A top leader in the Tennessee NAACP believes the recent controversy over Rep. Sheila Butt’s “NAAWP” comment reflects poorly on the whole state — and that’s a shame because much progress has been made over time to rehabilitate the Volunteer State’s hillbilly image.
During the NAACP’s 14th Annual Legislative “Day on the Hill” this week, state conference president Gloria J. Sweet-Love told TNReport that encouraging strides have been made to overcome national perceptions of Tennessee as a “backwards state” liberally populated by “hick folks that run moonshine.”
Tennessee has also progressed toward better understanding between white and black communities to the point that the state currently enjoys “very good race relations,” she said.
And that’s one of the reasons Sweet-Love said she was “discouraged” that a prominent political leader like Butt would be appear oblivious to how her comments on Facebook, and explanations for her behavior afterward, might be perceived by a wider audience.
“In 2015, it really bothers me that we have a Tennessee elected person that would make that comment,” Sweet-Love said of Butt’s posting back in January of a comment to a Facebook thread suggesting a need for a “Council on Christian Relations” and a “NAAWP.”
Butt, a Republican from Columbia and the House majority party’s floor leader, made her remarks as an apparent expression of solidarity with criticism of a national Islamic group’s call for Republican presidential contenders to “Engage Muslim Voters.”
Butt said later that she was unaware the NAAWP was once a white supremacist group. She said she instead meant for the “WP” in the acronym she “made up” to denote “Western Principles” or “Western Peoples,” but not “White People.”
Butt told members of the General Assembly on Feb. 26 that her Facebook comment was “meant to be inclusive of every gender, culture and religion.”
Sweet-Love said she’s hopeful Butt will ultimately sit down with some of the people who took offense to what she said and “have some conversations” about “what is appropriate.”
Sweet-Love explained that the “colored people” in National Association for the Advancement of Colored People is in fact meant to include people of all colors — including white. The NAACP, founded in 1909, included “more white folks than black folks,” and the organization’s governing boards at the local, state and national levels have “a diverse number of people.”
“I don’t think she knows that in our organization, colored people come in all colors — from the beginning, and now,” Sweet-Love said.
She said her organization had received many requests for comment, but has declined to make an official statement because they feel like “those kinds of things don’t really rise to the occasion where we need to spend our time.”
However, the whole episode has been evidence of the communication problem in the information age, Sweet-Love said. “The internet has allowed us to say a lot of things that we wouldn’t normally say to people face-to-face.”
Sweet-Love pointed to comments like Butt’s — “from people in leadership” — as one reason for why they still see comments such as those made in a recently surfaced video of a University of Oklahoma fraternity singing a racist song.
“We’re about racial reconciliation, we’ve always been that way,” Sweet-Love said, adding the NAACP “will continue to keep the high road.”