Former Tennessee house Speaker Pro Tempore Lois M. DeBerry lost her battle with pancreatic cancer in late July of this year, but she was "there" Wednesday morning when National Black Caucus of State Legislators (NBCSL) President Joe Armstrong opened the group's 37th legislative conference at The Peabody.
"Rep. DeBerry helped to shape this year's conference by adding two important elements," said Armstrong, a Knoxville Democrat. "Youth Day and the prayer breakfast were both her doing. She felt very passionately that we should be grooming young leaders to take up the mantle when we have moved off the scene. ...Her presence is strongly felt as we gather in the city she loved so well."
This year's prayer breakfast will be Friday morning. It has been named The Lois DeBerry Prayer Breakfast and Memorial Service.
An opening press conference Wednesday morning kicked off the confab with Youth Day. Approximately 250 students from as far away as Jackson, Tenn., participated in a mock legislative session to experience what a lawmaker's job is like. The session was followed by a Youth Day Luncheon, featuring Grammy Award-winning Gospel icon CeeCee Winans.
This year's conference theme is "Progress: Moving Our States Forward Through Policy Action." According to President Armstrong, some 35 resolutions will be brought before the conference. Ratified measures will be sent to all NBCSL members, with copies sent to President Barack Obama.
The NBCSL monitors federal and state activity in political, social, and economic affairs. Members are kept informed through policy symposiums and mini-conferences leading up to the annual meeting.
"Although we are elected officials, this is not a political organization. We do not endorse candidates or one political party affiliation over another," said Armstrong.
"We are a bi-partisan, 501C3 not-for-profit association of black legislators who are concerned with various issues and the direction of public policy concerning those issues. On Thursday, we will be convening, for instance, on how to best leverage the power of HBCUs (Historically Black Colleges and Universities). This is an important issue to us all."
Other policy directives to be considered concern voters' rights, affordable housing, economic empowerment, assisting ex-offenders re-assimilate and healthcare disparity.
"We are always seeking ways to reach across the aisle and work together on setting public policy to benefit all our constituents," said Armstrong. "We try to stay away from social issues generally. Our resolutions are drawn up in direct relationship to the welfare of our constituents."
Tennessee legislators will remember this year's gathering as "the first conference without Rep. DeBerry."
"Lois sat on the National Executive Committee and was involved in planning our annual meetings," said Rep. Larry Miller, chairman of the Tennessee Black Caucus. "The decision to come to Memphis this year was largely because of her. She is sorely missed in Nashville, and Lois is very much in our thoughts this week. She will be honored at the Lois DeBerry Prayer Breakfast and Memorial Service Friday morning, along with other members we have lost this year."
An evening reception to honor President-Elect Catherine Pugh, a Maryland State Senator, capped off Wednesday's festivities at the Memphis Rock & Soul Museum downtown. Sponsors of the after-five event were: the National Education Association (NEA), American Federation of Teachers (AFT), and the Memphis-Shelby County Education Association (M-SCEA).
Resolutions passed at this year's conference will become a part of the NBCSL 2014 Policy Platforms. The policies will be the foundation for state and federal legislation. The culminating plenary session on Saturday, "Galvanizing a State Agenda on Civil Rights," will be moderated by political commentator and columnist Roland Martin.
"We are standing on the shoulders of the Ben Hookses, the Maxine Smiths, the Whalums – all those from that civil rights generation," said Armstrong. "This week, we are standing on the shoulders of Lois DeBerry. She left her imprint all over this organization as a founding member and its fifth president.
"Our 14 founders have led us to more than 600 strong today. Ms. DeBerry will always be a part of us. She left a great legacy in this organization."