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Mason sues Tennessee Comptroller as allies rally to support Black-led town

The predominantly African-American town of Mason has filed suit against Tennessee State Comptroller of the Treasury Jason Mumpower.

In a petition filed on April 1, Mason’s elected officials are seeking an immediate halt to a financial takeover of the rural West Tennessee town, charging that Mumpower’s actions are illegal.

“The Comptroller does not have the power to take full control of Mason’s financial expenditures,” the suit claims.

Van Turner Jr. (TSD Archives)

Mason’s city attorney is being joined by a team of NAACP civil rights attorneys from both the national and state offices, including Van Turner Jr., president of the Memphis Branch NAACP.

“We have all seen Mason before, haven’t we?” Turner wrote, in a message to The New Tri-State Defender.

“…Whether we speak of southern states in the ’60s, attempting to enforce Jim Crow laws, or the state legislature continuously canceling and usurping local laws … with what they think is right for Memphis and Shelby County, we have definitely seen this before.”

Rallying to support Mason. (Photo: Gary S. Whitlow/GSW Enterprises/The New Tri-State Defender)

A Saturday (April 2) rally in front of Mason’s city hall drew community activists and supporters from several areas of the state. Tennessee NAACP affiliates staged the rally, along with other activist communities, to form a coalition advocating Mason’s right to autonomy.

Attorneys for Mason argue in the lawsuit that the state would stand in violation of the Tennessee Constitution and the Equal Protection Clause of the U.S. Constitution’s Fourteenth Amendment by taking over Mason’s finances “without proper justification and because most of the town’s leadership and residents are African American.”

The suit lays out a case for blatant racism: “The proposed treatment of Mason and its leadership is marked by irregularities and differs significantly from the treatment of similarly situated predominantly white jurisdictions,” according to the document’s language.

The lawsuit further charges that the timing of the attempted takeover is suspect since no takeover was made “when Mason’s white leadership actually caused the financial issues being complained of.”

Turner said the state is trying to punish Mason for a situation they did not cause.

“Mason has to receive permission to spend anything over $100 and was asked to give up its charter. Both actions are punitive and in bad faith,” Turner said.

Mason officials and attorneys representing them assert that the state is motivated by the billions of dollars coming into the area from the Blue Oval City project, Ford Motor Company’s building of an electric vehicle plant less than five miles from Mason.”

According to the Tennessee State Caucus of Black Legislators (TBCSL), Mumpower – in a call now about two weeks old – said “a plan had been worked out, and roughly $250,000 from American Rescue Plan dollars” would be given to Mason toward the more than $500,000 deficit.

State Rep. G.A. Hardaway of Memphis was in Mason on Saturday for the NAACP-spearheaded rally in support of the town. (Photo: Gary S. Whitlow/GSW Enterprises/The New Tri-State Defender)

Memphis-based state Rep. G.A. Hardaway, TBCSL past president, said Ford officials have expressed a willingness to “get involved” and indicated that they had contacted the Comptroller’s office.

“This rural, African-American town has the right to take full advantage of the opportunities resulting from Blue Oval City,” said Turner. “Residents have the right to make their own decisions about what happens with this influx of revenue.”

Gloria Sweet-Love, president of the Tennessee NAACP, speaking at the rally in Mason on April 2. Tennessee NAACP affiliates staged the rally, along with other activist communities, to form a coalition advocating Mason’s right to autonomy. (Photo: Gary S. Whitlow/GSW Enterprises/The New Tri-State Defender)

Mason Vice Mayor Virginia Rivers said the state wants to take control of the revenue from Blue Oval City, charging that Mumpower’s takeover is insulting and paternalistic.

Tennessee state Comptroller Jason Mumpower. (Courtesy photo)

“His whole attitude is that this little, Black town doesn’t know how to handle all this money,” said Rivers. “We have no doubt that Blue Oval City is the reason Mumpower is taking over our finances at this particular time.”

The $5.6 billion project is expected to revive and greatly expand the economic opportunities throughout the West Tennessee region.

An emergency hearing has been set for Wednesday (April 6) in Nashville’s Davidson County Chancery Court by Chancellor Anne Martin. The state was given a deadline of Tuesday, April 5, at 3 p.m., to respond.

The Comptroller’s office did not respond to TSD calls and messages asking for comment on the litigation. The legal reply will be filed by the State Attorney General’s office.

The proposed takeover in March attracted national media attention because a “Republican state government was trying to force a predominantly black, largely Democratic town in Tennessee to give up its charter.”

Mumpower initially sent 1,337 letters to Mason residents, encouraging them to urge elected officials to give up the town’s charter. Days later, the comptroller – with a team of eight – met with officials and residents at a local, African-American church to demand Mason surrender its charter.

“He brought all those people from his office to intimidate us,” Rivers said. “But I told Mumpower I would fight to the death before we surrender our charter. Mason was started by ex-slaves, and many of us are their descendants. We are not giving up 153 years of history. Mason belongs to us, and we are willing to fight for it.”

Shoulder to shoulder in support of Mason, Tennessee during the rally last Saturday (April 2, 2022). Vice Mayor Virginia Rivers is far left. (Photo: Gary S. Whitlow/GSW Enterprises/The New Tri-State Defender)

Rivers called the action a “hostile takeover” and emphasized that the financial debt of Mason’s government was created under “white administrations.”

The first “Black administration” inherited the debt in 2015, when citizens elected an African-American mayor, vice mayor and five of its six aldermen, according to Rivers and associates.

The lawsuit claims that from the moment the town refused to give up its charter, the Comptroller “has sought to disrupt the affairs of Mason.”

Turner ventured a prediction on the outcome of the lawsuit.

“Yes, we have seen this before,” said Turner. “But through a unified effort, justice and equality always prevail in the end. We have no doubt that the same will happen here.”

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