Doing the Right Thing 

When newly elected Shelby County commissioner Henri Brooks said recently that she hoped to be able to recommend to her commission mates a possible successor to her state House of Representatives seat who was as hard-working and dedicated as herself, she was no doubt sincere. And she may indeed know someone worth touting to the commission.

The problem is that, as of a Monday deadline, Brooks had decided to forgo resigning from her legislative position in time for the local Democratic Party to name a nominee in her stead. Her position could theoretically cost the taxpayers of Shelby County somewhere between $100,000 and $200,000 to fund a special election for a long-term successor, since all the commission can do is name an interim replacement. In reality, though, a special election is likely to be required anyhow to accommodate several other actual and probable vacancies -- including one for a successor to state senator Steve Cohen should he win his current congressional race.

And, since many Democrats and other observers were critical of how the local party filled another recent vacancy -- that for a successor to the now resigned state senator Kathryn Bowers -- it is arguable that Brooks did the right thing after all in making sure the voters of her district, not an organized coterie on a committee, get to make the ultimate decision about their next representative.

As it happens, Brooks has become something of an exemplar in another quandary involving right choices: In her first two meetings as a commission member, she has made it clear that she will continue her practice, initiated during sessions of the legislature, of declining to participate, except passively and mutely, in the ritual Pledge of Allegiance which opens commission sessions.

Is she right or wrong? Right, if you agree with her that the flag is too tainted with racism to be so honored. Wrong, if you see it as the banner under which blood was shed to abolish slavery. Right again if you see her stand as an exercise of constitutional prerogative. Wrong again if you see it as flouting the sensibilities of her commission mates and the community. (Her fellow commissioners have so far been conspicuously un-judgmental.)

In short, the issue is not cut and dried. We reflected on all this again this week when our friend Lyda Phillips, the longtime communications director for the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies, came to Memphis to promote her new novel, Mr. Touchdown, which chronicles the long-gone age of legal segregation through which she passed as a Whitehaven High School student in the 1960s.

Phillips' evocative tale of the snubs and ostracisms and barricades and worse which confronted black students during that first wave of integration, and the parallel challenge to white students like herself to respond correctly under the prevailing social circumstances, was a reminder that it wasn't then, isn't now, and never will be easy to do determine just what is the "right thing" to do.

Right or wrong, Brooks has at least thought about such choices. For that she deserves some credit.

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