I was still in my pajamas last Saturday morning when two young men knocked on my door. One was wearing an Amelia Parker T-shirt; the other was holding a City Council Movement push card. We had a brief, pleasant conversation that confirmed what I already suspected:
Anyone running against Amelia Parker better get up early, stay late and pack a lunch. She’s going to be tough to beat.
If the name sounds familiar, it should. Parker, who is part of a crowded field of candidates for Knoxville City Council At-Large, Seat C, was at the epicenter of a dramatic dustup in 2017 when she ran for the District 4 council seat and ended up in a shocking 488-488 tie for second place with former state Rep. Harry Tindell in the primary.
So powerful was the Parker/Tindell drama that Lauren Rider, who qualified for the general election with 889 votes and eventually would win the general election, pretty much got lost in the controversy over second place.
After a few days of dithering over how to break the tie, city council rejected the notion of flipping a coin and decided to vote.
This method favored Tindell – a mild-mannered, well-liked Democrat who had served in the state legislature for 22 years and was on the school board a couple of terms before that – over Parker – a young community activist whose passionate, in-your-face challenges to the establishment had pissed off a bunch of elected officials, including the mayor and most everyone who would have a vote in the selection process.
Newcomers to local politics always find the city’s elections weird. They are nonpartisan, although lately city voters tend to elect Democrats. Council races feature a primary contest in August with the top two finishers advancing to the general election in November. The mayoral race can be decided in the primary, if one candidate gets more than 50 percent of the vote. Low voter turnout is another feature of city elections, and it doesn’t seem to matter how heated the races get.
I figured that the super-smart Parker, who has two law degrees and is an honors graduate of the University of Tennessee, would have foreseen that the sitting members of city council, with whom she had a short, contentious history, might prefer Tindell, who is low-key and steady with a reputation of working across the aisle. I was wrong. She thought she had a chance.
“I was surprised at the outcome because I had packed the room with supporters and thought (the council) might follow the wishes of the electorate,” she said.
She also said she wanted the city to develop a rational way to deal with a tie vote, a wish shared by Cliff Rodgers, the county’s election administrator. For about a minute after the vote, it looked like that might happen, but the will to fix it evaporated over time, and to date, nothing has been done.
Parker didn’t go away after the primary. She mounted a write-in campaign and soldiered on, eventually winning nearly 2,200 votes, an astounding number for a write-in candidate.
Rodgers was duly impressed.
“That’s the most write-in votes I’ve ever heard of,” he said. “She came in second in some of the precincts. That’s incredible.”
Rodgers is always hoping for a higher turnout and thinks this year, with three at-large elections and a mayoral race, could be the year.
“Twenty-five thousand would be really good. I’m hoping for 30 (thousand),” he said.
Parker was raised in a churchgoing family. Her mother, Alisha Parker, worked in the lab at Baptist Hospital for decades and did the books at Eternal Life Harvest Center. Her father, the Rev. Lowell Parker, lives in Kentucky and pastors a church there.
She grew up on Sherrod Road, a steep, narrow street that runs up the hill behind the Kerbela Temple, in a house she shared with her mother, granny, two aunts and a cousin. She learned her work ethic from her mother, who on bad-weather days would park her car at the bottom of the hill and hike back down in the morning so she could get to work.
“Maybe she’d slide down to Baptist, but she always made it,” Parker said.
She has fond memories of South Knoxville Elementary School and is happy that it’s still there. Middle school and high school after South High and Doyle High were merged were different stories, however.
She has a picture of her sixth-grade class dance at South Knoxville. There was no theme, just a group of smiling, happy kids, including a large contingent of black students.
Her seventh-grade dance picture was different, more stylized. It had a sock-hop theme, with hoop skirts and ponytails. She was the only black kid in the crowd, a reminder of the rather mysterious arrest of a group of young black students – boys – whom she never saw again.
“It was something about a car – I don’t know. I just didn’t see them again, and I always wondered about them …”
Middle school was when she “got tracked,” she said. In the seventh grade, she found herself excluded from the Talented and Gifted program and had to struggle to get back in, even though her test scores were very high.
She says she was still “struggling to get my footing” at South-Doyle High School, where she joined the Key Club and was assigned the job of finding guest speakers. She brought in the county executive (whose name she doesn’t quite remember, but considering that she graduated in 1997, it would have been Tommy Schumpert). She had a question for him:
“I asked him why people in Farragut had more resources than we did, and he told us very clearly that the parents had more money,” Parker said. She was impressed by his candor and by the fact that he showed up.
“Anybody who would come to our small little Key Club meeting so early was appreciated by us.”
That’s what got Parker started on the pursuit of equality in education, an interest she pursued after she was accepted into UT’s University Scholars program, which came with a hefty scholarship. She designed her own curriculum, patterned after one at Stanford, where she would have gone if she could have afforded it. She worked part time at Lawson McGhee Library, traveled abroad and graduated in 2002 with an honors degree in comparative studies of race and ethnicity.
She attended law school at American University College of Law in Washington, D.C., worked in the Center for Humanitarian Rights and Humanitarian Law and met people from around the world. But she always had a yen to come home.
“Every time I came home, I cried when I had to come back to D.C. I got tired of crying, and luckily, when I made the decision, a job came open that was a wonderful fit – at SOCM (Statewide Organizing for Community Empowerment).”
She was at SOCM from 2009 to 2013 and is now the director of Peace Brigades International, a human-rights organization that provides protective accompaniment (nonviolent intervention) in conflict zones.
And now the Holston Hills resident is running for City Council again. She’s up against a field of widely known, accomplished opponents, and two will advance to the general election. The skeptics are still there, but this time, her fate is in the hands of the voters.
Don’t bet against her.