Black Caucus wants more than Sherrell pulling street name bill

Group considers dropping bill mollification for lynching remark

By: - March 8, 2023 3:04 pm
Rep. Paul Sherrell, R-Sparta, at left, who advocated for bringing back lynching for capital crimes, with Rep. Dennis Powers, R-Jacksboro. (Photo: John Partipilo)

Rep. Paul Sherrell, R-Sparta, at left, who advocated for bringing back lynching for capital crimes, with Rep. Dennis Powers, R-Jacksboro. (Photo: John Partipilo)

Black lawmakers believe legislation to rename Rep. John Lewis Way was dropped as token appeasement after they sought sanctions against the bill’s sponsor for saying lynching should be resumed in Tennessee.

The Tennessee Black Caucus of State Legislators last week urged House Speaker Cameron Sexton to remove Rep. Paul Sherrell from committees as a form of punishment after he said “hanging by a tree” should be added to state law as a form of death for capital punishment. Even after Sherrell apologized on the House floor, Black lawmakers said his words were insincere and that more action should be taken.

Sexton has not responded publicly about potential sanctions for Sherrell, but the Sparta Republican’s bill to rename Rep. John Lewis Way for former President Donald Trump was pulled from consideration at the end of Monday’s House session. Lewis was a longtime Georgia congressman who participated in the civil rights movement as a college student in Nashville during the 1960s, and the street named for him runs in front of the Cordell Hull Building.

Rep. Sam McKenzie, chairman of the Black Caucus, said he would’ve hoped Sherrell would remove the bill on his own accord but noted he wouldn’t be surprised if House Republican leadership “pushed him in that direction.” Sherrell approached House members on the floor Monday evening before the bill was pulled.

“I’m glad (Sherrell) did that because it was an ill-conceived piece of legislation. I’m glad he realized the mistake, but I don’t think it’s enough in terms of his statement and disregard of what lynching means to a lot of Tennesseans,” said McKenzie, a Knoxville Democrat.

Hundreds of Black residents were lynched across the South, with 233 documented cases in Tennessee, when Jim Crow laws requiring segregation were in effect from the late 1870s to 1954 and even later.

Rep. Sam McKenzie, D-Knoxville, Tennessee Black Caucus of State Legislators (Photo: John Partipilo)
Rep. Sam McKenzie, D-Knoxville, Tennessee Black Caucus of State Legislators (Photo: John Partipilo)

After making demands for punishment against Sherrell last week, the Black Caucus had “follow-up” talks with Speaker Sexton and laid out options for him to consider, McKenzie said. He declined to name the proposals the caucus made but said he’s “anticipating” Sexton will “exercise” one option.

“I would like for him to do something sooner than later because we are really ramping up this session, and if he’s going to take definitive action, I would rather for him not wait until the end of session,” McKenzie said.

Sexton’s office did not respond to questions last week or Wednesday when asked if he would consider sanctions the Black Caucus requested. 

Sherrell refused to respond to any questions Wednesday about why the bill was removed from consideration or whether it was forced by House leadership.

Rep. Yusuf Hakeem, a Chattanooga Democrat and member of the Black Caucus, called removal of the street renaming bill a “positive move” and possibly an “opportunity for more discussion to take place.”

“We have to build relationships in this place, and maybe that’s the start of that process,” Hakeem said.

In contrast, Rep. Vincent Dixie, a Nashville Democrat and member of the Black Caucus, took a harsher tone. Dixie said he believes House leadership made Sherrell remove his bill from consideration as part of an effort to appease Black lawmakers.

“This was a failed attempt to quell the demands for more meaningful repercussions for Sherrell’s statement,” Dixie said. 

He accused Sherrell of making a “half-hearted” and insincere apology on the House floor last Thursday for his statement about adding “hanging by a tree” to the state’s forms of capital punishment. Sherrell said it during discussion about legislation to approve the electric chair and possibly add firing squads to the list of methods for the death penalty.

Dixie, a former House Democratic Caucus chairman who feuded with the speaker last year, also said he feels Sexton’s response was “lackluster.”

He pointed out that Sexton removed former Rep. Bruce Griffey from committees when the ex-lawmaker made comments that offended him. Yet no direct action has been taken against Sherrell and no Republican lawmakers have condemned his comments, situations that smack of racial overtones, Dixie said.

“Most definitely the speaker’s office directed and wrote the apology. To be clear, we expect the speaker to take public action,” Dixie said.

Not all Black lawmakers are taking the same hardline stance.

Rep. Johnny Shaw, a Bolivar Democrat who called for Sherrell to resign from the Legislature, considers the removal of the street naming bill and lynching remarks “two separate issues” stemming from a “lack of information.” Shaw, who is also a member of the Black Caucus, said renaming the street would have led to “one of the biggest lawsuits the state would ever have.”

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Sam Stockard
Sam Stockard

Sam Stockard is a veteran Tennessee reporter and editor, having written for the Daily News Journal in Murfreesboro, where he served as lead editor when the paper won an award for being the state's best Sunday newspaper two years in a row. He has led the Capitol Hill bureau for The Daily Memphian. His awards include Best Single Editorial from the Tennessee Press Association.