I Stand with the Tennessee Three

Image courtesy of Clker-Free-Vector-Images on Pixabay.com

If you’ve spent time on this blog, you’ll know I’m an advocate and ally of all people from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds. I find myself writing this post because I’m dedicated to a more just, equitable, and beneficial world for everyone. I find myself writing this post because I’m both appalled and incredibly hopeful given what took place in the Tennessee Assembly yesterday.

The three stars in the state flag of Tennessee represent the three “states” of Tennessee – East Tennessee (Knoxville and points east), Middle Tennessee (Nashville area), and West Tennessee (Memphis area). It’s very long state geographically which covers two times zones. It takes 10 hours or so to drive from Knoxville to Memphis even on the interstate. The urban areas of Tennessee tend to be relatively progressive. The rural areas tend to be very conservative and in some areas, still very racist.

Tennessee is my home state. I was born in Knoxville as my dad was preparing to start a Ph.D. program in audiology at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville. My dad was born in Nashville and grew up outside of Memphis in Germantown. Before he was blinded in an accident installing one of the first TV stations in Memphis, my granddad used to be an audio engineer for the live broadcasts from the Grand Ol’ Opry. My mom was born in Murfreesboro and grew up in downtown Nashville, within walking distance of the Grand Ol’ Opry. My parents met when they were both students at UT.

One grandmother’s first cousin was Lester Flatt – the Flatt in the banjo duo Flatt & Scruggs. On the other side of the family, I’m related to Alvin York.

While I no longer live there, my Tennessee roots run deep.

Lester Flatt and Alvin York are part of the story the state of Tennessee wants you to know.

But, Tennessee has a dark and ugly history with race. There is no denying that. And, we need to talk about it.

Tennessee is the birthplace of the KKK. Tennessee seceded from the United States during the Civil War. Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated in Memphis. (My parents, newly married at the time, lived very close to the Lorraine Hotel on April 4, 1968.)

After I graduated from UT myself with my Master’s degree in Speech Pathology, I went to work at the now defunct Greene Valley Developmental Center in Greeneville, Tennessee. Greeneville is named after Nathaniel Greene who was one of George Washington’s most trusted officers during the Revolutionary War. However, when I lived in Greene County in the late 1990s, it was a “sundown” area. I saw the signs posted at the county lines myself.

I learned yesterday that the state of Tennessee used census data from 1901 until they were forced to stop by the federal government in the 1960s. They used the old data so they would not have to reproportion districts to include more Black citizens in districts. It only stopped when the Voting Rights Act was enacted in the 1960s.

If my mom’s mother were alive today, she would live in the district represented by Justin Jones. My grandmother was a daughter of the Depression and a lifelong Democrat. She was a Democrat because the Democrats brought electricity and clean water and relief from the Depression when she was a girl. My grandmother was a deeply religious woman and believed in helping your neighbor by giving the shirt off your back if they needed it and it was all you had to give.

I can’t help but wonder what she would have thought about the events in the Tennessee State House yesterday.

If I were still living in Knoxville, I would live in Gloria Johnson’s district.

Last week, Justin Jones, Justin Pearson, and Gloria Johnson (who survived a school shooting as a teacher) were three Democratic representatives in the Tennessee Assembly. They were duly elected by their constituents in November, 2022. On Thursday, March 30, 2023, they joined their constituents in protesting the most recent school mass shooting which happened in Nashville just days before. They asked for time to speak about gun violence on the Assembly floor and were denied by the Republican speaker, Cameron Sexton. In fact, their mics were cut off on the floor. So, the Tennessee Three got a bullhorn and protested with their constituents who were present.

The Tennessee Highway Patrol (responsible for security at the state capitol) stated the protests were peaceful. Not one person was arrested.

But the Republicans, in an abuse of their supermajority in the body, passed motions to expel the two young, Black men who represented parts of Memphis and Nashville and the white woman who represents parts of Knoxville. The votes were held yesterday. By votes of 75-25, Justin Jones and Justin Pearson were expelled. By a vote of 65-30, Gloria Johnson was able to hold onto her seat by a single vote. When asked why she thought she’d survived the expulsion vote, Rep. Johnson honestly replied she thought it was because the color of her skin. This morning, she has acknowledged she was treated very differently from both Justin Jones and Justin Pearson.

The world got a glimpse of the systemic racism still very much present in the southeastern United States in the way the old, white, male Republican Assembly members talked to Justin Pearson and Justin Jones. The racist, fascist white men stopped just short of saying, “boy.” You could hear it in the way they talked to their Democratic colleagues. The two 27-year old Black men responded with courage and grace their Republican colleagues can only dream about. In their quest for supremacy, the white men who are temporarily in control overreached. The world is no longer 1863 or 1953 or even 1963. It’s 2023.

We do not have to put up with what we witnessed yesterday. In this country, founded on a protest, we the people have the right to peacefully assembly and petition our government for redress of grievances. These rights are guaranteed to us in the First Amendment to the US Constitution.

I am so proud of my fellow Tennesseans who showed up to peacefully assemble for their right to go to school without being shot. I am so proud of my fellow Tennesseans who protested – loudly – throughout the day yesterday at the treatment of the Tennessee Three. It gives me hope that, while yesterday may have been a setback, that ultimately the world will be a more just, equitable, and beneficial place for everyone.

I want to say thank you to Justin Jones, Justin Pearson, and Rep. Gloria Johnson for their bravery and their grace. Thank you for standing up for what you believe in. Thank you for standing up for your constituents. Thank you for standing up to end gun violence.

I stand with the Tennessee Three.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: