As they embraced on the dais at the Netroots Nation conference in Chicago, twenty-seven-year-old Tennessee State Representative Justin Jones and eighty-one-year-old civil rights icon Reverend Jesse Jackson somehow symbolized distance traveled toward achieving the American Dream, and the obstacles and entrenched resistance that remains.
Jones and Democratic colleague Justin Pearson were expelled from the Tennessee State Legislature earlier this year. They had joined demonstrators calling for action on gun safety after an assassin killed three people in a mass shooting at the Covenant School in Nashville. When his microphone was cut off, Jones pulled out a bullhorn on the House floor.
“We love to go around the world talking about democracy, but we have no democracy,” Jones told the crowd, adding: “We are the state where the Klan was born and their descendants are governing.” Of the state’s Republican rulers, he added: “They really believe they are fighting the Civil War again.”
If legislative leaders thought they were teaching two uppity young African-American legislators a lesson, they in turn received one.
Jones, Pearson and State Representative Gloria Johnson – a white lawmaker who survived the expulsion vote – became celebrated national figures. The “Tennessee Three” were received at the White House by President Biden.
“We have broken the system so people now say, our state is not something to give up on,” said Jones. He gave Netroots a capsule history lesson. While Nathan Bedford Forest may have founded the Klan in Tennessee, the Volunteer State played a major role in birthing the Civil Rights movement of the 1960’s.
Fisk University, Jones’ alma mater, was an early center of lunch counter sit-ins. The Highlander Folk School trained activists (including Rosa Parks) in non-violent action. Justin Jones carried forward the tradition campaigning to have a bust of Nathaniel Bedford Forest removed from the State Capitol.
Of those who urged him to apologize, Jones reflected Friday: “There are people who confuse proximity to power with power.” Members of the Metropolitan Council of Nashville and Davidson County, who spurned Jones’ candidacy last year, voted 36–0 to restore him to the Legislature, overturning the expulsion. He is still officially an interim representative and must run for his seat in a special election.
Jones described his state’s rulers as “fascists” and said “We do not have free.” The gerrymandered Tennessee Legislature has ignored gun legislation, voting instead to restrict drag shows, virtually outlaw abortion care and ban gender affirming healthcare. Nashville no longer has its own member of Congress, but was split into pieces of three Republican-leaning U.S. House districts.
Reverend Jackson, who suffers from Parkinson’s Disease, came on stage in a wheelchair. He has been engaged in civil rights work, Jackson figured Friday, for sixty-four years and in 1968 was on the motel balcony in Memphis where Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., was assassinated.
Jackson announced Friday that he is giving up leadership of the PUSH-Rainbow Coalition which he founded in 1996. “I’m not leaving, I’m stepping over,” he said. “I’m going to teach young ministers how to fight for justice.”
His voice now soft, Jackson led the crowd in chants familiar to those who covered his 1984 and 1988 presidential campaigns: I am… somebody. Stop the violence. Save the children. The chants were first heard when the young North Carolina minister moved to Chicago and began to challenge the immovable political machine of Mayor Richard Daley.
When he first arrived in the Windy City, armed with a letter of praise from the governor of North Carolina, Jackson went to see Hizzoner. If you hustle your precinct and get out the votes, Daley told him, there might be a patronage job waiting for you, like taking tolls on the Chicago Skyway or the Dan Ryan Expressway.
Chicago voters recently put an African-American mayor in office for the third time, a former school teacher and Chicago Teachers Federation leader named Brandon Johnson, who spoke last night. Jesse Jackson has helped send two sons to Congress. And a young community organizer who worked in the city, Barack Obama, was elected and reelected the forty-fourth President of the United States.