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Saturday, June 2, 2001

Allegiances clash during pledge in House

The Commercial Appeal, June 2, 2001
By Richard Locker

State Rep. Henri Brooks of Memphis says she doesn't recite the Pledge of Allegiance because the American flag represents a nation of former slave owners. That has caused an imbroglio in the House of Representatives, which opens its daily sessions with a prayer and the pledge.

After visiting schoolchildren asked why Brooks didn't stand during the pledge last week, House Speaker Jimmy Naifeh (D-Covington) told her he would "prefer" that she enter the chamber after the pledge if she doesn't want to recite it.

But the two differ on the nature of their brief conversation on the House floor May 24. Brooks, an African-American Democrat, said she felt Naifeh was "abrupt" and "hurtful" in his approach and walked away before she could say anything.

Naifeh said he spoke with Brooks in "the most polite tones."

Said Brooks: "I asked my parents when I was in the third grade whether I had to pledge to the flag, and they said no. It was the flag of the Colonies, of the slaveholders. I always try, in everything I do, to honor my ancestors."

She said she has not pledged allegiance to the American flag since third grade and does not intend to. She said she generally stands quietly during the pledge but didn't on May 24 because she was working on a bill on her laptop computer.

Naifeh disputed her characterization of the encounter. "I walked from the podium back to her desk and said to her, `Representative Brooks, I noticed you did not stand and pledge allegiance to the flag.' Her response was, `I can't.' Then my response was, `Representative Brooks, then I would prefer that you not come into the House chamber until we have finished the Pledge of Allegiance to the flag.' I then walked back to the podium."

Rep. Larry Miller, another African-American Democrat from Memphis who sits in front of Brooks, agreed with Naifeh and said the speaker didn't order Brooks to do anything.

Brooks later told lobbyists for the American Civil Liberties Union about the discussion, and the ACLU sent Naifeh a letter saying such a "reprimand" and request that she leave the chamber if she does not participate are "inappropriate and violates her freedom of expression."

Brooks later told reporters that Naifeh "talked to me like a master to a slave."

Naifeh rejected her contention that his request was based on ethnic grounds and pointed out that his late father, Oney Naifeh, immigrated to the United States from Lebanon.

"My father came to this country so I'm first generation. He was in the Army and fought for that flag. I was in the infantry for two years. Anyone who thinks I pointed that out for ethnic reasons, it's an absolute out-and-out lie. I did not do it for that. I did it because of my feelings for the flag and the pledge and the other members of this House. She has no basis for saying that," Naifeh said.

On Thursday, the last House session of the week, Naifeh sought to bring the issue to a close, telling the entire House from the podium his position on the matter just before the prayer and pledge:

"My role requires me to keep decorum. In accordance with these duties, it's my custom to ask members to rise. I have stated my preference that if a member is unwilling to stand that the member remain outside until the pledge and prayer are completed.

"I have not nor will I demand that any member or visitor remain outside or stand. Our Constitution protects us from being forced to participate in the Pledge of Allegiance or the prayer. If any of you feel it is not a matter of courtesy but is an expression of your freedom of religion or speech, then remain seated.''

Brooks stood during the prayer and pledge but did not appear to recite the pledge.

Brooks has proposed legislation to study the potential for reparations for African-Americans for slavery. In 1999, she won approval of a resolution that resulted in the erection of a memorial to the slave trade on the Capitol grounds, but the accuracy of the memorial's text has been called into question by historians.

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Edition: Final; Section: Metro; Page: B1
Copyright (c) 2001 The Commercial Appeal, Memphis, TN

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