Rep. Marsha Blackburn (R-TN) once brought an avowed neo-Confederate secessionist she’d known for decades to deliver the opening prayer for the House of Representatives.
Blackburn, who is currently running for the Senate, invited the Rev. David O. Jones, a Tennessee pastor and Christian home-school program head who says he’s known her since the late 1970s, to give the opening prayer for the House in 2004.
Jones, who has long advocated southern secession, told TPM this week that while slavery was abhorrent it was “basically cradle to grave security” for many southern blacks. His decade-old homeschooling curriculum includes a high school course on the South designed to refute “propaganda imposed from everywhere else” about slavery and the Civil War. Required reading: “Myths of American Slavery” and “The South Was Right.”
When Blackburn invited him to Congress, Jones was in the middle of a long tenure heading the Tennessee chapter of the League of the South — an explicitly secessionist group that has been designated a “hate group” by the Southern Poverty Law Center since 2000 because of leader Michael Hill’s racist comments as well as its ties to co-founder Jack Kershaw, best known for serving as the lawyer for Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassin and erecting a statue outside Nashville of the Ku Klux Klan founder, Confederate Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest.
The League has grown increasingly militant and became explicitly white supremacist in recent years. It was a main organizer of the bloody Charlottesville protests in August and recent “White Lives Matter” rallies in Murfreesboro and Shelbyville, Tennessee, last weekend that spurred at least one violent confrontation in its wake.
Jones left the organization in 2015 because of its full embrace of white supremacism, he told TPM, though watchdogs said the League began making the turn towards hardline militancy as early as 2008. He also continued to run a non-profit founded by Kershaw that funded both his homeschooling program and the League of the South (including for “self-defense” gun training classes). His involvement with the non-profit ended this summer after local TV news investigated its ties to the League of the South.
Blackburn praised Jones as an influential figure in the state’s homeschooling movement as she introduced him on the House floor in 2004.
“Reverend Jones has a long and distinguished history of dedication to his faith and to his community. He is a pioneer in the home-school movement who has made a real difference in the lives of thousands of Tennessee children and their families, and has worked to ensure that we protect the sanctity of life as an example to each and every one of us,” she said, according to a transcript on the House Clerk’s website.
He donated more than $1,000 to her in 2005 and 2006 — his only contribution to a federal candidate in the last three decades.
Jones’ prayer can be seen below (C-SPAN apparently cut to Jones after Blackburn’s introduction):
Blackburn’s campaign told TPM Thursday that she had no idea about Jones’ controversial views and ties and hasn’t seen him in a long time, but declined to say whether or not she plans to return his campaign donations or discuss their earlier relationship.
“Marsha is appalled by saddened by the actions and words of these hate-filled organizations. Marsha has not seen Rev. Jones in over a decade and was not aware he was affiliated with this organization,” Blackburn spokeswoman Andrea Bozek told TPM in an email.
Blackburn walked away and ignored TPM’s question about Jones after saying hello as she entered the House floor on Wednesday afternoon.
Jones agreed it was possible, even probable, that Blackburn wouldn’t have known about his views, and while he thought he had last seen her six or seven years he agreed a decade might well have elapsed. But his description of their “moderately close” earlier relationship suggested closer ties than Blackburn wants to acknowledge now.
Jones said he and Blackburn had been “friends for a long time, since 1979,” when they were involved with the Williamson County Young Republicans. In the early 2000s, back when she was first a congresswoman, her district office was across the street from his, and they’d pop in to visit each other every few weeks — “I’d walk in on her, she’d walk in on me, that kind of thing.”
At one point, Jones said Blackburn called him with a favor to ask.
“When her sister got married she called me to officiate the wedding,” recalled Jones, saying he’d wedded her sister Karen to Nashville news anchor Dan Miller. He said that years later he also performed the wedding ceremony for Miller’s daughter.
