Protests and prayers
Warren G. Blakney Sr.’s long fight for racial equality stretches…
As a teen, longtime Tennessee state Rep. John DeBerry Jr. integrated an all-White high school and witnessed civil rights icon Martin Luther King Jr.’s final speech before his 1968 assassination.
To supporters, DeBerry — a 69-year-old Black preacher from Memphis — is a man of high integrity and strong moral convictions based on his Christian faith.
But to opponents, including Planned Parenthood, the LGBTQ Victory Fund and the Tennessee Democratic Party’s executive committee, the 13-term incumbent is an out-of-touch relic. In their view, DeBerry’s conservative positions on issues such as abortion, gay rights and school choice make him unfit to remain in office.
“I tell people all the time when they talk to me: It’s not about the elephant. It’s not about the donkey. It’s about the Lamb,” said DeBerry, who has preached nearly every Sunday since 1968 and served as the minister for the Coleman Avenue Church of Christ in Memphis for the last 20 years.
The widowed father and grandfather makes no secret that he believes life begins at conception.
That, he contends, is not a Republican stand.
“It is a biblical stand,” he told The Christian Chronicle in a lengthy, wide-ranging interview. “It is a moral stand. It is an ethical stand.”
After 26 years in the Tennessee General Assembly, DeBerry faces the fight of his political life in the November general election.
That’s because the Democratic executive committee voted 41-18 in April to remove him from the party’s primary ballot. The decision — reaffirmed 40-21 the next week — came after the filing deadline to run as a Republican or independent.
Related: Protests and prayers
Related: Protests and prayers
At first, it seemed as if DeBerry would have no choice but to give up his seat or wage a longshot write-in campaign.
But then his fellow legislators stepped in and amended state election rules, allowing him to file as an independent candidate after the original deadline.
The Volunteer State is a hotbed of a cappella Churches of Christ, with roughly 1,400 congregations and 200,000 men, women and children in the pews.
The Volunteer State is a hotbed of a cappella Churches of Christ, with roughly 1,400 congregations and 200,000 men, women and children in the pews, according to a national directory published by Nashville-based 21st Century Christian.
Until 2006, Democrats controlled a majority of the Tennessee House of Representatives. However, Republicans gained a slight majority (50-49) in 2008 and kept adding to their seats. They now comprise nearly three-quarters of the House (73-27).
“I don’t think it is difficult for a religious person to be a Democrat in Tennessee, but it means different things to be religious and Democratic now,” said Marc Schwerdt, a political scientist at Lipscomb University in Nashville. “If you are religious and Democratic, you have a leftist/progressive lean to both your faith and politics.
“Social justice is extremely important to both the progressive faithful and progressive Democrats, which dominate the party now,” he added. “Just as the Republicans have become more red, the Democrats have become more blue.”
But while the Democratic Party has become more progressive, DeBerry has not.
The executive committee had a responsibility to “confirm the legitimacy of an individual representing themselves to be a Democrat,” said Kendra Lee, a 32-year-old Black Democratic activist and committee member from Memphis.
“There was never a question of morals or character. This is very much straight down the line as to your responsibilities as a Democratic elected official.”
DeBerry failed the test, she said.
“There was never a question of morals or character,” Lee told the Chronicle. “This is very much straight down the line as to your responsibilities as a Democratic elected official.”
According to The Tennessean newspaper, the committee’s concerns included the incumbent accepting contributions from Republican-aligned political action committees, voting for school vouchers and voting for a Republican as House speaker in 2019.
However, some leading Democrats voiced disappointment with the executive committee’s action, including House Minority Leader Karen Camper, a fellow Memphis representative who called DeBerry an “honorable man.”
“Our caucus shares core values on many issues, and one of those core values is that we are the voice of the people we represent,” Camper, the first African American to lead Tennessee’s House Democrats, said in a statement quoted by The Tennessean. “Attempting to nullify the choice of the people of the 90th District is not the way to do it.”
State Rep. Mike Sparks, a White Republican, also supported DeBerry’s right to seek re-election.
“When John speaks, the subject matter has conviction,” Sparks said. “Whatever the issue, whether it’s talking about broken homes, broken lives, those battling addictions or those who are incarcerated, you can tell it’s coming from the heart.”
DeBerry made national news in July as a lead signatory on a letter organized by the anti-abortion group Democrats for Life.
The letter, signed by a coalition of 115 religious leaders, clergy members and theologians, urged the Democratic National Committee to adopt a party platform friendlier to abortion opponents, as noted by The Associated Press.
“The abortion issue has become such a problem for the party when you look at the number of pro-life Democrats who are told not to run, told they can’t be in the party, pressured to change their position,” said Kristen Day, executive director of Democrats for Life.
“So, I’m super proud of Rep. DeBerry just standing firm,” Day added. “We need more people like him willing to stand up for the unborn, not bending to the abortion lobby.”
But last year, DeBerry drew the ire of the political arm of Planned Parenthood in Tennessee for supporting a bill banning abortions after detection of a heartbeat at about six weeks, the Commercial Appeal newspaper in Memphis reported. The group announced an ad campaign targeting DeBerry.
“Rep. DeBerry has shown a pattern of disregard for access to essential health care, and protecting that access is essential to our mission,” Francie Hunt, executive director of Tennessee Advocates for Planned Parenthood, said in a statement emailed to the Chronicle. “If DeBerry actually wanted to reduce abortion in Tennessee, he would work with us to ensure that women have everything they need to have healthy pregnancies when they’re ready.”
With DeBerry off the party ballot, Torrey Harris, 29, won the Democratic primary in House District 90 on Aug. 6. Harris got 57 percent of the vote in a three-candidate race.
Since no Republican filed for the seat, the general election will feature a rematch of Harris vs. DeBerry.
