To the Honorable Bill Lee, Governor, State of Tennessee
I bring you greetings in the matchless name of Jesus Christ, the Savior, the Liberator and Lord.
Let me initially express my appreciation to you for some of the efforts you made since becoming governor of the state of Tennessee. I was glad to see you at the Martin Luther King Celebration held on the campus of Tennessee State University in January 2019. It was around that time that you were engaged in the activities for your inauguration and you thought it important enough to come to the event. I know it had to be a bit of a challenge for you to be on the stage while there were speakers who came to the podium raising concerns about issues which are dear to the hearts of many of us who were in the audience, issues we often hope that our political leaders would hear and possibly understand. I intended to write you then, through the encouragement of a clergy colleague of mine who feels strongly about your faith and leadership. I wanted to tell you to not view what was being shared as an attack on you, even as you had only two days under your belt as governor. Instead, those who spoke were expressing a cry of frustration at being overlooked and having the concerns of many African Americans in this state not given serious consideration due to the fact we are a minority within a minority (African Americans who have generally aligned with the Democratic Party, but this is true for either political party) in a very red state. I know that this year you chose not to come, though I hope that is an aberration and not establishing a pattern. Though future events such as that may have speakers who have views which may differ from yours, it is still helpful to know that our top state official is still willing to be among us and to listen. This is what can help establish a genuine relationship between us.
And I was glad to see that the Capitol Commission voted to recommend the removal of the bust of Nathan Bedford Forrest which sets just beyond your office. I am sure your mind has to be conflicted each day you go to the office and see that reprehensible bust, knowing that Forrest was a ruthless murderer who led a massacre at Fort Pillow, and one, through his being an early leader of the Ku Klux Klan (a domestic terrorist group) terrorized people in other places simply because of the color of their skin. As a man of faith, I am sure that the teachings you have received spoke of the dignity with which all people should be treated (as your pro-life stance would suggest) and that no one in the state of Tennessee, or any place else in the world should have to live in fear for their lives, and for their worth to be valued because they are all created by the same God. As the Bible states, God is no respecter or of persons – Acts 10:34 – 35 (meaning all are the same in God’s eyes). The recommendation to remove the bust and your support of that is to be applauded. It indicates, after years of efforts to address this, the influence you have as governor.
Your presence at the Martin Luther King Service and your voice in removing the bust are welcomed symbolic gestures.
But I have some concerns as well. One in particular is the legislation you signed making it a felony for certain kinds of protests on government property. It is unconscionable that a legislative body in the United States of America, and a governor with a moral consciousness and conviction, would establish such a law that tells people who have concerns about what they feel are injustices and deaf ears from political systems, that not only are we not going to hear you, we are going to severely punish you because you want to raise concerns about those things. This is particularly alarming if I read correctly that no person of consequence within your administration has even tried to have a constructive conversation with those who are protesting in an attempt to see if there is a way to address the concerns. Instead of seeking to listen, your administration has chosen to work to silence their voices with harsh punishments, thus creating another level of frustration to people who live and work in Tennessee.
It is difficult for persons with power and privilege to see and empathize with the pain and suffering of those who don’t have it. The eyes through which the powerful and the privileged see limits their understanding to what makes sense to them and to not understand that there are those who struggle every day with fear and rejection because they have not. They are treated as “subjects” instead of fellow human beings. The point that seems to be consistently missed nationwide, is that many people are tired of being overlooked, disregarded and disrespected.
I know that being a minority within a minority may not curry much favor with the majority. And I know that too often in politics one chooses to play to their base, even to the detriment of others who are in theory equal citizens. Playing to the base may help with re-elections but it does not always serve the needs and give the respect for all people regardless of their political yoke. I want to believe that, once elected, they represent all of the people regardless of political connections. I should hope that a leader would operate in the spirit of another phrase I am sure you have heard in Bible Study, that is as a servant leader, serving not just the base, but serving all. When I read about the potential for a felony charge for certain kinds of protests it felt like what other southern governors were doing during the 50’s and 60’s, with Lester Maddox and his pickaxe handle and George Wallace with his stance on segregation on the steps of the University of Alabama. They were a part of a culture that thrived on ways to marginalize the voices and the rights of Blacks. They felt this would keep Blacks in check. And now there seems to be a wonder why there is such a distrust for those in government and those who establish the laws for governance of the nation, states and municipalities. These are part of the reason that people choose not to follow the protocols of systems because the systems are established to mute, disenfranchise and marginalize people. It is amazing that either people don’t see the connection or even worse, don’t care. The voices of protests, on the terms of the protestors, were able to make headway in bringing down the barriers that had been erected.
The reason the constitution gives space for protests is because of people within this democratic union found the need to challenge the system. And the system they are challenging should not feel that they can shape the space of protests. That is actually antithetical to what protests is actually about. The power structure of the state of Tennessee, now with your signature, has decided that if there are those who are going to protest they have to do it on the terms of the ones they are protesting or they will have to be considered a felon, losing rights that every citizen should have. It is like saying that protestors are seen as animals that need only to stay in the fence that has been erected for them. And if you leave the fence, we will punish you.
I am the pastor of First Baptist Church, Capitol Hill, ironically literally right across the street from your office in the state Capitol. My father, Kelly Miller Smith Sr., served here as pastor for 33 years, from 1951 – 1984 and was a key figure in helping to establish the protests against injustices in the city of Nashville. Our building was the gathering place for most of the protests against lunch counters, department stores and other downtown establishments that forced the mayor of Nashville and various businesses to desegregate. The city didn’t like it and laws were established to control protests and activities they didn’t like. The police even came into our building to arrest Rev. James Lawson because he was teaching students how to effectively protest. Though I am a tad bit older than you, my suspicion is that we both grew up in a time and space that struggled with how to address issues of justice and equality. My growing up was immersed in time trying to right the wrongs that refused to treat all people with dignity. I remember segregated lunch counters. I remember “whites only” signs and “colored” entrances in the back of establishments. I believe the effectiveness of these protests were critical to helping Nashville to get to the place it is today.
In my reading of the Bible so much of the words captured there are of people who were speaking truth to power. They were challenging systems that suppressed and oppressed (Exodus 9:13, Amos 5:24). Even the ministry of Jesus was focused on that as well (Luke 4:18 – 21). In my 36 years of pastoring I have learned that being fair and meeting the needs of people is never easy. But the root to meeting the needs is not to be punitive and to do a power play, but to sit with them and listen to their heart and passion. I have not always sided with those who raised their voices of concern, but I don’t believe they could ever honestly say that I was not willing to sit with them and hear them. The Bible tells us that there are things that may be lawful, but they are not helpful (1 Corinthians 10:23 NKJV). The moral question that this nation has had to wrestle with since its inception was how do we rise above simply being legal because of laws on the books, but how do we do what is right because it is right to do right. This should not be just in token and symbolic ways, but in ways that matter to those who want to be valued and heard. Please reconsider the actions you have made regarding the felony 3 penalties and other punitive actions against those who want to be heard. And as you continue in your role as governor my prayers go with you that you will serve the needs of all people and not be reticent to hearing the voices of others whose experiences and access may be different than yours.
Kelly M. Smith Jr.