One of the state's leading political figures was accused by a witness in federal court Thursday of making racially insensitive remarks during a closed-door meeting in which he was trying to defend Metro Nashville's new student assignment plan.
During the meeting at Legislative Plaza last year, state Rep. Mike Turner, a Democrat from Old Hickory, fondly recalled his boyhood days attending segregated schools in Nashville, according to the witness, prominent black attorney Walter Searcy.
"We were dumbfounded," Searcy said.
Searcy, chair of the NAACP's legal redress committee, testified on the third day of the trial of a lawsuit accusing the school board of discriminating against black children by adopting the student rezoning plan. The plan ended the busing of children from north Nashville to Hillwood this school year.
Searcy said he met with Turner along with some of the city's black leaders and Chamber of Commerce officials to discuss the just-adopted student rezoning plan. Turner, chairman of the state House Democrats' political caucus, was a member of the task force that recommended the plan to the school board.
"What I recall most profoundly was at some point during the meeting he talked about his childhood experience going to school in Metro," Searcy testified. "... He began to compare his experience with today's experience and how he thought his experience was superior. The profound thing about that was he was actually talking about his experience in going to school with children in his neighborhood, and he lived in a segregated community. It was an experience that he offered up as a model for how we should be attending schools today or how our children should be going to school today."
Asked to state Turner's exact words, Searcy testified, "Mr. Turner said, 'I remember when we had good schools. We all went to our schools in our own neighborhood and everybody got along well.' "
Judge John Nixon asked Searcy, "Do you know what time frame he was talking about?"
"Pre-desegregation, judge," Searcy replied.
Turner has denied making racially insensitive remarks during the meeting. At Legislative Plaza on Wednesday, he said he expects to testify in the trial to dispute the plaintiffs' account of his remarks, which became public when their lawsuit was filed in August.
Later Thursday, Metro Council member Jerry Maynard essentially confirmed Searcy's testimony about what Turner said in the meeting. But Maynard, who is black and a vocal critic of the rezoning plan, said he wasn't offended. Maynard added this to the testimony about Turner's comments:
"He was trying to make us feel more comfortable and saying that, growing up, he had black friends and black people came to his house for dinner, and basically he was letting us know he was comfortable with us," Maynard said.
"And did that make you feel comfortable?" civil rights attorney Larry Woods asked Maynard.
"I know Mike," Maynard testified. "I've known Mike for a while. So I gave him a pass. I wasn't offended because I know Mike."
"When you say you know Mike, what do you mean?"
"Mike's a good old boy," Maynard replied.
The NAACP-backed lawsuit seeks to overturn the student assignment plan. To win, the plaintiffs must prove race was a motivating factor for the school board in adopting the plan.
Maynard also testified Chamber of Commerce president Ralph Schulz once told him the rezoning plan was aimed at removing poor children, not black children, from schools in the white suburbs. Schulz repeatedy has claimed the Chamber never has taken a position on the plan, even though the Chamber has opposed school board candidates who were against rezoning and bankrolled the election campaigns of those who favored it.
"He believed it was not so much about race, but it was about socioeconomics," Maynard said of Schulz. "He believed that it wasn't about getting black kids out of Hillwood and Hillsboro, but rather it was about getting out kids who are poor who do not share the same values of parents who live in the area around Hillsboro and Hillwood."
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