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‘Tennessee Three’ revive King’s message for those who need to hear it

'How can you bring dishonor to an already dishonorable House?' asked ousted member

Democratic state Rep. Justin Jones of Nashville gestures during a vote on his expulsion from the state legislature on April 6 in Nashville.
Democratic state Rep. Justin Jones of Nashville gestures during a vote on his expulsion from the state legislature on April 6 in Nashville. (Getty Images)

Since I could not say it any better than the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., I’ll just quote him: “I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Counciler nor the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to ‘order’ than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice.”

His “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” written and published in 1963, was King’s answer to the well-respected white clergy members who deemed his civil rights protests “unwise,” and published their disapproval in an ad in a Birmingham newspaper.

But the message could just as easily apply to the Republican state legislators in Tennessee who last week expelled two Black Democratic colleagues for breaking “decorum,” even as children afraid for their lives continued to plead for gun reform that might make them feel just a bit safer in their schoolrooms. There was shouting but no arrests, no violence, no property damage — just peaceful demands for “justice.”

That Republicans called these demonstrators “insurrectionists” was a disgusting touch that might have had those 1960s-era white clergymen, clueless as they were back then, shaking their heads.

It’s ironic that Tennessee is one of many states peering into a microscope for any sign that classroom lessons on race might cross some vague line, after a law forbidding discussion of so-called divisive concepts was signed by Gov. Bill Lee in 2021. A chapter of “Moms for Liberty” didn’t spare a book about King from its wrath.

The actions by Republican lawmakers in Nashville prove that more, not less, teaching on the truthful history of America and Tennessee, birthplace of the Ku Klux Klan, is sorely needed because, clearly, they haven’t learned a thing.

Trying to make uncomfortable truths go away by admonishing and punishing those who bring them into the light has never worked for long.

The fact that three adults and three children at a Christian school in Nashville had been murdered by an assailant wielding a semi-automatic weapon seemed to disappear as GOP members of the Tennessee General Assembly took turns dressing down the “Tennessee Three,” reaching for the most condescending words in their vocabularies.

“Just because you don’t get your way, you can’t come to the well, bring your friends and throw a temper tantrum with an adolescent bullhorn,” Republican state Rep. Andrew Farmer said to Rep. Justin Pearson. He responded by deriding Farmer’s tone: “How many of you would want to be spoken to that way?”

Better to have listened rather than lectured, and felt the urgency of colleagues who do not look like them, who have backgrounds as activists, who were elected overwhelmingly by constituents, tens of thousands of them, who were stripped of representation when the lawmakers had their microphones cut off, their IDs invalidated and their bodies, finally, cast out.

Better for the legislators from a different political party to have learned from them, and from parents and children in the galleries and outside the chambers.

The third member of the trio, teacher Rep. Gloria Johnson, recalled seeing students fleeing a shooting at her school in 2008. She honored the names and memories of those killed at Covenant School. Johnson, spared expulsion by a single vote, unlike the two she stood alongside, is a white woman in her 60s. Just let that sink in for a moment.

And remember, since most of the GOP legislators hypocritically rolling in moral high dudgeon did not, the disgraceful scene took place in the week of the 55th anniversary of the murder of King by an assassin’s bullet — across the state in Memphis.

What did they accomplish with the swift move? Well, after the events of last week, three state legislators whom few outside of their districts knew much about have had their profiles and causes elevated.

‘Built on a protest’

Pearson sounded more preacher than politician when he said: “You are seeking to expel District 86’s representation in this House — in a country that was built on a protest,” adding: “In a country built on people who speak out of turn, who spoke out of turn, who fought out of turn to build a nation. I come from a long line of people who have resisted.”

The expelled Democratic Rep. Justin Jones was equally eloquent when he asked: “How can you bring dishonor to an already dishonorable House? How can you bring disorder to a House that is out of order, where the speaker refuses to let representatives elected to speak for their people even be heard?”

Their fight recalled the legacy of King, who traveled to Memphis to raise the voices of that city’s neglected and disrespected sanitation workers, toiling in dangerous conditions for low pay.

The world has also learned about the members of the Tennessee legislature’s Republican caucus, predominantly white and male. Past comments about bringing back “hanging by a tree” as a method of execution, charges of criminal and sexual misconduct and persistent instances of reflexive racism have not been enough to earn the expulsion handed to Jones and Pearson.

Now, Jones is back after the Nashville Metropolitan Council voted on Monday to return him to his seat as “interim” representative before a special election is held. Though he drew the attention and visits from national Democratic leaders, including President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris, he did not really need their words to craft a way forward.

Upon his return, speaking from the steps of the Tennessee State Capitol, Jones said: “Today we are sending a resounding message that democracy will not be killed in the comfort of silence.” After a vote is held in Shelby County, Pearson may not be far behind.

But how much will politics as usual really change?

With gerrymandered districts and a supermajority that can do pretty much what it wants, Tennessee Republicans may not be worried about their power slipping away, not anytime soon. In states throughout the country, with blue dots of cities overwhelmed by surrounding red, any meaningful political swing would certainly be an uphill battle.

But I have a feeling the young people who crowded into the Capitol and the elected officials who echoed their concerns are hardly going to shut up.

Mary C. Curtis has worked at The New York Times, The Baltimore Sun, The Charlotte Observer, as national correspondent for Politics Daily, and is a senior facilitator with The OpEd Project. She is host of the CQ Roll Call “Equal Time with Mary C. Curtis” podcast. Follow her on Twitter @mcurtisnc3.

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