Around the same time, he recalled, he told Blackburn it was a dream of his to give the opening prayer to Congress, and she happily obliged.
“At the time I did the invocation, the time Ms. Marsha invited me to do that, the League was a whole different ballgame. It’s not what it is now,” he said, stating both he and the League of the South were “secessionist” but not racist and saying he’d long argued with Hill to stress the Christian rather than white roots of southern pride.
Blackburn’s campaign didn’t push back on Jones’ description of their relationship.
Jones wrote a piece about his prayer in Congress for the Southern Patriot, The League of the South’s newsletter, saying he’d been asked not to mention Jesus on the House floor but ignored that request.
Jones’ prayer was fairly innocuous, but many of his other views are considerably more controversial.
Jones told TPM Martin Luther King Jr. was a “devout womanizer” who “had no morality,” while Confederate Generals Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson were “good, righteous men” — why his homeschool program gives off a day for Lee-Jackson Day but not King’s birthday. He blamed the north for starting the Civil War — “Lincoln kind of set up the firing on Fort Sumter to make it look like the South fired the first shot” — and said while he opposed segregation, “resolving Jim Crow laws would have been a lot better if the individual states and localities had been encouraged to make the adjustments rather than forced to a one-solution-fits-all type adjustment” by the federal government.
His most controversial views are about slavery, which he said was an immoral practice but described as “basically cradle to grave security” for many southern blacks.
“You go to an antebellum historical site up in Nashville and they say, ‘The slaves lived in these little one-room cabins and all they had to play with was a hoop and a stick…’ They don’t mention the fact that the white sharecroppers lived exactly the same way, had exactly the same deprivation of substance,” he told TPM. “It’s like they’re trying to paint slavery as this wrong, this burden.”
Jones said most slave-owners treated their slaves well and provided them medical care.
“I’m not going to to defend slavery. But I say look at the historical facts, don’t paint something with such a broad sweeping brush,” he said.
Jones says he feels “really bad” about the SPLC’s view that he was part of a “hate group” — “I am not a hater” — and talked about his efforts to create an integrated church and allowing non-Christian families to join his home-schooling program.
“I realize my views aren’t necessarily in the mainstream but they’re not caused by any animosity or hatred towards anyone. They’re views I think can legitimately reconcile people with one another. Christ has called us to a ministry of conciliation and that’s what I hope to do with my life,” he said.
Blackburn, who in her Senate campaign launch video declares she’s “politically incorrect — and proud of it” — has long taken some controversial stances of her own on charged racial and religious issues, though nothing like Jones’ comments.
Her early Senate campaign has hit hard on attacking the NFL players who’ve knelt during the national anthem to protest police brutality against black people. A member of the Trump presidential transition team executive committee, she says she believes in Trump’s “immigration ban” and wants to “build the wall.”
In 2015, she called a Tennessee state curriculum for seventh graders that includes a section in Islam “reprehensible” and warned of “indoctrination.” And in 2009, she helped lead the charge against President Obama’s openly gay safe-schools chief partially, signing a letter from House Republicans that claimed he was “pushing a pro-homosexual agenda in America’s schools.”
But those views aren’t nearly as controversial as Jones’.
Those who have long monitored the League of the South were split on whether Blackburn should have known about Jones’ ties.
“I have no idea how ignorant Marsha might be but there’s many public references to the League and what they stood for that predated her invitation,” The Southern Poverty Law Center’s Heidi Beirich told TPM. “I don’t know why she brought him in but it’s abhorrent that she did. … It’s completely unacceptable she’s showered him with this high honor. You have to wonder about Blackburn’s own views.”
Jones remains a leader of the Southern National Conference, a group that wants “Southern State governments creatively solving our own problems without interference or dictates from sources outside our respective States.”
While Jones said he doesn’t oppose a weak federal government, he wants the South to have significantly more sovereignty. “Let communities, let states figure out for themselves what will work for their community. That’s where secession comes in,” he told TPM.