DeBerry’s Political Path Sign of Times

By Bill Dries

Flags over the state capitol in Nashville and all state office buildings remained at half staff Tuesday, July 30, in honor and memory of state Rep. Lois DeBerry of Memphis.


DeBerry died Sunday after a long battle with pancreatic cancer. She was 68.

She will be buried at Elmwood Cemetery Saturday, Aug. 3, at 10 a.m. with a memorial following at noon at First Baptist Church – Broad, 2385 Broad Ave.

DeBerry was the longest-serving incumbent in the state House and for many years had been the longest serving incumbent in the Shelby County delegation.

DeBerry was in the second group of African-American legislators from Memphis who began winning election to the legislature in the mid- to late-1960s. Such Memphis leaders as A.W. Willis and J.O. Patterson Jr. were the first black state legislators since Reconstruction.

DeBerry arrived in the House in 1973 when future U.S. Rep. Harold Ford Sr. was still among the Memphis Democrats she joined in the chamber. She and other black political leaders including the late Harper Brewer arrived ahead of the group of Democrats, black and white, elected with the gains Democrats made nationally in the wake of the Watergate scandal.

All were part of a generation that had been Democrats their entire political existences, forged in the experience of the city’s civil rights movement. The movement was a mix of the legal emphasis of the NAACP establishment with the turbulence of protest and demonstration movements staged in Memphis before moving into Mississippi and back to Memphis in the latter days of the sanitation workers’ strike and the hospital workers’ strike that followed.

DeBerry was elected to the legislature a year after her graduation from LeMoyne-Owen College, where the protest movement was a potent force.

The gains of the new generation of Memphis Democratic legislators were made possible, in part, by the redistricting from the 1970 census, the first since the landmark 1966 U.S. Supreme Court ruling Baker v. Carr that required the once-a-decade redrawing of state and federal legislative boundaries by state legislatures.

The lawsuit originated in Shelby County and African-American political leaders in the legislature immediately saw the importance of the specific ground rules for redistricting that followed the Supreme Court ruling.

DeBerry succeeded Brewer as speaker pro tempore in 1987.

In the intervening 13 years since her arrival, DeBerry went from a newcomer with “an attitude,” as she later described herself, to a legislator who worked outside the chamber to assemble votes and the compromises necessary to assemble those votes in favor of a position.

She was a networker before the term was used to describe those who took on the careful person-to-person task of building political connections for common causes and keeping those connections in place when differences on other issues prompted them to go their separate ways on those issues.

DeBerry held the speaker pro tempore post until the 2012 elections when Republicans gained super majorities in both chambers of the legislature.

Her ascension was the result of Democrats in other parts of the state realizing the importance of the Democratic voter base in Shelby County in statewide elections for governor and U.S. Senate.

The partnership of rural West Tennessee Democrats with Memphis urban Democrats was essential to the party’s hold on the legislature even if the governor’s mansion held to its history of going from one party to the other every eight years.

Off Capitol Hill, the partnership took on a different persona.

DeBerry, the powerful veteran Democrat behind the scenes, was a vivid part of the campaign for any Democratic contender for statewide office as well as Democratic presidential hopefuls trying to claim the state in the primary and general elections.

There DeBerry was an ardent campaigner and vocal firebrand for the Democratic cause and party unity as she introduced the candidates first to Memphis groups and later to campaign gatherings across the state.

The high point came during the 2000 Democratic National Convention when DeBerry nominated Vice President and former U.S. Sen. Al Gore of Tennessee for the party’s presidential nomination.