A Search for Common Ground – Lessons from Tennessee

Reflecting on the events in Tennessee has hit home for me. I grew up in East Tennessee, a very conservative region and with deep roots in the evangelical “Bible Belt”. If you conformed to the norms (and fit the profile of white and confirmative) of the region, life was much like a scene from a Norman Rockwell painting.

Segregation was still the norm but in an odd way. Old ways die hard, and the south is no different. The civil rights movement was underway, and I remember one Episcopal minister taking heat for standing up for those rights publicly. While everyone knew there were issues, no one dared speak of them publicly. I know I was insulated from most of these events, as were most children.

Most families had domestic “help’ who were people of color. They cleaned the houses of the well to do and cared for their children. In our case, it was not uncommon for the women to bring their children to the home where they worked. I found the company of these children wonderful companionship and great fun. I was never told or taught that anyone was different and that all people were to be respected. The sad reality is that not all people are raised with that concept.

The south prides itself on many things. Manners, formalities, and politeness were and are held in high regard and were expected from children and adults. Adults were always addressed as Mr., Mrs. or Miss. When responding to an adult, “mam or sir” was always part of the response and always represented a level of respect and good manners.

Christian values and practices were the norm. Our town was built around the “Church Circle” that hosted various houses of worship; all Christian based of course! In those days TRUE Christian values were honored and people tried to live by them. People respected others and practiced kindness in their lives. To lie was unacceptable. It just was not tolerated. Personal integrity and ethics were the measure of a person. At least in some circles.

In small towns, people knew their representatives and the current environment of political polarization did not exist. The current events in Tennessee are a vast change from those days. The most alarming observation and I believe the root problem is a lack of integrity and ethics. This is not a party issue it is a personal issue. I also believe this is the reason many people have moved out of a specific party and into the nonaffiliated voter category.

Tennessee is on the “Mason/Dixon Line” which was the line between the norther and southern regions and the separation point dividing the country during the Civil War. There was nothing romantic about those times. Make no mistake, they were brutal times. Tennessee was to the Cherokee, part of the Cherokee Nation which extended into the Carolinas and the deep south. State politics in the south were independent and operated in defiance of Washington. Racism toward the Cherokee was a harsh reality no matter how civilized and compliant the Cherokee were. Orders for their protection and preservation of their lands, issued by Washington, were ignored. Andrew Jackson, who fought with the Cherokee and whose life was saved by them, in the end, voted for relocation and the “Trail of Tears”. Tennessee also has the sad history of being the birthplace of the Ku Klux Klan. Reflecting on the history of Tennessee, it is easy to see how they have arrived at their current situation.

The hypocrisy that exists between the Christian values and actual actions is hard to understand. It is also a harsh reality that integrity and ethics seem to fall by the wayside when power and control are the motivating factors.

I am left pondering the question of how all of this can be resolved. How does a minority grab control and force their will on others? When do “state’s rights” come into conflict with national rights? Will there ever be an end to “Jim Crow” in the south?

Tennessee is a microcosm and good example of just how badly things can go when gerrymandering and manipulation of rights are exploited.

Karma has its rewards. Cameron Sexton, the Tennessee Speaker of the House was just exposed for not living in District 25 which encompasses Crossville, Tennessee. Mr. Sexton is a full-time resident of Nashville which put him in violations for qualifying to run as a representative of District 25.

It is inspirational to see Justin Jones and Justin Pearson stand up for their rights and the rights of their constituents. Inadvertently those wishing to stop them from speaking and end their careers, single handedly catapulted the two young men onto the national political stage and boosted them to rock star status. An unintended consequence of their expulsion and a boost the civil rights and free speech.

The news from Tennessee is difficult to hear. The silver lining is that a light has been shined on the level of corruption and lack of integrity. There is a lot to learn from the recent events in Tennessee. Some lessons are difficult. The rewards we gain from these lessons give us, are insights into how to change the future. Thanks to the Tennessee Legislature for doing such a good job of highlighting the talents and futures of these two young, up and coming representatives.

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