Tennessee Goddam

Bulletin: The Nashville Metropolitan Council voted April 10 to have Rep. Justin Jones reinstated to the Tennessee House of Representatives. The Shelby County Commission voted April 12 to reinstate Rep. Justin Pearson.

Alabama’s gotten me so upset
Tennessee made me lose my rest
And everybody knows about Mississippi Goddam
(Mississippi Goddam, Nina Simone, 1964)

Passed in 1870, the 15th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution states: “The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of race, color or previous condition of servitude” and grants Congress “the power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation.” 

The Voting Rights Act of 1965 adds that, “No voting qualification or prerequisite to voting, or standard, practice or procedure shall be imposed or applied by any State or political subdivision to deny or abridge the right of any citizen of the United States to vote on account of race or color.”

Tennessee Rep. Justin Jones, front, and Rep. Justin Pearson after expulsion from state legislature. Photo: Cheney Orr, Daily Beast

How much the real world deviates from the law on paper was demonstrated by the fascistic majority in the Tennessee state legislature April 6. The requisite two-thirds supermajority voted to oust duly elected House Reps. Justin Jones and Justin Pearson. In banishing these two young Black men, the Tennessee House effectively disenfranchised the 200,000 voters in Memphis and Nashville who elected them, in the state’s two largest cities. 

Is this not a violation of the 15th Amendment and the Voting Rights Act?

Their “crime” was to participate in a mass, multinational protest of mostly young people demanding the legislature pass gun restrictions to halt a spate of school shootings, after an April 3 Nashville school shooting left 3 children and 3 adults dead. Having previously had their microphones cut off on the House floor, Jones, Pearson and Rep. Gloria Johnson briefly stood behind the podium, chanting into a bullhorn. A motion to expel Johnson, who is white, failed by one vote.

House Speaker Cameron Sexton called the action of “The Tennessee Three” an “insurrection,” comparing it to the Jan. 6, 2021, siege of the U.S. Capitol. Rep. Gino Bulso called it a “mutiny.”

When young Tennesseans came back to the state Capitol to support their representatives, they made the point that the same reactionary legislature bans abortions, bans books, attacks trans people and refuses to ban the sale of assault weapons.

A historic pattern

The eyes of the world are on Tennessee after this blatant example of white supremacy. 

The brazenness of the legislators was hardly exceptional in the home state of Confederate General Nathan Bedford Forrest, who had become a millionaire trading in enslaved Africans and had co-founded the KKK after the Civil War. 

One statue of this racist was finally removed from a Memphis park in 2017; a second on private land in Nashville and viewable to motorists on Interstate 65 came down four years later. That same year a bust of Forrest was finally removed from the same state Capitol building in Nashville, where the vote against “The Three” took place. 

In contrast, the Tennessee state Capitol has never had a bust or statue of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., who was assassinated in Memphis in 1968 while supporting a strike of Black sanitation workers.

Speaking to Symone Sanders-Townsend on MSNBC, Rep. Jones said, “What happened yesterday was an act of violence. It was a public lynching,” and he called the state legislature “a body that is so defined by white supremacy, patriarchy and plantation capitalism.” Pearson stated that, “Race again became the defining factor in the separation between what happened to Rep. Jones and I and Rep. Johnson.” (April 8)

Johnson described a meeting of the Criminal Justice Committee to discuss a bill to add the firing squad and electric chair to methods of capital punishment. As if that wasn’t bad enough, “one of the members said ‘I think we need to add hanging by a tree.’ . . . I have heard comments like that on multiple occasions.” (msnbc.com)

A visibly angry Vice President Kamala Harris made a sudden trip to Tennessee to support the expelled legislators, who had met earlier, virtually, with President Joe Biden. 

The Democratic Party officialdom would like to control and contain this important fight against racist disenfranchisement. Whether they can do that in light of the mass anger this incident has provoked remains to be seen.

Whatever form this battle ultimately takes, its content — an ongoing struggle of the most oppressed for the basic democratic right to vote and be represented — deserves the solidarity of progressives and all those who consider themselves revolutionaries.

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