By the time Tennessee representative London Lamar tells me she’s “a softy and a sweet person,” she had already removed all doubt.
The ambitious lawmaker—the youngest black woman in the Tennessee state House by more than 30 years—has a demeanor that reminds me of spiced honey: sweet and soothing, but not afraid to kick. She’s the type of person who touches you on the knee periodically; sometimes to emphasize a point, other times just to let you know she feels you.
Though she hasn’t been in office long, Lamar’s empathy helped her through at least one early political impasse. Before the 28-year-old Memphis native ever made it to the Nashville Capitol, she had to fight back against allegations she was a bigot—spurred by a Facebook video she made shortly after her November 2018 election referring to her state as “racist.”
“Tennessee’s racist. Period,” she said in the now deleted-video. “Most of the Tennesseans who voted Republican are uneducated.”
Her blunt comments spurred local and national headlines, and the newly-elected Lamar apologized and clarified her remarks. As the outgoing president of the Tennessee Young Democrats, Lamar immediately prioritized reaching out to her white colleagues after the incident in order to mend fences. Reflecting on what happened, Lamar told The Root she’s now grateful for the gaffe. It forced her to create strong relationships across the aisle, she says; relationships she hopes to lean on to push forward legislative wins for her majority-black Memphis district.
“[I tell them] I’m not just jumping down your throat ’cause you’re a white man,” she said of her Republican colleagues. “I’m jumping down your throat because me as this young girl, your colleague, I too feel that the system has failed in ways. It has failed me, and it has failed my family.”
That urgency is part of what sets Lamar apart from lawmakers much older than her, and typifies a new kind of progressive leader: young women of color who are ambitious, plain-spoken, and deeply unsatisfied with the status quo. For these reform-minded politicians, adjusting to the realities of enacting change from within the political machine is a challenge—particularly for a lawmaker like Lamar, who represents a blue district within a state that’s long been a conservative stronghold.
“We have a lot of leaders of color in my area who have been there for a number of years but haven’t necessarily moved the tide,” she says, “because there’s been this attitude of ‘don’t say this to make them mad,’ and ‘you be quiet and just know your place.’”
Echoing comments from U.S. Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ilhan Omar, and Ayanna Pressley, Lamar stresses that incremental progress isn’t sufficient—especially not for millennial voters, who make up the greatest share of America’s workforce, and will soon be the largest bloc of eligible voters in the country.
“I’m from a community that has been systematically disenfranchised for centuries,” Lamar said. “This is centuries of trying to push the needle forward in a state that still loves its Confederacy, even though it was built on the principles of keeping slavery, free labor, oppression.”
“I think we can do better.”
Speaking to The Root in February at the Young Elected Officials Women’s conference, a gathering for young, progressive women politicians, Lamar says her civic education began early. She’s been accompanying her mother and grandmother to the voting booth since she was a child.
“I’d go with them because I wanted to literally just press the buttons,” she said.
She credits them for teaching her about civic responsibility, noting her grandmother and mother would go to the polls for local elections as well as national ones. But while Lamar was engaged in the political process early, she saw herself going into STEM—specifically, as an engineer.
Then, the fall before she was to graduate from high school, Barack Obama got elected.
“I had just came home from a University of Memphis basketball game and the results came in and [Obama] won,” she recalls. “I was outside, jumping in the driveway. My mom’s screaming ... I was like, ‘Oh my gosh, my president is black, but my first lady looks just like me.’”
Newly inspired, Lamar threw herself into politics, majoring in political science at St. Mary’s College and becoming involved with the school’s College Democrats organization. She also founded the Shelby County Young Democrats—growing out the chapter until it became the largest in the state.
After graduating, Lamar worked part-time at Macy’s for $7.50 an hour while working on various political campaigns. At 23, she ran for state office herself. She was the youngest person on the ballot, Lamar says, and “got [her] butt whooped” in the election. But she was undeterred by the loss, and by the time 2018 rolled around, Lamar had accumulated necessary experience advocating on education and reproductive issues. She also had an edge on her older competitors in the deep-blue Memphis district, she says—she outworked them.
“I believe in grass roots totally, because that’s how I won,” she says. “I knocked on all the doors in my district. I asked for every single vote.”
