Will a Grassroots Movement Remake Tennessee—Again?Roundup
tags: civil rights, democracy, Tennessee
Ansley L. Quiros is associate professor of history at the University of North Alabama and author of God With Us: Lived Theology and the Freedom Struggle in Americus, Georgia, 1942-1976. Twitter
Anthony C. Siracusa is the author of Nonviolence Before King: The Politics of Being and Black Freedom Struggle. Twitter
For several weeks, all eyes have been on Tennessee.
After the horrific shooting at the Covenant School in Nashville on March 27, hundreds of protesters gathered at the Tennessee Capitol. State Reps. Justin Jones, Justin Pearson and Gloria Johnson — now known as the “Tennessee Three” — joined them on the Tennessee House floor in calling for “gun control now” and “not one more.”
On April 6, the legislature’s Republican supermajority expelled Pearson and Jones, both of whom are Black, for violating “rules of decorum,” while Johnson, who is White, narrowly survived an expulsion vote. None of the 72 members who voted to expel either of the two Black lawmakers was African American. Tennessee House Speaker Cameron Sexton outlandishly charged that Pearson’s and Jones’s actions were “at least equivalent, maybe worse depending on how you look at it, to doing an insurrection in the State Capitol.”
The disproportionate rhetoric and punishment — only eight members have been expelled from the Tennessee legislature since the Civil War — is rooted in a history of Black exclusion in state politics. Before 1964, only a handful of Black people had served in the legislature, all during Reconstruction between 1865 and 1877.
Kathy Sinback of the Tennessee ACLU called the expulsions a continuation of “the shameful legacy of disenfranchising,” while Sherrilyn Ifill explained that ignoring the will of voters who sent Jones and Pearson to the legislature was “new but it’s old.”
Yet, the backlash against the expulsions — Nashville and Memphis have already returned Jones and Pearson to office — also has a long historical lineage. In fact, while Montgomery, Atlanta and Mississippi tend to get more attention, Nashville was an early center of civil rights movement activism, and this history shows the potential power of the new movement coalescing today.
In the 1950s, Tennessee Gov. Frank Clement maintained a publicly moderate position on civil rights — even vetoing a racial segregation bill. This veneer of racial moderation was common for Tennessee politicians, especially in Nashville. In “The Nashville Way,” historian Ben Houston described it as “genuine sympathy for black advancement undergirded by deeply felt assumptions of black inferiority.”
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