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Memphis' Black churches are needed to resist GOP laws that can kill Black children | Weathersbee

Updated: Mar 25, 2023

It’s not surprising that Rep. G.A. Hardaway, D-Memphis, turned to a group of Memphis’ Black ministers to help Black people survive laws that could get them killed.

Since slavery and Jim Crow, they've been a source of hope and resistance for Black people.

Such hope and resistance are desperately needed in Shelby County now - so that Black schoolchildren who make up 76 percent of the district's school students don’t die because Gov. Bill Lee and Republican lawmakers care more about pandering to a racist base than protecting them from a deadly pathogen.

“It’s really aggravating,” Hardaway said. “But, at this time and in this moment, we have the lives of our children and our community in our hands, the very lives of our children and our community in our hands.

“This time, a few months later, we might be saying that the blood of our children is on our hands. And that’s just not something I’m willing to tolerate.”

To stave off that horror, at a recent meeting of the Baptist Ministerial Association, Hardaway urged the ministers to persuade their congregants and others to get vaccinated and to mask up.

He did that after Lee, abetted by local accomplices Sen. Brian Kelsey, R-Germantown, and Rep. Mark White, R-Memphis, and influenced by lunatics who’d rather see their children wear a morgue sheet than a mask, issued an executive order allowing Tennessee parents to opt their children out from mask mandates.

To be sure, that executive order can sicken and kill all children.

So far, school officials in Shelby County and Davidson County, which includes Nashville, are still requiring students to wear masks. But Lt. Gov. Randy McNally has threatened to hold a special session to devise ways to penalize them if they don't hurry and comply with Lee’s executive order.

No matter that, even with a school mask mandate Shelby County - the state's largest school system - still has the highest number of COVID-19 cases among school age children in the state.

No matter that, if more children are unmasked, that situation will worsen.

To be sure, white children - who make up 7 percent of the students in the Shelby County district schools and anywhere from 60 to 80 percent of the students in the six municipal school districts - are also at risk for being sickened by COVID-19 without mask mandates in place.

But because Black school children disproportionately struggle with conditions like asthma, diabetes and other maladies spawned by poor diets and poor environment, they are far more vulnerable to contracting COVID-19 and the deadlier delta variant.

That variant is now sickening so many people that all the intensive care units in most of the hospitals in the state's major metro areas are full.

Meaning that many patients may wind up lying on gurneys in hospital hallways longer than in an actual room.

Children who don’t wear masks can spread COVID-19 to the people who live in their household, and children younger than 12, who are too young to be vaccinated, can also contract the virus and die from it.

But that grim scenario for Black children is why Hardaway was driven to urge the association’s ministers to push to get their congregants vaccinated and to wear masks.

That’s one defense to lessen the spread of COVID-19 among Black people and children – even as Lee and other GOP lawmakers make threats to force them to comply with laws that devalue their lives.

Just like racists did in the Jim Crow days.

“I just don’t get it, the way that they would neglect and cause our children and our community to suffer and die,” Hardaway said.

“When you look at it, we’re already sick. We have all the health disparities. Whatever is going on with the virus we’re going to suffer because of the negative position we’re starting in…”

State Rep. Antonio Parkinson, D-Memphis, who recently was vaccinated after being initially skeptical of getting the shots, is also urging skeptics to take it because enough time has passed to show that it is safe.

Yet while Parkinson was unvaccinated, he wore a mask and was frequently tested for COVID-19.

Which is why Lee’s executive order allowing students to opt out of wearing masks incenses him.

“So, you’re putting kids in a super-spreader event daily, and you want to strip the only thing protecting them, the masks, from them?” Parkinson said.

Leaders of Black Greek organizations also recently gathered to support Shelby County Schools mask mandate. The Shelby County Commission Black Caucus also opposed Lee's order, and the Southern Christian Coalition has called on the state’s school districts to defy it.

And it’s good that Black lawmakers like Hardaway and Parkinson are consumed with protecting their constituents from a pandemic that is more likely to sicken and kill them than their white counterparts.

Yet while Black churches are uniquely positioned to battle the legislative insensitivity and the Black vaccine mistrust spawned by a history of racism, it’s still disturbing that in 2021, they are being conscripted to help their congregants survive a pandemic whose spread is being abetted by racial indifference.

It’s disturbing that GOP lawmakers would sacrifice Black children and their families to a deadly pathogen to placate people who believe their right to spread it is somewhere in the Constitution.

“It has become sport up there, among these Republicans, to see who can do the most damage to communities of color, or to Democratic areas, in order to court the Trump patriots,” Parkinson said.

“It has become sport to put the lives of people at risk in order to win over the Trump patriots.

“To win over these people, they feel they have to be mean-spirited, or evil toward people of color, or Shelby County, or Democrats…and people are dying, our teachers are dying and our health care workers are dying, because of it.”

Said Hardaway: “That’s why we have to look within, to go back to the church, and to our roots when we were fighting for freedom…the ministers can influence hundreds, who can influence thousands…that’s how we’re going to save ourselves…

“It’s like we’re reliving history.”

Tonyaa Weathersbee can be reached at and you can follow her on Twitter: @tonyaajw

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