The two previously met in the 2018 Democratic primary in which DeBerry received 60 percent of the vote, while Harris collected 40 percent.
However, Harris — who describes himself as a community leader who believes in human rights and equal opportunity for all — said he has improved his name recognition in the district.
If elected, Harris would be one of the first openly LGBTQ members of the Tennessee General Assembly. The candidate characterizes himself as bisexual.
“Harris is in a safe Democratic district and is likely to beat the incumbent who was removed from the Democratic party earlier this year, in part because of his anti-LGBTQ and anti-choice votes,” the LGBTQ Victory Fund, a gay-rights group, said in a news release touting Harris’ primary victory.
Harris, who is Black and attends Mississippi Boulevard Christian Church, a Disciples of Christ congregation in Memphis, said he was ill with the coronavirus when the executive committee removed DeBerry from the primary ballot. Harris said he did not support DeBerry’s ouster from the primary.
“Harris is in a safe Democratic district and is likely to beat the incumbent who was removed from the Democratic party earlier this year, in part because of his anti-LGBTQ and anti-choice votes.”
“I think he had the best intentions personally,” Harris said of DeBerry’s legislative record. “I do believe he is more than likely a great guy and that maybe he just made some decisions that didn’t necessarily represent his district, and this is because of his own personal beliefs, obviously.”
But DeBerry maintains that his positions reflect those of his constituents.
“If I’m on the ballot, I’m going to win. It’s that simple,” he said, reflecting on past efforts to unseat him. “Because the people they wanted to claim are liberal are not. The average Black person is conservative when it comes to those particular social issues of gay marriage and abortion.”
DeBerry traces many of the values that he holds dear to his late father, John DeBerry Sr., who — like his son — preached the Gospel for more than 50 years.
The younger DeBerry was born in Memphis, but his father later moved the family to the small town of Alamo in Crockett County, Tenn., about 80 miles northeast of Memphis.
There, DeBerry and his siblings enrolled as the first Black students at an all-White school.
As the oldest of a half-dozen siblings, the duty fell to DeBerry to ask his father — who established the NAACP in Crockett County — how to handle the integration experience.
“What do we do, Daddy?” DeBerry remembers asking at the dinner table.
“You go to school. You don’t scratch your head when it ain’t itching. You don’t grin when it ain’t funny. You be a man. You give respect, and you expect respect, and you’ll get respect.”
His father kept chewing his food but finally responded: “You go to school. You don’t scratch your head when it ain’t itching. You don’t grin when it ain’t funny. You be a man. You give respect, and you expect respect, and you’ll get respect.”
And that’s what happened, DeBerry said.
“We’re 100 miles from Memphis, where they’re burning the city down,” he said, “and at a little school in Alamo, where people are supposed to be getting off John Deeres and being prejudiced, we had a wonderful experience.
“And a lot of it had to do with the way children were raised in that area,” he added. “Everybody worked. Everybody sacrificed. Everybody understood nothing was free. I chopped cotton, picked cotton right beside White children, picked strawberries, picked peas, picked corn, picked okra.
“I was a city slicker turned into a country boy. It was the best thing that ever happened to me.”
DeBerry’s father started an African American newspaper in Crockett County and traveled to Memphis to cover King’s “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” speech at the Mason Temple the night of April 3, 1968.
He took his son, then 17, with him to take pictures for The Informer.
The room was packed, so the younger DeBerry stood against the wall.
“Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place,” the 39-year-old King said near the end of the speech. “But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And he’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the promised land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight that we, as a people, will get to that promised land.”
“I just want to do God’s will. And he’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the promised land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight that we, as a people, will get to that promised land.”
To the teen with the camera, the famous Baptist pastor looked troubled that stormy night.
“I think the man was trembling,” DeBerry said. “I don’t think anything could have made him leave that stage, but I think that he knew something was impending. I could hear it in his voice.”
The next evening — April 4, 1968 — King was shot to death on the balcony outside his second-floor motel room in Memphis.
A half-century later, DeBerry believes America needs more men like King and his father.
“Because when the world saw Dr. King, my daddy and others, what they saw was integrity and courage,” DeBerry said. “They saw men and women of character. Men and women who had values.
“So, the world changed because they saw Black men and White men, Black women and White women, standing together and being civil, being peaceful, using their constitutional rights to change.”
The protests that have followed the May 25 police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis are not the same, he said.
“People are pulling down statues and burning buildings, and they want to call that a peaceful protest?” DeBerry said. “How in the world are you having a peaceful protest when you’re putting graffiti on a federal building? Or you’re breaking out windows? Or you’re robbing a business district?”
Decades after King’s death, his political affiliation remains a mystery, but the civil rights leader — as DeBerry sees it — wouldn’t recognize the modern Democratic Party.
“Dr. King didn’t approve of abortion,” DeBerry said. “Dr. King wasn’t marching for gay rights. Dr. King wasn’t marching for a lot of this stuff that we see today.”
After high school, DeBerry majored in Bible at Freed-Hardeman University in Henderson, Tenn. Since the mid-1990s, he has served as a trustee of that Christian university, which is associated with Churches of Christ.
“He is a highly influential board member, a statesman of statesmen, eloquent of speech and a powerful preacher of the Gospel,” Freed-Hardeman President David Shannon said. “You haven’t heard a presentation on citizens’ responsibilities, young or old, until you have been informed and challenged by him.
“The disgraceful tension toward him is an attack on high morals and virtuous living,” Shannon added. “We pray he prospers in this season, not just for his sake but for our state and nation’s sake. To stand with Rep. John DeBerry is to stand with a man of God.”
BOBBY ROSS JR. is Editor-in-Chief of The Christian Chronicle. Reach him at [email protected]
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