NASHVILLE — With white nationalists set to once again gather at a state park, both of Tennessee's top-tier U.S. Senate candidates are saying such groups are not welcome.
This weekend, Montgomery Bell State Park is set to host a joint conference between the American Freedom Party and the Council of Conservative Citizens. Among those to speak at the event is David Duke, the former Grand Wizard of the Knights of the Ku Klux Klan.
Other speakers include Michael Hill, president of League of the South, which organized an October anti-immigration "White Lives Matter" rally in Shelbyville, and Virginia Abernethy, a Vanderbilt University professor emerita who previously described herself to The Tennessean as an "ethnic separatist."
In a statement to the USA TODAY NETWORK-Tennessee, former Gov. Phil Bredesen, a Democrat, said, "Tennessee’s leaders must be unequivocal: there is nothing to celebrate about hatred and discrimination and these groups are not welcome in our state. Full stop.”
In her own statement, U.S. Rep. Marsha Blackburn, a Republican, said such "hateful groups" should be "condemned in the strongest terms."
She said the groups set to come to Tennessee for the event do not reflect the values of those in the Volunteer State.
"Despicable gatherings like this have no place in civil society, nor is this an appropriate use of state property," Blackburn said.
Tennessee State Parks has no policy limiting organizations or people seeking to rent or use its public facilities, Eric Ward, a spokesman for the agency, previously said.
Other Tennessee elected officials — including Gov. Bill Haslam and U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander — previously condemned such groups that had similar gatherings.
Blackburn's comments come as some have sought to highlight any potential connections between her and the hate groups.
Last fall, Talking Points Memo noted that in 2004 Blackburn invited David O. Jones, a Tennessee pastor and former president of the state chapter of the League of the South to lead a prayer on the floor of the U.S. House of Representatives. In the past, Jones has advocated for southern secession.
"I don't think Jones is still a member of the League," Brad Griffin, spokesman for the League of the South told the USA TODAY NETWORK-Tennessee on Tuesday. "He hasn't been involved with the League in years."
The Southern Poverty Law Center has classified the League of the South as a neo-confederate organization. The Anti-Defamation League has labeled the organization a white supremacist group.
While introducing Jones on the House floor, Blackburn said he had a "long and distinguished history of dedication" to his faith and community.
"He is a pioneer in the home–school movement who has made a real difference in the lives of thousands of Tennessee children and their families, and has worked to ensure that we protect the sanctity of life as an example to each and every one of us," she said.
Jones also made two contributions to Blackburn totaling more than $1,000 in 2005 and 2006.
When Talking Points Memo asked Andrea Bozek, a spokeswoman for Blackburn, about Jones' connection with the hate group, she said the congressman was "appalled and saddened by the actions and words of these hate-filled organizations."
"Marsha has not seen Rev. Jones in over a decade and was not aware he was affiliated with this organization,” Bozek said.
Griffin, the spokesman for the League of the South, did not respond to a question about whether the organization is endorsing Blackburn's bid for the U.S. Senate.
In Knoxville, meanwhile, white separatists who have demonstrated at previous events in there say they plan to show up June 23 to protest that city's Pridefest parade.
Contributing: Natalie Allison, The Tennessean. Follow Joel Ebert on Twitter: @joelebert29