Tempers flared and emotions erupted Tuesday at a meeting between U.S. Rep. Steve Cohen and a group of black ministers, stemming from the freshman congressman’s support for a federal hate crimes bill.
More than 100 ministers and guests showed up Tuesday for the weekly meeting of the Memphis Baptist Ministerial Association, where Cohen had been invited to speak. During a volatile question-and-answer forum that followed, many loudly commented that Cohen, who is white, can’t adequately represent the primarily black Ninth District.
“He’s not black and he can’t represent me, that’s just the bottom line,” said Rev. Robert Poindexter of Mt. Moriah Baptist Church. “I don’t care how people try to dress is up, it always comes down to race and he can’t know what it’s like to be black.”
“I was not treated the way a congressman or an elected official or an invited guest should have been treated,” Cohen said afterward. “It was supposed to be my time to come and address this issue. I never expected anything like this.”
“This is obviously politically motivated, since Harold Ford Jr. supported this bill and no one ever had a problem with it then,” Cohen said. . . . “It’s going before the Senate now, so why aren’t they calling Alexander and Corker instead of beating me up?”
Cohen was invited to speak to members after the group publicly criticized him two weeks ago for backing the hate crimes bill. The bill passed the House in May, and a Senate vote could come as early as next month.
Dr. LaSimba Gray, pastor of New Sardis Baptist Church and president the local chapter of the Rainbow PUSH Coalition, told Cohen that the ministers’ group opposed the bill and members were offended by suggestions that the black and gay communities are somehow connected.
“In all my 40 years of civil rights work I’ve never seen a gay water fountain and I’ve never seen a gay entrance to a building,” Gray said. “We have a right to be apprehensive about this bill and say it’s not necessary.”
Cohen said the hate crimes legislation would benefit African-Americans, who are victims of more than half the hate crimes each year.
The bill increases sentencing options for crimes committed because of factors such as race, religion and sexual orientation and broadens the scope of the federal government to prosecute such cases.
And that’s the problem, some said. Many expressed concern that the legislation could prevent them from preaching against homosexuality and expose them to lawsuits.
“If this becomes law, then the gay advocates will start suing preachers for preaching what they (gays) see as hate,” said Apostle Alton R. Williams, pastor of World Overcomers Outreach Ministries Church. “It’s not political. I’m just concerned about what it will possibly do to the Christian church.”