Tributes poured in this week with the death of former Speaker Pro Tem Lois DeBerry, who was at the same time the most powerful woman and the most powerful black officeholder in the state of Tennessee. DeBerry was elected to the House in 1972. As Speaker Pro Tem she led the black caucus and she was essential to the Democrats’ control of the House in an alliance with rural white Democrats. She was a superb orator and she had a physical presence that some times intimidated members. She could make grown men tremble in their boots, or as one former colleague observed, “piss in their pants.”
The House now has a female speaker in Beth Harwell, and her gender wasn’t an issue when she was elected. DeBerry paved the way.
DeBerry battled pancreatic cancer for five years; her dedication to her job given her health earned grudging respect even from the conservative Republicans who battled her for years.
With her passing, the political power of African Americans in Tennessee politics is further eroded.