Race to the Bottom

You might have heard about this but here’s the very abbreviated version:

Two 27 year-old Black male lawmakers were expelled from the Tennessee state legislature this week for participating in a peaceful protest to speak up about gun violence on behalf of their constituents – both young and old – who were not being heard – after three 3rd graders were murdered by a shooter using an assault weapon at a Nashville religious school two weeks ago.

A third lawmaker who participated in the protest, a 60 year-old White woman and retired teacher who lived through a high school shooting in 2007 but still sees the faces of her terrified students in her mind’s eye daily, was NOT expelled.

When asked why, she looked a reporter in the eyes and said, quite plainly, it was because of the color of my skin.

Forever known as The Tennessee Three

Duh, you might say. 

Nevertheless, the point needs to be made.

Again and again. 

Until it sinks in.

For all the national media coverage this has ignited, it’s obvious American’s original sin of racism is not going away any time soon.  It’s also plain to see that those who seek to address it in the hallways of government or through the walkways of their everyday lives, have their work cut out for them.

Can you imagine?

On the other hand, so do those who seek to silence us. 

They’re losing the battle on this and many other social issues and they don’t like it.

Let’s take school shootings and gun violence.

More than half of Americans now want assault weapons banned and more than that want stricter gun laws across the board.  Three of four of us want to raise the age to purchase a gun to 21 years old.

Nevertheless, the answer of the overwhelmingly white, straight, male legislators of Tennessee to this latest slaughter of grade schoolers in their state is to add some security guards at key locations and simultaneously LOOSEN the requirements around purchasing a firearm in their state.

Sorry not sorry for the cursing

Never mind that there was a security guard present 15 YEARS AGO at the shooting that third lawmaker witnessed.   You can also forget that more than 70% of the country, including a majority of Tennesseans, want more, not less, restrictions around guns

But maybe not. 

Because being terrified en masse to speak our minds is not what we Americans do, as a whole.  It’s simply not a democratic tradition.

When our lawmakers refuse to hear us what we do, among other things, is stage peaceful protests, often on the floors of our legislatures and many times led by our local representatives, in order to get our points across.

We act up, we disrupt and we GET LOUDER. 

This is how you raise your voice

That is what happened with civil rights, the Vietnam War, women’s rights, gay liberation, AIDS activism, climate change and so many other issues too numerous to mention.

It won’t immediately end the inequities but it is a proven, effective way to push a growing boulder of dissent up the hill towards recognition by an intractable minority intent on keeping the status quo in place.

It is one of the mechanisms by which democratic societies evolve and it is how real change, incremental though it might be, happens.

Sure is

Rep. Justin Jones, Rep. Justin Pearson and Rep. Gloria Johnson are united in advocating for sensible gun laws in a governing body controlled by an immovable super majority of entrenched white southern males who wield their power in every way possible so as not to hear them or the tens of thousands of citizens they represent.

Those guys are so petty they stuck newly elected Rep. Johnson in a broom closet of a windowless office during the pandemic when she wouldn’t vote for their majority leader of choice. 

They spit at Rep. Jones and urinated on his desk because they objected to his activist roots and his refusal to go along. 

They even told Rep. Pearson to consider a new career if you won’t follow the rules when he showed up in a traditional African dashiki and sporting a large, natural Afro hairdo, at his swearing in ceremony earlier this year. 

Heroic and handsome??

Of course, there was no specific dress code for that House floor.  Just as there was no law or tradition against Pres. Obama wearing that tan suit in the Oval Office all those years ago.

The latter sounds almost quaint now, doesn’t it?

Yet here’s the real point. 

If intransigent lawmakers think a few insults or pre-arranged vote counts will this easily thwart the desire of the vast majority for change, they are being willfully, and sadly, ignorant.

Rep. Johnson wasn’t deterred by her teeny office or even by the sexist remarks they hurled at her.  Instead, she famously dragged her desk out in the hallway, conducting her business there.  And rather than be quiet in thanks for allowing her to stay in her duly elected seat, this week she chose to speak out against the obvious racism they exercised to expel her two younger colleagues as any true ally would.

This is why she and the Justins are quite aptly referred to as The Tennessee Three.

