Son of the South

Rep. Jim Cooper’s family rose to power over centuries through slavery and segregation. Will their legacy endanger his seat?

UNITED STATES - MAY 9: Rep. Jim Cooper, D-Tenn., walks up the House steps for a vote in the Capitol on Thursday, May 9, 2019. (Photo By Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
Rep. Jim Cooper walks up the House steps for a vote in the Capitol on May 9, 2019. Photo: Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call/Getty Images

In the darkness of a temperature-controlled vault within the Tennessee State Library and Archives, an aging black-and-white photograph draws a striking line between antebellum Nashville, the city’s current mayor, and its representative to the United States Congress, Democrat Jim Cooper. In the undated photo, former Tennessee Gov. Prentice Cooper poses with two veterans of the Civil War. In the face of the grinning Cooper — set beside haggard retirees in their southern grays — is the unmistakable countenance of his sons.

In the post-war era, Prentice Cooper rose to the governor’s office by exploiting racial segregation for political clout. In 1958, he challenged former Vice President Al Gore’s father Albert Gore Sr. for his Senate seat, running as an ardent segregationist and opening his campaign by accusing Gore of encouraging “unwanted racial mixing.” While continuing his family’s long legacy of political power in the state — his grandfather was the speaker of the Tennessee House of Representatives, and his brother, John, serves as mayor of Tennessee’s capital — Prentice Cooper’s elder son, Jim, has attempted to distance himself from the darkest parts of his father’s legacy.


Former Govs. Gordon Browning and Prentice Cooper stand with two Civil War veterans in their uniforms and another unidentified individual in an undated photo in Nashville, Tenn.

Photo: Courtesy of Tennessee State Library and Archives

Now, in Nashville’s 5th Congressional District, that legacy is being dragged into the light by a three-way fight brewing between one of the most conservative Democrats in the House, his progressive primary challenger, and the Tennessee Republican Party, which is attempting to gerrymander Nashville into two districts with solid GOP control. Last month, Jim Cooper begged Republican lawmakers not to splinter his territory at the same time that Odessa Kelly, executive director of Stand Up Nashville, upended fundraising records established by the representative’s past primary challengers.

Cooper — descended not only from a segregationist political dynasty on his father’s side, but also from one of Tennessee’s oldest slaveholding families through his mother — has stoked the ire of Nashville progressives from his long-held conservative perch within the Blue Dog caucus. He has raked in hundreds of thousands of dollars from the defense industry over the course of his career, and he currently serves as chair of the House Subcommittee for Strategic Forces. Leading the committee overseeing space weapons, nuclear arms production, and missile defense, Cooper emerged as one of the most vocal supporters of former President Donald Trump’s Space Force, the sixth branch of the U.S. military. Cooper’s unique allegiances and history of hyperconservative political positions have put him at odds with the moderate Speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., whose leadership he voted against in 2019.

The two-decade incumbent poses a sharp contrast with Kelly, a former civil servant who led the Napier Community Center in Tennessee’s capital for over a decade. In 2016, she founded the nonprofit advocacy organization Stand Up Nashville, which organizes grassroots campaigns to fight economic and racial inequality in Tennessee. Her challenge to Cooper’s seat comes after an unsuccessful 2020 primary run by former public defender Keeda Haynes, who garnered almost 40 percent of the vote, marking Cooper as a vulnerable incumbent. With backing from Justice Democrats, triple the cash that Haynes raised, and a left-wing political climate increasingly soured on Democratic Party members ensnared by the defense industry, Kelly could very well seize the 5th District, barring a GOP takeover. The challengers from the right include the Sen. Rand Paul-endorsed music video producer-turned-investor Robby Starbuck and Quincy McKnight, the CEO of a payment processing company.

Since he was first elected to Tennessee’s 4th District in 1983, Cooper has held a decadeslong tenure in Tennessee politics, leaving to run for Senate in 1995 and, having lost, taking over the 5th District in 2002. While his family’s deep ties in the state once seemed to all but guarantee a lifelong role in national politics, an emboldened GOP and the changing face of the Democratic Party have set Cooper on a defensive course.

