Rep. Jim Cooper (D-Tenn.) rattled off a list of epithets, including the N-word, at an event in his home state last week, The Tennessean reports, in order to make a point about civil rights.
Cooper appeared at a Nashville Bar Association luncheon to pitch constituents on a proposed constitutional amendment that would seek to eliminate voter discrimination. “What it would do is grant, for the first time in American history, a constitutional right to vote,” Cooper explained.
"How many of you realize that, after the first 10 amendments to the Constitution, the Bill of Rights, seven of the 17 remaining amendments were necessary to expand voting rights?" Cooper asked the audience. "No other part of the original Constitution was so broken or so hard to fix. And more repairs are needed."
In an attempt to dramatize his discourse on the need to sustain the fight against discrimination in America, Cooper's rhetoric embraced the profane. “As civilization advances, the list of protections grow, we need protection against blood libels,” he said, proceeding to list off eight obscenities, including the N-word and epithets for women, Mexicans, gays, Native Americans and the disabled.
Cooper's vision for his constitutional amendment comes amid controversial efforts by state legislatures -- including Tennessee's -- to put qualifications on citizens' voting eligibility, such as requiring a government-issued identification card. The effects of these largely Republican-led efforts tend to have a disproportionate effect on the impoverished and minorities, voters who lean Democratic.
Cooper told the audience last week that the text of his amendment "could not be simpler" and thus would provide comprehensive voting rights protection: "The right of adult citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or any State," the amendment would read, according to Cooper.
Inspiration for his modern civil rights campaign comes from Cooper's realization that "the definition of racism expands over time," he said. Cooper noted the difference between his own experience and that of his father, former Democratic Tennessee Gov. Prentice Cooper, whom the younger Cooper said was a racist complicit in the discrimination against African Americans in the state.
“Equality under the law is the slow triumph of hope over history,” Cooper said.
While she said she appreciated his intent, Alex Lee, an African-American attorney that attended Cooper's speech, told The Tennnessean the lawmaker's use of epithets was “difficult and uncomfortable” to hear.
Patricia Stokes, President of the Urban League of Middle Tennessee -- an African-American advocacy organization -- said there was more to Cooper's speech than the use of insensitive language.
"Given the context and discussion of race and discrimination in this country, I am not disturbed by use of the word," she told The Huffington Post in an email. "It is my hope that his proposal of the constitutional amendment to secure voting rights for all will get greater considerations than his use of a series of racial epitaphs [sic] to make his point."