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An attendee of the We All Belong vigil shields a candle from the breeze Wednesday, Oct. 18, 2017, at Coolidge Park in Chattanooga, Tenn. The event was part of a national day of action to put out the message that no Muslim ban is wanted and to welcome refugees.

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Refugees

Who are we?

Who are we not?

For weeks, Hamilton County Mayor Jim Coppinger has been one signature away from life-saving mercy and grace for hundreds of refugees around the world.

One signature.

According to The Geneva Convention, a refugee is someone fleeing his or her country because of persecution: their race, religion or political beliefs. Refugees are running for their lives.

Some make it to refugee camps. Yet the odds of making it out?

"Like winning the lottery," one friend said. "Except this isn't money. This is your life."

In years past, refugees have found humanitarian freedom and safety here, in Hamilton County.

Yet recent policy changes in Washington demanded Coppinger sign documents to allow that to continue.

When given the chance, he didn't sign.

He still hasn't.

Why not?

Who are we here in Hamilton County?

Who are we not?

Since 1978, our state capitol has displayed a bust of Nathan Bedford Forrest, the 19th century Confederate Tennessean.

Some call him a general; that's technically true.

Forrest was also a Southern terrorist.

The slave-trading leader in charge of the Fort Pillow massacre, he also helped form the Ku Klux Klan, which means the state displays the bust of a man guilty of war crimes and domestic terrorism.

Years ago, politicians even declared a statewide day of observance.

Most people wouldn't do that today; there's been talk of removing his bust.

But the talk doesn't feel urgent. Not many white politicians seem called to speak out.

Why not?

Who are we?

Who are we not?

In September 2019, President Donald Trump signed an executive order creating a new opt-in policy on refugee resettlement.

States and county leaders must sign letters to allow Washington to fund local resettlement agencies.

No letter?

No refugees.

A week before Christmas, Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee signed an opt-in letter to the U.S. Department of State. Weeks earlier, city Mayor Andy Berke signed his letter.

Knoxville, Memphis, Nashville did, too.

But not Coppinger.

Not Hamilton County.

At a recent meeting, some commissioners tried to pass a resolution encouraging the mayor to sign. It failed by one vote. Other commissioners wanted first to hear from constituents. Two commissioners left the meeting early.

(Ironically, some of the same commissioners who wanted to hear from voters also voted this fall against a referendum — one of the most accurate ways of hearing from voters.)

Why not sign immediately? Proudly? Compassionately?

Who are we?

Who are we not?

In Nashville, one state representative — an African-American Democrat from Knoxville — introduced House Bill HJR0686 to take down Forrest's bust. (It goes to committee hearings Tuesday.)

A white Republican colleague — the caucus chairman — has also proposed swapping the bust for one of a more deserving Tennessean.

Some suggested Dolly Parton.

Yes, she's remarkable.

But she's not the opposite of Nathan Bedford Forrest.

He was a terrorist.

She's a country star who doesn't talk about race.

It's too easy. Too safe.

We need a Tennessean whose call for justice morally balances out the violent racism of Forrest.

Ida B. Wells.

Alex Haley.

Or James Lawson.

Not long ago, Nashville metro government passed a resolution encouraging Lee to take down the bust.

Would our county commission do the same?

Would our state representatives vocally join the fight to remove Forrest?

Who are we?

Here's my answer.

Many days, we are a county of good Samaritans and big-hearted patriots who welcome, love and embrace neighbors and strangers.

We are a county that speaks some 75 different languages. More than 12,000 foreign-born residents moved here in 2017.

We are a county of people from all over the world. Some 350 refugees have been resettled here in the last five years, according to Bridge Refugee Services. They're vetted extensively, provided services — coming from federal money and donations — from the first hour of their arrival.

We are a county that doesn't want to live in fear.

Or let others live in fear.

We are a county with a mayor — Coppinger — who is a good man trying to do right.

We are a county tired of racism and its legacies.

Sure, not all of us.

But many of us.

We are a county who would loudly support Coppinger and state representatives in their efforts to make our land more welcoming and just.

Call them yourself. Coppinger's office is at 423-209-6100. (There's still time, thanks to an injunction, for him to sign the letter.) Contact your state representative at www.capitol.tn.gov/legislators.

And tell them who you are.

And who you want us to be.

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David Cook

David Cook writes a Sunday column and can be reached at dcook@timesfreepress.com.

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