NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- A Tennessee Republican lawmaker on Thursday apologized after asking earlier this week if “hanging by a tree” could be added to the state's execution methods, a comment that has shocked Black lawmakers who point to the state's dark history of lynching.
Rep. Paul Sherrell, who is white, first made the remark Tuesday as a separate lawmaker was introducing legislation to include the firing squad to execute death row inmates.
“I think it’s a very good idea, and I was just wondering about... could I put an amendment on that it would include hanging by a tree, also?” Sherrell asked.
At the time, no one on the legislative committee reprimanded or pushed back against Sherrell's comments. However, his words gained traction throughout the week, which led to the Republican's apology on the House floor Thursday.
“My exaggerated comments were intended to convey my belief that for the cruelest and most heinous crimes, a just society requires the death penalty in kind,” he said. “My intention was to express my support of families who often wait decades for justice. I sincerely apologize to anyone who may have been hurt or offended.”
However, Black lawmakers continued to express alarm and disappointment not only at Sherrell's failure to acknowledge the historical context of lynching but also the silence from GOP legislative leaders who have not publicly condemned Sherrell's remarks.
“Hanging from a living tree invokes an image in Black folks,” said Democratic Rep. Vincent Dixie, who is Black. “It’s hurtful, and it makes us frustrated and angry.”
According to a report from the Equal Justice Initiative, more than 230 lynchings were reported between 1877 and 1950 in Tennessee. The majority of those took place in Shelby County, which encompasses Memphis and has one of the state's largest Black populations.
Meanwhile, on Thursday, Democratic Rep. Justin Pearson, who is Black, attempted to read the names of those who had been lynched in Shelby County while on the House floor.
“I want to recognize in memoriam some beloved community members,” he said, asking for others to stand.
It wasn't until Pearson finished reading the names that he confirmed he was listing those who had been lynched decades ago. As some lawmakers began sitting down, House Speaker Cameron Sexton cut off the Democrat's microphone and warned that he was out of line.
“Rep. Pearson just wanted to get his thoughts out,” Dixie said. “And they sat down, the disrespect of them. For sitting down for calling out names who’ve been lynched for nothing more than probably being Black. I think that speaks volumes.”
Sherrell's remark come as Black lawmakers have repeatedly criticized GOP legislative leaders' silence on racist remarks and other insensitive actions that impact minority populations in Tennessee.
Tennessee’s GOP-dominated Statehouse has repeatedly declined to advance proposals introduced by their Black colleagues that they argue would address racial inequality. The proposals can range from legislation to simple resolutions.
In 2020, Republican lawmakers refused to advance a resolution memorializing a 17-year-old Black girl who was fatally shot in her car. The resolution was spiked after a GOP leader stood up to mention that police officers had said the girl was killed after she and a friend made a “small marijuana sale,” even though the sale has never been proved and her slaying remains unsolved.
Last year, GOP lawmakers passed a new congressional map scattering Nashville’s Black voters across multiple districts. A Republican lawmaker then attempted to advance a resolution dismissing the existence of deep-rooted racism in the military as detailed in an Associated Press investigation.
This year, Democratic-backed bills addressing police reform in response to the death of Tyre Nichols have not advanced.