In Memphis, Debate over a White Representative White congressman Steve Cohen represents Tennesse's 9th District. Recently, some African-American ministers have taken aim at Cohen for his support of hate-crimes legislation — implying that a white congressman should not be representing the district.
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In Memphis, Debate over a White Representative

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In Memphis, Debate over a White Representative

In Memphis, Debate over a White Representative

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Now, to Tennessee. The fact that Steve Cohen represents the majority black 9th Congressional District there has stirred some debate. Cohen is white and some ministers in Memphis are unhappy with his performance.

As NPR's Audie Cornish reports, the ministers say it's as much about ideology as it is about race.

AUDIE CORNISH: Steve Cohen is more than comfortable slapping hands and trading jokes with the servers and managers at the popular ribs joint, Rendezvous, around the corner from his Memphis office.

Unidentified Man: Well, you've been here a long time

Representative STEVE COHEN (Democrat, Tennessee): Right. And what's the best slogan?

Unidentified Man: Keep them ribs coming.

Rep. COHEN: Keep them ribs- and get going with Cohen.

Unidentified Man: That's right. Keep going with Cohen.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CORNISH: A state senator before coming to Congress, Democrat Steve Cohen has held city and countywide positions around Memphis for years. And while he's getting thumbs up from this downtown crowd, he is also facing criticism from some of the city's black ministers who say the congressional seat should be held by an African-American. Cohen says the issue arose when he visited the Memphis Baptist Ministerial Association to discuss his support for federal hate-crimes legislation. There, to his surprise, he faced major opposition to the bill.

Rep. COHEN: I mean, just the idea of an African-American crowd being against the hate-crimes bill, it's just - was just unbelievable.

CORNISH: The ministers raised concerns that the bill - which lists sexual orientation among criteria in classifying hate-crimes - would curb their free speech rights to preach against homosexuality. Some also disliked Cohen's arguments equating the civil rights movement with the gay rights movement. Somewhere along the night, the meeting disintegrated into raised voices and clashing opinions.

Rep. COHEN: Every member of the Congressional Black Caucus voted for that bill. The Urban League supported it. The NAACP supported it strongly. Congressman Ford, my predecessor, was for it. It only became an issue when I voted for it.

CORNISH: Cohen says he sensed another issue at hand. And he was right.

Reverend LaSIMBA GRAY (Pastor, New Sardis Baptist Church): I think what it triggered is the 12-month-old wound that came from our losing that congressional seat.

CORNISH: Reverend LaSimba Gray is pastor of the New Sardis Baptist Church. The wound he refers to is that after three decades of African-American hold on the 9th Congressional District by Harold Ford Sr. and Jr., the seat is now held by a white. But it's not only about the color of his skin, Gray insists.

Rev. GRAY: See, Steve Cohen is for gambling. He's for same-sex marriages. He is for legalizing marijuana. We're not for those. So we don't have to ever get around to his race.

CORNISH: Last year, when Harold Ford Jr. gave up the seat to run for the Senate, nearly a dozen black candidates got in the race to succeed him and ended up splitting the black vote, allowing Steven Cohen to win. It was perceived by some as just the latest in a series of indignations for the black community.

Professor MARCUS POHLMANN (Professor of Political Science, Rhodes College): The thing you have to remember about Memphis politics is that African-Americans were excluded in some subtle and some not so subtle legal ways that made it extremely hard for an African-American to win a citywide election.

CORNISH: That's Professor Marcus Pohlmann of Rhodes College in Memphis. He says that for most of the century, Memphis' white establishment maintained power by annexing nearby areas where whites relocated to keep a white majority. They instituted runoff elections that called for the winner to have a majority of the vote, effectively shutting down most African-American candidates.

Prof. POHLMANN: And so given that there is a, you know, a deep-seeded suspicion and some deep-seeded anger for those many years of exclusion.

CORNISH: And Pohlmann says the opinions of ministers like Gray very much matter in Memphis, where huge numbers of voters are black churchgoers. Reverend Gray is not shy about where he is coming from.

Rev. GRAY: I want representation in Congress. And I don't need some paternalistic individual who pretends or portrays himself as the great godfather who can represent me. I can represent myself, or someone who looks like me. I don't make an apology for that.

CORNISH: To be sure, Gray's views are not shared by every black minister here. Reverend O.C. Collins is with the Bethlehem Baptist Church.

Reverend O.C. COLLINS (Bethlehem Baptist Church): I think the overriding thought with most of the people in Memphis is, yes, we want black representation, but we don't want black representation at the cost of getting rid of good representation. And I really believe that that's what most of the citizens in Memphis think.

CORNISH: Congressman Steve Cohen says he'll test his political medal next year, when his opponents are hoping to rally around a consensus black candidate.

Rep. COHEN: I think, you know, what I'm having to fight is - to some extent - is the sins of others. And they're not my sins, but the sins of others who have caused certain attitudes to percolate and exist. And I think about it every day.

CORNISH: But Cohen knows he will have a fight on his hands. And he also knows that 2008 is more than just another election year. It's the 40th anniversary of the assassination in Memphis of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

Audie Cornish, NPR News.

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