This is America

Of course, the road will be a bit more complicated for those two younger men in this very southern state given their skin color and Gen Z, take no prisoners style.

Yet if their fellow legislators continue their final gasping grab of power and refuse to recognize the wants and needs of the majority of Tennesseans, not to mention the rest of the country, they will do so at their own peril. 

Because they will lose.

Gen Z will save the world

A brief look at both Justins show us they are not to be underestimated and are, in fact, among the smartest, savviest and most qualified representatives of any color Gen Z could have manufactured for this fight.

Justin Jones was raised in Oakland and is a former intern for veteran U.S. Congressman Barbara Lee.  His mother is Filipino, his father is Black and his Mom raised him while putting herself through nursing school.

He graduated from Fisk University, a renowned black college in Nashville, enrolled in Divinity School at Vanderbilt University, and then became a community activist who successfully campaigned for the removal of the bust of a Ku Klux Klan grand wizard that was long displayed in Tennessee’s state capitol. 

Jones (left) with the statue before it was removed

He then led a series of protests after the murder of George Floyd against the state’s loosening gun laws in that very capitol, and kept at it after being arrested more than a dozen times, until he himself was elected as a legislator.  He drew such ire from conservative members that he was recently forced to file a police report against one of them, Rep. Justin Lafferty, when the latter grabbed his phone away and shoved him while filming protests on the Capitol floor.

Note: Previously, Lafferty was mainly known for suggesting that the infamous 3/5 compromise in the Civil War era – which allowed slaveholding states to count 60% of their slave population as citizens in order to gain more representation in Congress but did NOT require them to give those slaves any constitutional rights – as evidence of the South’s effort to end slavery.


As if all this weren’t enough, Jones is also a charismatic orator with a soaring, extended phraseology reminiscent of the late Dr. Martin Luther King  Similarly, he often speaks to a higher calling and a greater good, framing his arguments in biblical aspirations of lifting up his constituents and serving those less fortunate, rather than himself.

Justin Pearson is equally charismatic, but with a more intellectual bent, evoking a younger Malcolm X.  This is unsurprising when you do perfunctory digging into his background.

Born in Memphis, his father was a preacher and his mother was a teacher when his family moved to Washington D.C. so his father could get his master’s degree at Howard University.  But by the time the family was able to move back to Memphis, Pearson found himself attending an underfunded and often-ignored inner city high school.

words to live by

Undeterred, he led a fight for textbooks and AP classes, became school valedictorian, and went on to graduate from Bowdoin College, where he was a Melon Mays fellow and attended a summer public policy institute at Princeton.

He then founded a successful environmental community group that stopped corporate polluters from running a pipeline directly through poor black neighborhoods in south Memphis, which spurred him to run for office.  This led to his victory over a large slate of opponents, earning him the seat of the renowned veteran Black state legislator, the late Barbara Cooper.

Pearson’s learned, intellectual arguments are far beyond his years and impressive, especially his ability to interlace historical examples of political change that support and promote current legislation and issues he advocates for in order to address past legal inequities and contemporary local injustices.

Tennessee legislators often site rules of decorum and especially strict parliamentary procedures in particular when they deal with the Justins.

They really think they are being clever

So a bullhorn they used on the Floor in order to enable the views of parents and young people in their districts protesting the slaughter of three local third graders to be heard was considered especially egregious and instant grounds for expulsion. 

This purposely ignores the fact that this historical, peaceful activism is in the very long tradition of good trouble led by the likes of the late civil rights icon and veteran southern Congressman John Lewis, one he employed the House floor of the US Congress in the last years of his life.

One wonders if the thinking was – you can’t silence a dying icon whose skull was cracked three generations ago at the hands of our southern white male ancestors, but you can stop a pair of uppity ((Note: Their words, not mine) young Black men in the Tennessee legislature in 2023 with a supermajority of middle-aged, straight white males representing a group of gerrymandered straight white districts vote to strip them of their jobs.


But it won’t work. 

Not in 2023

Because in these good old new days the world is literally watching them, via their phones and on their screens and tablets. 

And that new, multiracial, American supermajority is repelled by what it sees.

Speech from Justin Pearson – “My People Didn’t Quit”


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