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

What is the Hamilton County Black Caucus doing?

It's a logical question one might ask after reading Yolanda Putman's article in last Sunday's paper. The headline is telling: "Hamilton County Black Caucus campaigned for change, but supported no Chattanooga City Council candidates."

Telling, in that it hints at the lack of visible deliverables this much-touted group has provided since its inception.

You remember the story from just over a year ago.

In response to Chattanooga Mayor Andy Berke's annual State of the City address, the area's Nation of Islam leader, Kevin Muhammad, presented his own version to city council, calling his the "State of the People."

At the time I wrote a column saying I thought it wise of the council to let him speak. Shoot, I even wrote a second one after his talk, noting which points he made that I disagreed with and which ones I agreed with. To this day, I believe that — whether you like his message, or not — it was important to hear a version of the city's narrative that isn't overmassaged to accentuate our town's most pleasant attributes.

Muhammad's speech was by most counts captivating. Inspiring even. So much that a group of more than 40 notable members of Chattanooga's African-American community banded together, launching the Hamilton County Black Caucus in September 2016.

Of its stated goals, political engagement stood paramount. From Putman's story: "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."

Which, of course, runs completely counter to the events (or lack thereof) leading to the headline of Putman's article. In the words of newly elected councilwoman Demetrus Coonrod, "The Hamilton County Black Caucus didn't play a role in trying to help us at all."

According to 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."

OK, so they haven't totally disappeared, after all, since the caucus went at length to interview candidates for the city elections. Yet they refrained from backing candidates (upstarts and incumbents) in either word or finance. It's a head-scratcher.

The most publicly noticeable thing any members of the caucus did during the election was when Muhammad asked now-unseated councilman Yusuf Hakeem to apologize to Coonrod for calling her "unhinged" and "crazy."

If that was an attempt at swinging an election, it was some weak tea.

So why didn't the caucus get more involved in the first major round of local elections since the group launched? No one seems to know.

Though caucus member Timothy Careathers, who pastors at Westside Baptist Church, alluded in Putman's article to some behind-the-scenes Black Caucus work, dissatisfaction with the group's approach has spurred the creation of a second (rival?) civic group called the Chattanooga Black Leadership Council.

Perhaps this second group will be more active than the first. In the words of the Black Leadership Council's founder, Dennis Clark, it will be "active meaning knocking on doors, making phone calls and getting people out to vote."

My hunch is that such an approach would be well-received across Chattanooga's African-American population since the very sentiment driving Muhammad's "State of the People" address stirred numerous individuals to action, namely running for office.

And since local election wins often yield the greatest bang for the buck when it comes to policy results, that's where the bulk of attention should be allocated by any organization seeking change.

Otherwise, why bother organizing?

Contact David Allen Martin at and follow him on Twitter @DMart423.