Since being sworn in, Lamar has put forward an ambitious number of legislative initiatives that center the black women of her community, using their experiences to shape her progressive agenda in a deeply red state.
In Tennessee, where she says Democrats are “playing defense” on abortion (she opposes a controversial bill that would ban nearly all abortions once a fetal heartbeat is detected), Lamar is trying to push through legislation that would make it easier for pregnant high schoolers to keep their college scholarships should they choose to give birth. Her proposal would allow students who receive the state’s HOPE scholarship, given to high-performing Tennessean students who attend state colleges, to be eligible to receive the funds more than two years after they graduate high school.
Drafting the legislation, Lamar says she wanted young parents to feel like they didn’t need to choose between a college education and their child. In her eyes, the bill is an easy bipartisan win that secures some measure of stability and support for women of color in her community, many of whom, she says, are opting to have their babies if they get pregnant while still in school.
It also forces Tennessee Republicans to confront the reality of a “pro-life” agenda that provides no structural support for women—particularly the most economically and socially vulnerable—who are pressured by the state to have children.
“[If] you’re saying because I have a baby, I can’t have the skills and support I need to become a doctor—nah. That’s not pro life. That’s pro-birth,” she says.
When it comes to having reproductive justice, “women are in trouble in Tennessee,” Lamar says, flatly. And as one lawmaker, she feels incapable of turning the tide on reproductive rights in a state hell-bent on enacting one of the most draconian abortion bills in the nation. But Lamar is intent on being strategic—securing a small win for her education agenda amid what will be a major blow to women’s rights in the state.
Lamar’s calculation—and her messaging—appears to be right. The bill has passed subcommittee, and has the support of Speaker Pro Tempore Bill Dunn, a Republican.
But that isn’t the only uphill battle Lamar is fighting. After seeing her 28-year-old cousin “drop dead” when she was eight months pregnant, Lamar wants to make black maternal health a priority. And during a panel focused on incarcerated women at the YEO Women’s conference, Lamar expressed being moved by the story of Cyntoia Brown, a teenage victim of child sex trafficking who killed a man who was paid to have sex with her. Convicted of murder at the age of 16, Brown was slated to serve a life sentence before Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam granted her clemency earlier this year. She has already spent 13 years—nearly half her life—behind bars.
In January, Lamar proposed a bill that would change state law so underage victims of sex offenses are presumed to be acting in self-defense if they use force against a person exploiting them. The bill has been sent to “summer study,” Lamar says, a process where legislation is workshopped—research is added, language is tweaked, and the bill becomes a priority for the next legislative session.
“[Brown’s] story touched me deeply,” Lamar says. “I know people who are family, friends, who are survivors of rape, molestation, potentially human trafficking.”
She’d already drafted her legislation before hearing news of Brown’s release on Jan. 7—a moment that she recalls vividly.
“I just burst into tears—the ugly cry. Because for a second, I really thought the governor was going to let her sit in jail,” she says.
A Senate version of the Lamar’s Cyntoia Brown bill has been sponsored by Tenn. Rep. Brenda Gilmore. Looking at the two proposals, it’s hard not to notice one simple fact: black women legislators were the ones so moved by Brown’s case they drafted laws that could protect future children in Brown’s position.
It points to the transformational power of lawmakers like London Lamar around the country: that the Cyntoia Browns of America’s communities are not just considered, but centered. Issues like black maternal healthcare become urgent and immediate. And our understanding of what a politician ought to look like and dress like, and what issues they ought to care about, expands.
“We as women who’ve been in the community, who have strong values, who care about people, who especially care about children, we’re trying to do what we do because if we don’t do it, ain’t nobody else going to do it,”
What she’s most excited about is seeing how her election has galvanized young people to start thinking about what more they can do to represent and create change in their communities. Recounting all the young people who come up to her, inspired by her election, Lamar is so moved she starts to cry.
“I’m like ‘y’all, it’s possible,’” Lamar says. “What makes me get up every day wanting to do well is young people.”
“People say stop bragging about being young. No. That’s my strength. That’s my gift,” she continues. “We’ve got to be at the table. I would hate to bring my district down, but I would even more hate to let young people in this country down.”