In 2013, giving a speech at the Nashville Bar Association during his 30th year in office, Cooper said of Prentice, “My father was racist. Of course, he did not think of himself that way — no respectable person does. In his day, the Ku Klux Klan was racist. My father was an attorney who never considered wearing a white hood. My dad could not be racist because, just like Atticus Finch in ‘To Kill a Mockingbird,’ he had defended a Black man accused of raping a white woman.” What Cooper failed to mention is that his father, much like Finch, was ordered by the court to defend the man accused, E.K. Harris — who was later found guilty and executed. In the Harper Lee novel, Finch notably does not become a pro-segregationist politician.

“Nevertheless, my father remained a son of the South,” Cooper continued.

“He supported segregation and poll taxes. He opposed busing and intermarriage. In short, he was just like most of your parents and grandparents. That’s why they elected him governor of Tennessee three times. I sometimes wonder what my children will say about me because the definition of racism expands over time, covering more and more behavior and creating more thought crimes. They probably won’t be satisfied that I was state campaign chairman for Barack Obama if I fail a flip-chart test for subconscious racial bias. They will wonder why Nashville, a health care capital, allowed Black and brown babies in our state to die at Third World rates.”

To emphasize his seriousness about stomping out discrimination, Cooper read out a list of slurs. “As civilization advances, the list of protections grows. We need protection against blood libels like nigger, bitch, bastard, half-breed, wetback, geezer, cripple, faggot,” he said. One lawyer in attendance described the comments as “difficult and uncomfortable” to hear. Last year, Cooper was condemned for his description of South Carolina voters as having “extra chromosomes,” a comment rendered even more disturbing in the context of his vote against the Americans with Disabilities Act.

“My life is devoted to public service, devoted to improving the lives of Middle Tennesseans, especially the most vulnerable,” Cooper wrote in a statement to The Intercept. “The focus of my work is advancing Obamacare (which the Tennessee legislature still opposes), voting rights (ditto), environmental justice (ditto) and dignity for all people, regardless of income, national origin, race, or sexual orientation (ditto). I was raised in a diverse community with mentors and friends who pointed me to a life of service. I work every day to make them proud.”

While Cooper has focused on distancing himself from his father, he has stayed clear of his mother’s bloodline, which connects the incumbent to some of the wealthiest and most brutal slaveholders of the American South. Cooper’s great-great-grandfather was Oliver Bliss Hayes, a prominent landowning lawyer whose influence still marks the landscape of Nashville. A history of the enslaved people he gave to his daughter is maintained on the website for his family’s estate, Belmont Mansion.

Hayes’s daughter, Adelicia Acklen, was one of the South’s largest slave owners, inheriting a 2,000-acre farm in Tennessee; 38,000 acres in Texas; and 8,700 acres of cotton in Louisiana, which included the plantation that would become the notorious Louisiana State Penitentiary, commonly known as Angola. With this bounty came 750 people in bondage. Acklen’s first husband, Isaac Franklin, was the co-founder of Franklin and Armfield, the largest slave-trading firm in the United States.

Things may not have gone well for Cooper’s family but for the shot fired by John Wilkes Booth. With Abraham Lincoln’s assassination, the presidency fell to Tennessee Democrat Andrew Johnson, who quickly bestowed forgiveness on Confederate leaders and halted in its tracks the land reform that would have wiped the Cooper family from the history books. Instead, white supremacy was reasserted by force, not to be seriously challenged until stirrings from North Nashville in the 1950s, where the Black community had built enough social capital to mount resistance.

“It is a stretch to suggest that I am responsible for my maternal great, great grandfather’s sister’s first husband’s actions,” Cooper told The Intercept in a follow-up statement. But Cooper has hardly made combating inequality, racial or economic, central to his political project.

