Hamilton County Black Caucus campaigned for change, but supported no Chattanooga City Council candidates

Richard Bennett, left, talks with Kevin Muhammad Monday, April 17, 2017 before the inauguration ceremony for the mayor and city council at the Tivoli.
Richard Bennett, left, talks with Kevin Muhammad Monday, April 17, 2017 before the inauguration ceremony for the mayor and city council at the Tivoli.

It started in 2016 when Westside Baptist Church pastor Timothy Careathers sat in the audience at a Chattanooga City Council meeting. Local Nation of Islam leader Kevin Muhammad was unleashing an electrifying "state of the people" address, arguing for job training and youth development in crime- stricken inner-city neighborhoods.

Audience members rose to their feet in applause when Muhammad finished. Careathers also was moved, and he began to organize.

He wanted the address to be more than a glorified moment. He wanted a movement resulting in marginalized communities moving toward economic equality and getting the same attention as the downtown tourist areas.

Muhammad and Careathers, a Muslim and a Baptist minister, respectively, set aside religious differences and joined forces to form the Hamilton County Black Caucus. More than 40 other black pastors, businessmen and doctors stood among their supporters at the group's September 2016 launch.

Muhammad said the caucus was formed to advocate for people who had not been represented by previous politics.

"Both parties have failed us," Muhammad said. "The Republican Party doesn't need us. The Democratic Party takes our vote for granted. This is a way of getting our agenda to the people. We're talking about empowering the black community as a whole and being inclusive of every member regardless of economic background or education."

In his speech to the council in 2016, Muhammad said that if elected officials did not respond to the people in their districts, they would vote them out of office. The caucus vowed to hold elected officials more accountable to poor and disenfranchised people and communities they represented. The caucus also said it was training a new generation of elected officials.

Nearly a year after the speech, three first-time elected officials replaced city council incumbents.

But some city officials and community members question the organization's impact.

"The Hamilton County Black Caucus didn't play a role in trying to help us at all," said newly elected District 9 Councilwoman Demetrus Coonrod. "We went to their interview process where they interviewed all of the candidates, but they never got behind anybody to say, 'We endorse you. We're going to give you money. We're going to help you campaign.' None of that."

And Dennis Clark, who sought a seat in the state House, is so dissatisfied he's calling together a different organization, the Chattanooga Black Leadership Council, a group that will advocate for public policy and be an advisory council to other governing bodies, such as the mayor's office, on issues such as housing and education.

He plans to start with a core group of 25 people this summer.

"What you have to do is define support," Clark said. "There were certain members of the caucus who were verbal in their support, but then there were certain members of the community who were active in their support; active meaning knocking on doors, making phone calls and getting people out to vote."

The black caucus didn't do that, Clark said.

Clark also notes the lack of black elected officials who attend Hamilton County Black Caucus meetings.

"How can you be effective if you're not working with the people we have already placed in office to represent us?" he asked.

He said the caucus has one vocal member - Muhammad - but he does not speak for the majority of blacks in the community, many of whom are evangelical Christians.

Muhammad said he never aimed to be a leader of black people, but to speak for poor, downtrodden people who don't have a voice.

Hamilton County Commissioner Warren Mackey said he's never been invited to a caucus meeting, but he would attend if he was.

"I like the idea of people working together. When people have common concerns and they can have dialogue, you have a better chance of achieving goals," Mackey said.

Muhammad supported three city council candidates in the recent election, and all of them won their races.

None of the new council members previously held elected office, yet two candidates, Coonrod and Anthony Byrd, defeated District 9 City Councilman Yusuf Hakeem and District 8 Councilman Moses Freeman, respectively. Both incumbents had been civic leaders for decades. Freeman was elected to the council in 2013, but has also been a city administrator and developer. District 9 residents elected Hakeem to five four-year terms on the council. He resigned from the post in 2006 after being appointed by Gov. Phil Bredesen to the Tennessee Board of Probation and Parole. He was re-elected to the council again in 2013.

And Erskine Oglesby, also backed by Muhammad, took the District 7 seat from incumbent Chris Anderson. It's a seat the late NAACP Vice President Joe Rowe had predicted was in danger of no longer being occupied by a black representative, because of the changing district population after the demolition of Spencer J. McCallie Homes and the changing population along Main Street and the Southside.

Oglesby won despite the changing demographics.

The Hamilton County Black Caucus contributed to the change in the council by making people more aware of policies and the records of elected officials who were in office and the work of candidates in the community, said Careathers, who pastors in District 7. He said the information motivated residents to do their own thinking and vote.

"Now that the people have made up their mind," Careathers said, "it's our job to make sure that the people remain their [elected officials'] agenda," he said. "It wasn't our goal just to get people in there, but to get people in there who are really going to side with the best interest of the people, mainly the poor and the disenfranchised and the marginalized."

The caucus expects to set dates for upcoming meetings within the next month, he said.

Contact staff writer Yolanda Putman at yputman@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6431.