State Rep. John Ragan, R-Oak Ridge, presents a bill to...

State Rep. John Ragan, R-Oak Ridge, presents a bill to vacate the entire Tennessee State University board of trustees during a House session Thursday, March 28, 2024, in Nashville, Tenn. Credit: AP/George Walker IV

NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Tennessee’s Republican-dominant House on Wednesday spiked legislation that would have banned local governments from paying to either study or dispense money for reparations for slavery.

The move marked a rare defeat on a GOP-backed proposal initially introduced nearly one year ago. It easily cleared the Republican-controlled Senate last April, but lawmakers eventually hit pause as the House became consumed with controversy over expelling two Black Democratic lawmakers for their participating in a pro-gun control protest from the House floor. That protest followed a deadly elementary school shooting in Nashville.

Interest in the reparations bill emerged again this year, just as lawmakers and GOP Gov. Bill Lee were in the process of finalizing the removal and replacement of every board member of the state's only publicly-funded historically Black public university, Tennessee State University. That sparked more outrage among critics who contend that Tennessee’s white GOP state leaders have long refused to trust Black local leaders.

As the TSU fallout increased, House members appeared hesitant to hold a potentially explosive debate over reparations. The bill was briefly debated on the House floor last week but support remained unclear.

“The idea of studying reparations doesn’t take anything from you,” Democratic Rep. Larry Miller, who is Black and from Memphis, said during the short House debate. “What’s inside of you to say, ‘Look, we can’t study our history. We can’t even talk about our history, you can’t even use your local tax dollars to study it.’ That is so antiquated.”

Ultimately, House leaders waited until the final week of session to return to the measure. But as Republican Rep. John Ragan, the bill's sponsor, approached the front of the House to begin his opening remarks, another Republican requested that the body “table” his proposal — a move that would effectively kill it for the year.

Nearly 30 Republicans joined House Democrats in tabling the bill, including Republican House Speaker Cameron Sexton.

Ahead of the vote, Ragan maintained his bill was needed, arguing that reparations advocates want to “take money from our grandchildren's pockets as a judgement for someone else's great-great-grandfather's actions."

“Is it right to say that the faults of a small percentage of long-past generations must be borne by all of today’s Americans? No. It’s never right to punish an innocent person for an act committed by another,” Ragan said Wednesday.

Under House rules, no other lawmakers were allowed to speak during the vote.

“We decided move on, go accomplish some other stuff,” Sexton later told reporters. “You can always come back.”

Tennessee lawmakers began seriously considering banning the consideration of reparations only after the state’s most populated county, which encompasses Memphis, announced it would spend $5 million to study the feasibility of reparations for the descendants of slaves and find “actionable items.”

The decision by Shelby County leaders was prompted by the fatal beating of Tyre Nichols by officers in January 2023.

Yet the idea to ban reparations has been floated in other states.

A Florida Republican lawmaker proposed a constitutional amendment this year that would have banned state or local governments from paying reparations, but the measure didn't pass. A Missouri Republican introduced a bill that would ban any state or local government entity from spending on reparations based on race, religion, gender identity, sexual orientation or economic class. It hasn't advanced to date.

Meanwhile, other states have willingly moved to study reparations, including California, New Jersey and Vermont.

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