Senior Staff Writer
Speaking in Lewisburg during the NAACP's Marshall County Freedom Fund Banquet on Saturday, the executive director of the Tennessee Human Rights Commission asked about an often-heard phrase she says is an indication of intolerance.
"We've got to take our country back" is the statement mentioned by Executive Director Beverly L. Watts who asked Saturday night, "Who took it?" Later, in a telephone interview so she could elaborate on the reference, she also asked, "Where is it?"
The Tennessee Human Rights Commission is very much like the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. When it comes to discrimination at the work place, they cooperate.
"People talk to me about it [the statement "We've got to take our country back"] raising concerns and it's really about intolerance in the context of a speech of who's stealing the country," said Watts who has her own concerns about the statement heard at political rallies, candidate forums and elsewhere.
Her first example of the statement's target, or implied meaning in a political context, is the general subject of immigration. Sometimes it's used in speeches, she said. Sometimes it's used in casual conversation at the workplace.
Watts' dinner speech could be delivered in any county, so it's not aimed directly at Marshall County, she said.
The Tennessee Human Rights Commission gets about 13,000 complaints annually and concerns about the statement "is raised" when commission investigators pursue complaints, she said. Watts did not state how frequently it's mentioned. The follow up interview was during a mobile phone call that didn't have the best connection.
Hate crimes have increased about 51 percent in Tennessee and of those crimes about a third are based on race, Watts said.
"We're hearing language that is not as hateful" as it was in the past, but it's re-phrased, she said.
Asked about reverse discrimination cases, Watts replied, "Anyone can file a complaint. It's called a discrimination complaint."
Gary Davis, president of the Marshall County Branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, has explained that Freedom Fund Banquets were started to raise money for bond and legal defenses. More recently, that purpose has been surpassed by a scholarship fund and Watts noted the students present, seeing in them the promise for a brighter future.
She did, however, notice that the students' many activities imply there's a problem.
"They've got a drug problem," she said in jest. "They've been drug to this meeting and that meeting."
And while she advocates extracurricular activities, a good basic education is the foundation for an individual's success, Watts said; "It is education that saved black men in the past... and it will open doors in the future...
"We must teach our children to read and get them off this," she said, holding a cell phone up to the audience in the meeting hall at the headquarters of the Tennessee Walking Horse Breeders' and Exhibitors' Association on North Ellington Parkway.
"I'd love to say there is no racism, but there is," Watts said Saturday night. "When black boys are thought to be criminals when they walk down the street simply because they wear hoodies, we have a problem...
"I'd love to say we've come a long way... We aren't where we were, but we aren't where we ought to be."