Everybody has a hometown. Mine is Chattanooga, Tennessee. This week, Chattanooga has been in the news for two issues that you wouldn’t normally see the city associated with… and no, I’m not talking about the fact that the Chattanooga Mocs football team is 8-2, Southern Conference Champions for the first time since 1984 and looking at their first playoff trip of my life… but they are! (This has nothing to do with the rest of the article, just had to brag. Go Mocs!)
1) The Chattanooga City Council, on a 5-4 vote, followed in the footsteps of fellow East Tennessee cities Knoxville and Collegedale (which, it should be noted, is home to Southern Adventist University and not exactly a hotbed of liberalism) in allowing the domestic partners of city employees to enjoy similar benefits a spouse would. This applies not just to same-sex couples, who are not allowed the natural right of marriage in Tennessee, but also to opposite sex couples who are not married but still live in a committed relationship, for whatever personal reasons. This has led for the more non-evolved of the population to enter into hysterics that would make Julia Sugarbaker blush, but also attempt to use a portion of the city charter to overturn it… because everybody knows that civil rights should be at the will of the majority, right?
The problem is a clash of societies. You see, the same part of the country that brought you the Scopes monkey trial, is now also known as “Gig-City“, being “the first city in the Western Hemisphere to offer one-gigabit-per-second fiber internet service to all residents and businesses.” Including, apparently, former Obama staffers. You see, there’s a special breed of people in this part of the country. A breed that simply hasn’t evolved, in ages. Growing up and attending school in the Chattanooga area, a Baptist preacher who was eating lunch with students at my middle school cafeteria one day, informed me that I was going to Hell. You may wonder what atrocity I committed to receive such a condemnation while eating my sub-par ham and cheese hoagie… well, when he asked me where I went to church, I informed him I went to an Episcopal Church. Because you see, it’s not just being Christian, it’s being the right type of Christian, with the exact right beliefs that he was after. And this was 1998, well before Gene Robinson was a household name for Episcopalians.
But yet, I’m proud to know that four members of the Chattanooga City Council joined with Councilman Chris Anderson to pass this bill, and I hope that if a referendum happens, my friends and family back home vote for the future, not the past. Because while some people certainly are of that breed that hasn’t evolved, many others of us have… and the fact that a majority of the city council has joined me in evolution makes me proud.
2) After working hard for many years to land a large plant facility at the Enterprise South Industrial Park, land where an ammunition plant once was, Chattanooga and the State of Tennessee managed to outbid several other states to land the Volkswagen Assembly Plant. The issue now is that employees of that plant want to unionize, and to the shock and horror of the conservative Republicans that dolled out millions in taxpayer dollars to land the facility, VW is actually cool with that. Since VW isn’t going to fight the UAW, you can darn sure bet that Republicans will bring in the big guns to make sure this horror doesn’t happen. VW doesn’t make decisions based on politics, they make decisions based on business.
But yet, this is another area where Chattanooga’s past has collided with its future. The people of East Tennessee are mostly decedents of Scots-Irish immigrants, who traveled inland from the east coast and settled in the hills of southern Appalachia, a place which reminded them of their homeland. These people had it rough, many in the Appalachia region still do. They weren’t well educated, didn’t have money, and opportunities were bleak. So those of us who grew up in this culture are taught not to be ungrateful, sometimes to an extreme, where you often are taught to feel ashamed for wanting to do better in life, like make more money or have quality benefits… because you’re constantly reminded of the suffering of those who came before you.
But this is where history is often misrepresented. For you see, when a Republican anti-union consultant called for a the defeat of invading union forces, invoking our Confederate ancestors, he overlooks a major part of history. Tennessee was very divided over “the war” and sent its sons to die on both sides of the battlefield. The vote for secession was at first defeated, and only passed once war was unavoidable, and even then it was defeated in the region of East Tennessee, causing some in that part of the state to attempt to separate from Tennessee just as West Virginia did from Virginia. In the February 1861 vote, 80% of East Tennessee was against secession… and in the June 1861 vote that barely passed, 70% of East Tennessee, remained opposed. While the city of Chattanooga was pro-secession, the larger Hamilton County, remained opposed.
When people look back at the past, they want to glorify it somehow. But war is always horrible… and the death and destruction that the War Between the States left on East Tennessee… a portion of the county that did not even want the war to happen in the first place, is a scar that still remains. And this is where the anti-union foes should take a minute and pause… because just as East Tennessee didn’t want a war in 1861, VW doesn’t want a battle over unionization. Workers have the right to unionize, so that they can play a role in the future of the place the work, the future of the families livelihoods and the future of the area.
On both of these issues, Chattanooga is and will continue to evolve, just like the rest of the nation. Victories for the future on these two issues though would signal a major blow to the end of the radical right which has controlled so much of Southern politics for decades… and would be two major steps into the future for my hometown.