Why, asked a reporter at a Friday press conference, did none of the African-American "leaders" recently interviewed by her news outlet not come down on Commissioner Henri Brooks for remarks made while challenging the award of a county roofing contract to a firm with no African-American roofers?
"We identify with what she is talking about," said the Rev. Dr. L. LaSimba Gray, the Memphis head of Rainbow PUSH, one of three groups and several ministers who called the conference at Cane Creek Baptist Church.
"During the civil rights movement we didn't all agree with Malcolm X, but we didn't challenge Malcolm X because Malcolm X spoke truth to what we were living with every day. And what Henri Brooks was speaking to is what we live with every day," said Gray.
The press conference featured representatives of Rainbow PUSH, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, the National Action Network and "concerned ministers." It was a forum to issue a twin call for balance and fairness. One target was the awarding of contracts in Shelby County.
The other target was the media, particularly the handling of the story involving Brooks, who some want to resign in the wake of remarks she made at the Shelby County Election Commission on Monday. Brooks challenged the award of a roofing contract to a firm that employs 25 roofers who are Hispanic and no African Americans. Her manner of doing so is now a matter of ongoing controversy.
"Presently, individuals and groups are calling for Commissioner Brooks to resign, apologize or cease in her 'racial remarks.' What we don't hear is a call for balance and fairness in the awarding of contracts in Shelby County," said Gray, reading from the prepared remarks that kicked off the conference. The remarks were titled, "A Call for Balance/Fairness."
During the commission meeting, Brooks expressed her frustration, which she said surfaces "when we always leave out black folks. You can't leave black folks out and say you are complying with Title VI (of the Civil Rights Act.)"
Saying she had no agenda and that it was "about being fair," Brooks determinedly challenged the awarding of a $1.7 million contract to B Four Plied Inc. to put a new roof on the Peggy Edmiston Administration Building on Mullins Station Road. When a Memphis-area resident took the floor and drew upon his Hispanic background to make the case that Hispanics are the "minority of minorities" in Memphis, Brooks gave him, the commission and everyone present a sternly-worded shot of her view of relevant history.
"You asked to come here. We did not, and when we got here, our condition was so egregious, so barbaric," said Brooks. "Don't ever let that (the minority of minorities reference) come out of your mouth again because, you know what, that hurts your case. Don't compare the two, they're not comparable."
At another point, Brooks zeroed in on Commissioner Chris Thomas, saying, "Excuse me, you over there mouthing something. You with the sheet on," an obvious referee to the KKK.
During Friday's press conference, Gray said, "We are not here to give her (Brooks) a pass. We are simply saying that we can't lose the issue that she has raised because of the style that she uses. The facts remain the same."
That point was amplified in the prepared statement he read. "When you peel the onion of 'offensive' remarks, you will discover the truth that African Americans are still discriminated against and denied access to capital, jobs and contracts in Shelby County. While Commissioner Brooks' approach may be questioned, her concern over the County's roofing contract is justified."
During a question-and-answer session, Gray said he has Hispanics in his church. "The point of it is that we are not fighting other minorities. We are fighting for fairness for ourselves. And one major difference that Henri Brooks pointed out is very clear, we didn't come here as tourists."
Title VII of the Civil Rights Act prohibits discrimination, said Gray, noting that the statistics involved in the roofing contract award "make out a strong case for concern."
The Rev. Dwight Montgomery, president of SCLC Memphis, observed that his church recently accepted a construction project bid from a company that employs all Latinos.
"As pastor, I could have said no," said Gray, emphasizing the church he pastors, Annesdale-Cherokee Baptist Church, is the local headquarters of SCLC. "It's not like we are saying Latinos should not get contracts. The fact is they had the best bid at that time and they did the roofing (on his church). So I know I cannot be considered a racist or a person who is against Latinos."
Getting back more directly to the emphasis of the conference, Montgomery said, "There are those who want to beat up on Commissioner Brooks and we are here to support her for her commitment to seeing that there is equity in relationship to the awarding of contracts. And, to get the leadership of this community to understand that something needs to be done so that we won't have to have a statement made by Henri Brooks."
What really is needed, he said, "is the civil rights organizations to come together and call for an economic summit because not only do we have issues related to that, all of these issues that particularly impact African Americans and Latinos because of the fact that there are inequities in this community."
Still, the questions persisted. "Yes, or no, do you agree with the way she (Brooks) got the message out?" one reporter asked.
"I have said that I would not have done it that way, but I am not going to tell her how to fight (in her arena)," said Gray. "The point is ... I want to major on the principle rather than the personality," he said, adding that the media primarily has focused on personality.
"No one has said anything about the disparities."
Montgomery said there is a long history of African-American contractors pushing to be heard about the obstacles involved with landing public contracts.
State Rep. Barbara Cooper, who stood with the affiliates that called the press conference, said experience makes one sensitive to inequity and that Brooks has those kind of experiences, as does she and others who have been raising questions about contract inequities locally and on the state level.
During her challenge of the contract award, Brooks said, "This speaks volumes about our disrespect, insensitivity to the black community. I am just saying to you that this is horrible."