Stockard on the Stump: Akbari, Towns would stamp out “fake history” of slavery 

Slave trader, Confederate general: the Nathan Bedford Forrest bust sits atop a perch outside the Tennessee House of Representatives Chamber. (Photo: John Partipilo)

In 2022, Volunteer State voters could be deciding the fate of a constitutional amendment banning all vestiges of slavery from the state Constitution. First, though, they have to figure out whether it’s “fake history,” at least according to one Republican lawmaker.

In one of the head-scratchers of the 112th General Assembly, Sen. Brian Kelsey of Germantown, where few people wind up in the pen, balked at a resolution by state Sen. Raumesh Akbari to eliminate the form of slavery and involuntary servitude that still applies to people serving time in Tennessee penitentiaries.

Kelsey, who voted for the resolution in the 111th General Assembly, said on the Senate floor this week he would vote against it this time because he felt it didn’t do anything. Then he added a caveat, “I just think it’s ultimately fake history to be telling our voters next year that the 1870 Constitution allowed slavery. It clearly did not, and it was passed five years after Tennessee and the U.S. ratified the 13th amendment forever prohibiting slavery. It’s fake history, and for that reason, I’ll be voting no.”

Akbari, a Memphis Democrat, wasn’t surprised by Kelsey’s first statement but was caught off guard by his “fake history” reference and took offense to it.

Article 1 Section 33 of Tennessee’s Constitution states: “That slavery and involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime, whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, are forever prohibited in this state.”

In contrast, Akbari’s resolution says, “Slavery and involuntary servitude are forever prohibited. Nothing in this section shall prohibit an inmate from working when the inmate has been duly convicted of a crime.”

During floor debate, Akbari pointed out the Constitution that passed in 1870 makes it clear that slavery is abolished, while also making it clear the exception remains for inmates. So does her resolution.

Sen. Raumesh Akbari, D-Memphis, photographed at the Tennessee Capitol by John Partipilo on March 18, 2021.

There’s a big difference between being a slave and working, she noted, adding she could go back three generations in her family and find slavery.

“I think that really speaks to our need to have a humanitarian approach to how we deal with those who are incarcerated. I wasn’t trying to make it anything political,” Akbari said.

In addition to Kelsey, Sens. Frank Nicely, Janice Bowling and Joey Hensley voted against the resolution. Bowling and Hensley have been outspoken proponents of keeping the Nathan Bedford Forrest bust in the State Capitol instead of moving it to the State Museum.

Rep. Joe Towns, a Memphis Democrat who is carrying the resolution in the House, is scheduled to take it to the Finance committee this week and then to the floor for a final vote. He, too, was miffed by the cold reception Akbari’s resolution got in the Senate where it previously passed unanimously.

“Most people don’t understand under certain conditions in this country, slavery still exists. … Either you have slavery or you don’t, and whether it was an oversight, it has to be changed,” said Towns, a Memphis Democrat. “Even if you’re a prisoner, you’re still a human being. You should still have some dignity. You should be able to do your time, pay your debt. You should never be treated as a slave, because, you’ve got to remember, a slave (was treated as) less than human, three-fifths human. That’s not right.”

Towns could not “diagnose” what was going on in the heads of those who voted against it. But it’s fair to say that some lawmakers need to go back and look at the mathematics of U.S. history and what part of the equation slaves played.

For-profit charter schools face hurdle

The Senate Education Committee passed legislation this week enabling for-profit charter school management companies to start doing business in Tennessee. 

The legislation is likely to draw a chillier reception in the House where members were evenly split over vouchers for private school students. And even if it does wind up passing, for-profit charter operators might not get everything they want.

Lt. Gov. Randy McNally said Thursday he would oppose for-profit charters doing business in Tennessee if they’re allowed to operate under the same rules as nonprofits. They would have to meet certain guidelines for financial stability, requirements for dealing with school boards, etc., he said.

As for getting a cut of Tennessee’s money for charter facilities, about $20 million this year, McNally said, “The for-profits, I don’t feel should receive state funding.”

The House version of the bill could be introduced next week by Rep. David Hawk, a Greeneville Republican.

COVID country?

Amid concern this week that some lawmakers came down with COVID-19, the office of Legislative Administration reported that 59 people working in the Legislature, including legislators, have tested positive for the virus since the first week of May 2020, about 10 months ago.

That number doesn’t reflect active cases, according to Connie Ridley, director of Legislative Administration. The state won’t say how many legislators or staffers are positive out of concern they could wind up identifying someone and violating federal health privacy laws.

But some legislators were worried, nevertheless, that a handful of their colleagues were required to quarantine because of the virus. Concerns surfaced even though the General Assembly follows CDC regulations for contact tracing and notification.

Only 88 of 99 House members were present Thursday, while 32 of 33 senators attended the Senate session.

House Speaker Cameron Sexton, who has allowed the public (lobbyists) more access this year than the Senate, said Thursday he believes the House is taking the necessary precautions to protect members. 

McNally, who opened the Senate to greater access a week ago, was set to meet with Sexton Thursday afternoon to discuss even more public access.

When it comes to wearing masks, it’s still hit-or-miss, though, and no mandates have been placed on legislators. Some lawmakers wear them religiously. Others won’t wear them at all because of their religion – or their politics.

Transgender bill delayed

The sponsor of legislation requiring transgender students in middle and high school to participate in athletics corresponding with their sex at birth delayed the bill Thursday morning until Monday in hopes more House members will be present.

Maybe by then, at least one Tennessee high school boy who identifies as a female will try to play girls softball – or maybe a tom-boy wants to play boys baseball. (Is it legal to use that word?)

Guns over speech

The Senate – predictably – passed Gov. Bill Lee’s permit-less handgun carry bill Thursday morning, allowing anyone over 21 to go armed as long as they can legally carry otherwise, as long as they’re not a stalker, convicted drunk driver in the last decade or mentally defective. Anyone over 18 in the military, National Guard or Reserve can carry without a permit too.

Early in the week, the Senate Finance committee moved the bill out while opponents who signed up to testify waited online to have their voices heard. They were ignored.

Their pleas probably wouldn’t have made much difference, but in this case, it appears the Second Amendment trumped the First Amendment.

(Not) Up in smoke

Yet another resolution for a constitutional amendment, one that would prohibit Tennessee forever from having recreational marijuana use, is being considered in the House.

“I think I’d support it to make sure you couldn’t go into a Walmart and just buy a pack of marijuana or a bag of marijuana or however they sell it, I’m not that familiar with it,” McNally said Thursday, drawing chuckles from reporters and himself.

Asked if he had ever smoked weed, McNally told reporters, “I did, but I didn’t inhale,” evoking even more laughter in a weekly press conference. Moments later, though, he said, “I’ve not smoked a marijuana cigarette or had marijuana brownies or any of that stuff to my knowledge.”

Some people noted that “to my knowledge” might have given him an out.