In stark contrast to his reception at an angry ministerial meeting hosted by Rev. LaSimba Gray in August, 9th District congressman Steve Cohen heard himself lauded and endorsed Sunday by members and leaders of the local NAACP for his support of federal Hate Crimes legislation.
Gray, who had opposed Cohen's election in 2006 and had tried unsuccessfully to organize support for a consensus black candidate in last year's large congressional field, has insisted that the bill inhibits black preachers from inveighing against homosexuality and has spurred opposition to it among black clerics. Denying the allegations, Cohen has responded by calling Gray's use of the Hate Crimes issues merely a device to support Nikki Tinker, a declared opponent of Cohen's reelection in 2008.
Sunday's meeting was as supportive for the congressman as Gray's ambush meeting in August had been negative. Cohen and the NAACP members enjoyed something of a love-fest, in fact, with longtime NAACP eminence Maxine Smith, who directed the local organization for years, making a point of praising "my congressman" and current NAACP executive director Johnnie Turner and chapter president Dr. Warner Dickerson adding their kudos.
Of the Hate Cries bill and Cohen's sponsorship, Dickerson offered this: "I want to say up front that the national NAACP not only endorses this bill but supports it as a source of strength."
Noting that the bill was also supported by such organizations as the ACLU, NEA, Congressional Black Caucus, and the PUSH/Rainbow Coalition, Dickerson said of Cohen, "We thank him for his support of the bill and all that he has supported there and prior to going there, when he was in the state legislature and also locally. He supports the issues and the things we believe in as the NAACP. "
In her introduction, Johnnie Turner said rhetorically, "Is there anybody here that doesn't know Steve Cohen?"
Gray '...hurt Memphis and hurt race relations.'
In his own remarks, Cohen followed up on that theme, telling the group, "When I was on the county commission I had a lot more in common with Vasco Smith and Jesse Turner and Minerva Johnican and Walter Bailey and worked with them and voted with them....Those were the people I worked with. They were my allies and my friends" He added similar remarks about current state Representative Larry Turner and state representative and state senator Kathryn Bowers, both of whom were on hand.
"Y'all are the reason I got in trouble, wanting to join that club," he joked, recalling a mini-controversy over his professed desire, after being elected, to join the Congressional Black Caucus. Cohen then noted that he had addressed the Caucus during the previous week on subjects like his apology-for-slavery legislation, which he said now had good prospects for passage.
Cohen noted recent coverage of the local Hate Crimes controversy on National Public Radio and said Gray, who was heard from on the broadcast opposing the bill and expressing reservations about white representation of the 9th District, "sounded pretty bad" and hard "hurt Memphis and hurt race relations."
The congressman said the Hate Crimes bill was "as American as apple pie, motherhood, and the NAACP" and contended that, besides adding protection for gays and people with disabilities to existing legislation, the bill also strengthened federal jurisdiction and funding for crimes against blacks. "Some 54 percent of hate crimes are committed against African Americans, and only 16 percent against gays," he said.
As before when he has discussed the issue, Cohen insisted that conservative clergymen were permitted both by the bill itself and by the First Amendment to say whatever they chose about homosexuality. "No preacher's ever been arrested for preaching anything ever." He said opinions to the contrary were being urged by right-wing clerics who are "trying to get American preachers to leave the Democratic Party on social issues."
He then quipped, "Politics can make strange bedfellow, but you shouldn't wake up and have to go to the Health Department."
At the close of Cohen's remarks, he got more kudos from Jesse Turner Jr., who recalled lobbying the then congressional candidate in early 2006 for some 30 issues favored by the national NAACP. "He was for 28 of them, and by the time we finished talking, he was for 29," said Turner. "I want this audience to know that he was on board even before he got elected."
Last week, Cohen earned a similar fillip from an evaluation from the Congressional Black Caucus Monitor, a national group that gives performance grades to congressional members in predominantly black districts. After giving Cohen's 9th District predecessor, former Rep. Harold Ford Jr., a "dishonorable mention," the Monitor's report said, "it's worth noting that his white successor, Rep. Steve Cohen, represents Ford's former constituents more ethically, ably, and accurately than Ford ever did, and consequently scores higher on the CBC Report Card."