During the Obama era, Cooper attempted to winnow down the federal stimulus package in the wake of the 2008 financial crash. “Congressmen love pork, and that’s a shame because that money’s got to be repaid one day,” he said at the time. In 2012, he voted to raise the age to qualify for Social Security benefits, and he has repeatedly attempted to scale back Medicare and Medicaid in the name of a balanced budget. Last summer, he voted against an amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act that would have cut back the U.S. military budget in an effort to increase social spending.

Today the grounds of Belmont Mansion, Acklen’s residence, still sprawl out to the south of Vanderbilt University, where her father also owned land and where university employees made up the second-largest donor base to Cooper in the last election cycle.

Belmont Mansion home of Adelicia Acklen at Belmont University, Nashville Tennessee

Belmont Mansion, the home of Adelicia Acklen, in Nashville, Tenn.

Photo: Alamy

After Union soldiers seized Nashville, Acklen traveled to Angola to save her cotton from being burned by retreating Confederate soldiers. She negotiated with the Confederate army to help harvest the crop, then convinced a Union admiral to help her ship it to Europe, where it was sold for millions, playing both sides against each other for her own financial gain.

Centuries later, the Coopers remain in the landholding business. United States Department of Agriculture data compiled by the Environmental Working Group shows that Cooper’s landholding company, Cooper Brothers Land Co., has received hundreds of thousands in agriculture subsidies from the USDA since the company’s founding. Cooper holds a 33 percent stake in the company, valued between $5 and $25 million, which holds property in Louisiana, Tennessee, and Kentucky.

For Jamel Campbell-Gooch, the Nashville elite’s drive to maintain their political and financial power hasn’t changed much over the decades. “We need to hold elected officials like the Cooper brothers accountable with actual demands,” Campbell-Gooch, an activist with the Black Nashville Assembly, which organizes Nashville residents to advocate for affordable housing and public safety reform in local government, told The Intercept. “The solution doesn’t lie in powerful Nashville families voluntarily giving up their power. They had more than 100 years to do that. They’re not about to start now. The solution is going to come down to the people of Nashville holding them accountable.”

Campbell-Gooch sees old Nashville families playing a significant role in curbing the civil rights organizing that blossomed there in the mid-20th century. “In the early ’60s, North Nashville was a major civil rights organizing hub,” he said, noting that many of the people who worked closely with Martin Luther King Jr. had ties to Nashville and its various historically Black colleges and universities. “They went on to do freedom rides and were a driver of the national civil rights movement.”

“The solution doesn’t lie in powerful Nashville families voluntarily giving up their power. They had more than 100 years to do that. They’re not about to start now.”

In line with the national trend of bulldozing Black neighborhoods to make way for highways, Nashville politicians rejected the Army Corps of Engineers’ directive to drive the highway west, instead displacing Black families from North Nashville’s activist hotbed.

“I think what’s laced in all of this, it’s all about reasserting power constantly instead of shifting power to the people who have always been oppressed on the land here.”

The Cooper family’s centurieslong connection to powerful Tennessee actors, paired with the representative’s openness to conservative policies, could mean that a deal is struck with the Tennessee Republican Party to keep his Nashville district from being gerrymandered out of existence. But if that happens, he’ll be fighting for his life against a progressive with money to burn. Between his rough relationship with Pelosi, who largely oversees Democrats’ campaign coffers, and his lackluster voting record on progressive issues, Cooper faces an uphill battle to retain his seat.

Of course, if Republicans do decide to upend the Democrats’ prospects in the district, there’s little chance any member of the party, conservative or progressive, can win in gerrymandered territory. At stake is a takeover by a far-right GOP fueled by racial resentment, the continuation of Cooper’s simmering legacy of conservatism, or a new hope for radical reform in the South under progressive leadership.

“Republicans in other states have been savage in the way they’ve redistricted,” Cooper said Monday in an interview with a Nashville TV station. “I’m hoping and praying they won’t be savage here.”

Correction: December 23, 2021, 1:35 p.m. ET

This article originally stated that Rep. Jim Cooper switched from representing Tennessee’s 4th District to its 5th District in 1995. The text has been corrected to note that Cooper left his seat in the 4th District to run for Senate in 1995, and he was elected to the 5th District in 2002.

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