We bet you never thought you’d hear us say this: Shelby County Commissioner Henri Brooks is right.

Nonetheless, it is true, and in the current manufactured controversy about Kwanzaa, Probate Court Clerk Chris Thomas is either being intentionally obtuse or being driven by the irresistible opportunity for political advantage that comes with his racially-veiled comments.

Pray For Peace

The clerk seems almost orgasmic with his opportunity to use words like “discrimination” and “discrimination against Christians” in his fiery opposition to a Kwanzaa event in the Shelby County Board of Commissioners chambers of the county administration building.

His first email response, sent after an emailed invitation to the Kwanzaa event was sent to county employees, asked: “WHY ARE WE SPONSORING A RELIGIOUS CEREMONY FOR ONE GROUP NOT CHRISTMAS AND HANNUKAH? I DO NOT THINK THIS IS APPROPRIATE!!!!!”

Mr. Thomas’s position is that Kwanzaa is a religiously-oriented event and therefore, he says that Christian and Jewish religious celebrations should also be allowed in the public space. His proof is pretty thin: he bases his comment on the fact that Kwanzaa uses terms like “spiritual,” “creator” and “faith.”

Seven Days

We’re not sure what he’s using for reference, but the Seven Principles of Kwanzaa don’t include any of those words, or anything about religion for that matter. At its essence, the 31-year-old celebration is about seven days of black pride, black culture and black tradition. If and when it refers to creator and spiritual, it’s more in a cultural framework than religious references.

In the interest of complete honesty, we’ve never gotten Kwanzaa, but then again, we suspect that most African-Americans are equally baffled by St. Patrick’s Day and the celebration by many of us of a feast day in honor of the Christian patron saint of Ireland.

In its way, Kwanzaa bears about as much resemblance to a religious event as St. Patrick’s Day. Of course, its tone is more serious and the purpose is more introspective, intended to create cultural anchors and a current of self-reliance for African-Americans.

Talking To The Base

According to most polls, it’s observed by a small minority of African-Americans, but that’s really beside the point. After all, not all Caucasians celebrate St. Patrick’s Day either.

We hate to be cynical, but we suspect that Mr. Thomas’s motivation is as much about playing to his political base as it is to defending Judeo-Christian religious traditions in county buildings. He’s undoubtedly read some of the writings of some Religious Right commentators whose relentless attack against Kwanzaa treat it as it if Western civilization hangs in the balance.

Then again, the founder of the Pan-African celebration didn’t make it particularly hard for Kwanzaa’s critics. When he invented Kwanzaa in 1966, his criticisms of Christians and Christ were nothing short of inflammatory, but it’s worth remembering that it was a time of heightened black pride and black nationalism. It’s also worth remembering that freedom of speech isn’t just restricted to those who say things we agree with.


There are times when even friends of Commissioner Brooks suggest that she’s stuck in 1968 and can’t escape. Then again, that’s her right, and it’s clear that she has constituents who support her points of view, which are formed by her long-time interest in black nationalism.

All of this is beside the point. At the end of the day, it’s just hard to make the case that a Kwanzaa event should be prohibited in a public building.

After Mr. Thomas appealed his complaints to Shelby County Mayor AC Wharton – who took no action to revoke the Kwanzaa event in the county administration building – he filed a lawsuit Friday in Chancery Court to block it. Of course, although Mayor Wharton sets policy for use of public buildings, that power has traditionally not extended to the commissioners’ chamber, since it is the province of the legislative body, which would likely back Commissioner Brooks’ request for the use of the facilities.

Playing To The Kleig Lights

It’s widely expected that Mr. Thomas’s lawsuit will go nowhere, but at this point, he seems intent on playing to the TV cameras, using any opportunity to position himself as a combatant in the war against Christianity, that fiction espoused loudly about this time each year to rally Religious Right voters and pander to the hysteria that lies at the heart of this voting bloc.

Meanwhile, Mr. Thomas continues to pander to his base with his emotional concerns about discrimination against Christianity. But if you want to talk to him about this, don’t call Monday or Tuesday.

Mr. Thomas and Shelby County’s 6,000 employees will have two days off to observe the most Christian of holidays – Christmas. Last time we checked, no day on the Jewish, Muslim or Kwanzaa calendar manages such preferential treatment.

In other words, if there’s a war, it’s pretty clear who’s winning. By the way, just for the record, Commissioner Brooks is a member of the board of trustees of Greater Imani Church and Christian Center.