Wednesday, March 23, 2016

Famous Visitors to the Tennessee Legislature

For decades, the Tennessee General Assembly has invited guests to speak during legislative sessions. Some are welcomed as honored guests, receiving awards or special recognition. Others are invited to speak on matters of policy brought before legislators. These guests come from many different backgrounds, representing fields as diverse as politics, entertainment, athletics and publishing. Some of them are cultural icons who have influenced Tennessee history and even brought national attention to the state.

President Lyndon B. Johnson addressing the legislative body in the Tennessee House of Representatives.
March 15, 1967.
Photographs: Lyndon B. Johnson Visit to Nashville Collection.

State and federal political leaders have visited the Tennessee General Assembly for a number of reasons - among them, campaigning for office, supporting legislation, and pushing for reforms. John F. Kennedy was in his second term in the United States Senate when he visited in 1959. He made a speech describing the country's movement into an age of conscience and national survival. In 1967, President Lyndon B. Johnson visited to discuss the United States policy in Vietnam. Civil rights leader Whitney M. Young also paid legislators a visit in 1971. Young strove to end employment discrimination and was a key figure in making the National Urban League a full partner in the civil rights movement.

John F. Kennedy, then a U.S. Senator, spoke before the Tennessee Legislature on February 25, 1959. His speech regarding entering an age in need of conscience and national survival was indicative of his forward-looking policies.

Entertainers have made frequent appearances before the General Assembly, sometimes to perform or speak on behalf of organizations they support, and sometimes as honorees. In 1961, Elvis Presley, the “King of Rock ‘n’ Roll,” was presented a certificate of friendship by Governor Buford Ellington, as well as Senate Joint Resolution 52, which recognized Elvis for his character and his career accomplishments.

Also in 1971, the Carter family of country music performers stopped by the legislature to advocate for Walden House, a special care center for autistic children in Nashville. Anita Carter’s son was a day student there. While at the legislature, Mother Maybelle Carter and the Carter sisters (minus June) performed several songs.

On April 15, 1971, the Carter Family (Mother Maybelle, Helen, and Anita Carter, with Bobby Harden standing in for June Carter Cash) visited the Tennessee Legislature to advocate for Walden house, a special care center for autistic children in Nashville. Anita Carter’s son was a day student there. While at the legislature, the Carter Family performed several songs, including an autoharp solo by Mother Maybelle and “Wildwood Flower.”

Several athletes have also made appearances in the legislature over the years. Legislators honored University of Tennessee (UT) Lady Vols Basketball Coach Pat Summitt in 1987 after her first national championship. Summitt now holds the record for the most all-time wins for a coach in NCAA basketball history, men's or women's, with eight national championships and 1,098 career wins.

More recently, UT football legend John T. Majors was honored by the General Assembly in 2009 under House Joint Resolution 186 for outstanding service to the state. Majors served as head football coach at UT from 1977 to 1992 with an overall record of 116 wins and 62 losses.

Be sure to check out our online exhibit on John T. Majors for more information and pictures.

Tennessee is also lucky to claim many authors and writers who have made a social or cultural impact. One of the most notable to visit the Tennessee Legislature is Alex Haley, author of the 1976 book, Roots. Haley lived in Henning until he was five years old. In his speech to the legislature, he noted how some of his ideas about family tradition were shaped while watching his grandmother and her sisters sit in rocking chairs on the front porch swapping old stories. Roots had major influence on awareness in the United States of African-American history and inspired a lot of interest in genealogy. Haley is also noted for conducting the longest interview Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. ever granted to any publication and for writing The Autobiography of Malcolm X.

Alex Haley, author of Roots and the Autobiography of Malcom X, spoke at the Tennessee Legislature on May 9, 1985. A native of the West Tennessee town of Henning, Haley explained how some of his ideas about family tradition were shaped while watching his grandmother and her sisters sit in rocking chairs on the front porch, swapping old stories. In his speech to the legislature, Haley noted that we are the reflection of the better days longed for by our ancestors.

These are just a handful of famous and inspiring Tennesseans who have visited our legislature. You can find more information and discover other famous visitors through our legislative history program. The Tennessee State Library & Archives is responsible for recording all sessions, committees and subcommittees of the House and Senate, dating back to 1955.

The State Library and Archives is a division of the Tennessee Department of State and Tre Hargett, Secretary of State

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