In the mid '60s, Coby Smith and Charles Cabbage helped organize the Invaders, a civil rights group founded in Memphis. Now roughly four decades later, the proposed "Rosa Parks" law — currently awaiting Phil Bredesen's signature — clears the names of people who were targeted by police for anti-discrimination activities.
The law would expunge the "records of persons charged with a misdemeanor or felony while challenging a law designed to maintain racial segregation."
Cabbage and Smith recognize the symbolic spirit of the law but insist that it's too late to offer any practical benefit to thousands of civil rights activists. "Is this only for people who were involved in non-violent civil rights activity?" Cabbage asks. "There are some people who went to the penitentiary and have been vilified their whole lives [due to their civil rights movement activities], and some who've had bronze statues made of them."
Former Invaders count themselves in the first group. Therein lies the rub for the past militants. Their view of the movement and strategies for achieving its goals diverged from the non-violent activities that Martin Luther King Jr. advocated.
"The Black Invaders were defined as a gang and treated as criminals," Smith says.
It's one thing to expunge a criminal record, but another to undo the difficulties that arise in one's life from carrying a record. "Our [criminal] records influence whether or not we have good employment, which we could not get because of our record," Cabbage says. "How do you address this issue?"
The two men are wary of legislation designed to generate positive press for government officials while forsaking the citizens that the law could help. "This will allow Fred Thompson to run for president with a clear conscience," Smith quips.
Bredesen has until June 8th to take action on the bill.