others survive in some form.

One would allow the state to take properties by eminent domain if it decides a local entity, such as Memphis, violated the Tennessee Heritage Protection Act, and it would be retroactive. It was up for consideration House and Senate committees this week.

Gaining momentum

While those types of legislation – to preserve the Old South’s heritage – gain traction in the Republican-controlled houses, a measure denouncing white nationalists and neo-Nazis can’t even come to a vote.

State Rep. John Ray Clemmons and Memphis state Sen. Lee Harris sponsored the legislation in the wake of the Charlottesville, Virginia, white supremacists’ march in which a counter-protester was killed last summer.

Clemmons, a Nashville Democrat, brought his resolution to the State Government Subcommittee in early March, and it was quickly relegated to a pauper’s grave. Rep. Jernigan made a motion for it to be heard, but none of the Republicans on the five-person committee would second the motion, killing it.

Afterward, Clemmons called the matter “shameful,” believing incorrectly it would fly through the House. Maybe he overestimated his colleagues.

“It is sickening as a parent to think my children are being raised in a state where their elected representatives in this body cannot even denounce white nationalists and neo-Nazis and their acts of violence and recognize them for what they are and the hate, the bigotry and racism and the fear they are trying to instill in our communities, and that sickens me,” Clemmons says.

Memphis Democratic Rep. Joe Towns points out some House members wanted to attribute the Florida slaughter to mental illness rather than hate. He reminds people of the bombing concocted in Oklahoma City more than 20 years ago by Timothy McVeigh, one of the first U.S. incidents considered “domestic terrorism.”

“We’re not looking at our own people. This is the reason this is very critical, to figure out who creates detriment, who’s on the inside and creates harm to our land, and it’s going to be those neo-Nazi groups, those hate groups, and we’re not looking at them like we should,” Towns points out.

“We’ve gotta really look at them because they’re armed, they’re trained, and they’re very dangerous, and they’re at home. And they don’t need a passport, they’re not immigrants. So, we just go back and fight it again, because it’s something that’s real serious.”

Rep. Antonio Parkinson, another Memphis Democrat, adds, “They just refuse to acknowledge and put the label on these individuals as domestic terrorists. They see them, but some of those same individuals are the voting base of some of these elected officials.”

The analysis

Putting up a memorial to Davy Crockett is one thing. Besides being one of the most popular Tennesseans of all time, he fought taxes on poor people and tried to avert the Trail of Tears before telling Tennesseans to go to hell, he was going to Texas.

The famous frontiersman, legislator and congressman would certainly fit better at the top of the steps to the State Capitol than Carmack, who reportedly fought against civil rights. The House also unanimously endorsed the Crockett statue resolution brought by Rep. Gerald McCormick, a Chattanooga Republican.

But these other measures are so divisive lawmakers need to take every factor into consideration, including the potential for double standards, before they start putting more monuments on the Capitol grounds.

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