Tuesday, April 25, 2006

A Progressive Movement in Tennessee

Nell Levine, of TAP, shares her thoughts on the project of building a cross class and cross race movement for social change here in Tennessee. I've pasted an excerpt below.

You'll hear lots more about the vast liberal conspiracy in this red state if you show up at Compass III, the state wide gathering of progressives here in Nashville later this week.

If you want to win this cultural war, you can't afford to miss it.

Is Transforming Tennessee a Lost Cause?

It is easy to write off Tennessee as a lost cause if you look at the results of the 2004 election and the statistics. George W. Bush won in our state by a sizeable majority. Tennessee is at or near the bottom nationally in education, environmental protection and the condition of children and women. It has the highest sales tax in the nation and our Governor has instituted the largest healthcare dis-enrollment in the nation’s history.

Despite these statistics (or maybe because of them), Tennessee has played a significant role in the history of social change in this nation. It was the 36th state to ratify the Nineteenth Amendment to the Constitution in 1920 that gave women the right to vote. The sit-ins of the early 1960s in Nashville helped to launch the civil rights movement. Highlander School in east Tennessee has played an historic role by training Martin Luther King, Jr., Rosa Parks and many others in non-violent civil disobedience as well as economic and environmental justice.

Martin Luther King, Jr. was organizing the Poor People’s campaign when he was shot in Memphis in 1968 during the sanitation workers strike. King realized that getting the vote was but the first step in empowering and liberating people. The next step was passing laws that would make it possible for all Americans to earn a decent living.

Although it has been almost 40 years since King was shot, many of the problems that King saw in American society have not yet been eradicated: poverty, lack of affordable housing, lack of health care, inadequate public schools, a toxic environment, wars and violence, a flawed criminal justice system and a growing wealth gap.

In the words of Gene Nichol, dean of the University of North Carolina School of Law “The South has proved to be the native home of American poverty. It continues to sustain the highest poverty rate and the lowest average income of any section of the country. Nearly 14 percent of Southerners are poor and our income levels fall thousands of dollars below national averages ….Yet, ironically, we frequently elect public officials who pander to the wealthy and cripple the social structures available to the poor. Southern leaders often seem to specialize in undermining democracy while giving the back of their hands to meaningful equality. We produce more poverty and more politicians who are untroubled by it than the rest of the nation.” (Where We Stand: Voices of Southern Dissent, p. 62-63).

Approximately one child in five lives in poverty in Tennessee and the numbers are higher in the African American community. Over 40% of TennCare enrollees are African American. Although the black middle class has grown since the days of the civil rights movement, the legacy of racism in Tennessee continues to manifest itself in black poverty, black/white health disparities and the disproportionate number of blacks in the penal system. We cannot build a true movement for social change in our state without dealing with these issues.

The Tennessee legislature continues to be run by a “good old boy” network that is slow to move in a progressive direction. There is no “liberal” caucus in the Tennessee legislature. The closest thing to this is the Black Caucus, but it can be easily dismissed as a “special interest” group. Obviously, if we are going to get progressive legislation passed, we need to elect some progressive legislators.

Read the whole thing . .