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Tennessee GOP Wants to Ban Reparations. Black Tennesseans Are Fighting Back.

Lawmakers plan to vote on a law that would ban local governments from studying or disbursing restitution.

Justin Jones marches to the state capitol after being reinstated by the Metro City Council on Monday, April 10, 2023 in Nashville, Tennessee.

The Rev. Earle J. Fisher, an activist and longtime resident of Memphis, Tennessee, is battling against yet another assault on Black economic and political progress by state Republicans.

Since the murder of George Floyd in 2020, these efforts have ramped up, particularly in majority-Black Shelby County, the largest county in the state. Just last month, Republican Gov. Bill Lee signed a law repealing police traffic stop reforms in Memphis, which is in Shelby County and is where police officers fatally injured Tyre Nichols in 2023. Lee also signed a bill earlier this month overhauling the board of trustees at Tennessee State University, the state’s only public HBCU.

And now, the Tennessee House plans to vote on a bill that would ban local municipalities from using funds to study or disburse reparations to the descendants of formerly enslaved people. A companion bill already passed the state Senate during the last legislative session.

“It’s a white nationalist [legislature] with a supermajority, and it’s not lost on me or anybody who has been doing political organizing over the last several years that this is indeed who they are,” Fisher told Capital B. “When you are passing legislation to stop people from studying something, as a legislative body, it communicates that not only are you committed to injustice and inequity, but you are anti-truth.”

Earlier this week, Fisher, along with other local organizers, met with national reparations-focused groups to discuss the bill and ways to fight back. A byproduct of that meeting: a petition that Fisher started on April 3 — 24 hours before the proposed House vote, which fell on the 56th anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination in Memphis. The vote has been rescheduled for April 10.

Much is at stake in Tennessee. Last February, members of the Shelby County Board of Commissioners approved allocating $5 million to examine the feasibility of reparations. The red state also made national headlines last April, when Reps. Justin J. Pearson and Justin Jones, both Democrats, were ousted from (and eventually returned to) the state House.

Pearson, who represents District 86, which sprawls along the Mississippi River and runs from Southwest Memphis through sections of downtown, said that Tennessee’s reparations battle is infuriating but hardly surprising, given that Republicans control the state.

“This is the legislating of white supremacy and racism that we deal with here,” he told Capital B, underscoring that this legislation is a “terrible” but “accurate” reflection of Tennessee. “The push by the Republican Party in our state against reparations is really an effort to live in an ahistorical way — to not understand the past and its ramifications for the present day.”

Supporters of the reparations study told Capital B last year that the attention would be a boon for the county, where the white median household income is more than twice the Black median household income.

“When the Black community is a strong community, the greater community is also a strong community,” said Edmund Ford, who was elected to the Shelby County Board of Commissioners in 2018. “If you go back and look at the communities where dollars are being invested properly, those groups of people become stronger economically. And you know what else becomes stronger? The schools, the banks.”

Shelby County’s reparations fight comes as the two remaining survivors of the Tulsa Race Massacre continue a reparations struggle of their own. On Tuesday, Lessie Benningfield Randle and Viola Ford Fletcher — both 109 years old — entered the Oklahoma Supreme Court seeking restitution for the 1921 attack that obliterated Tulsa’s Greenwood district, known as “Black Wall Street.”

Similar clashes are occurring elsewhere. In Florida, for instance, a bill would ban reparations for the descendants of slavery. And a Texas lawmaker has introduced a bill that would prohibit local municipalities from receiving federal financial assistance if they implement reparations laws.

Still, Tennessee’s impending vote won’t stop Fisher and his coalition from pursuing other avenues.

They’re seeking legal advice, gaining more signatures for the petition, and organizing the community ahead of the November elections. They also reached out to Democratic U.S. Rep. Steve Cohen of Tennessee for support. He’s on the House Judiciary Subcommittee on the Constitution and Limited Government, and co-sponsored a federal bill to create a commission to study reparations.

“Sometimes you fight in Congress, and if you can’t win in Congress, you got to fight in court. But in order to do any of that effectively, you got to organize in the community,” Fisher said. “At the end of the day, we have to look at some of these elected officials who are proposing these things — look at some of these races where some of the white nationalist congressmen could potentially be ousted and try to focus on that.”

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