Appreciation for the Tennessee Three
Tennessee State Rep. Gloria Johnson and former Reps. Justin Pearson and Justin Jones exit the chapel at Fisk University in Nashville, a historically Black college that played a key role in the Civil Rights Movement. (Photo:John Partipilo)
Thanks to the “Tennessee Three,” the nation, indeed much of the world, now has seen the mendacity and racism lurking just beneath the surface of our Tennessee legislature’s Republican supermajority. Like many, I watched in horror, but not surprise, as our legislators voted to expel two young, Black, eloquent representatives of the people — using a minor rules/decorum issue as the pretense for action. It was like enforcing the death penalty for jaywalking.
Speaker Cameron Sexton tried to maintain a façade of normality and fairness on Thursday, the day of the expulsion hearings. Under the spotlight of national coverage, he rolled through several bits of legislative business with a far greater than typical deference to dissenting voices. He could not, however, hide forever the crazy uncles in the attic. Once discussion began on the expulsion resolutions, rural Southern white male privilege let its freak flag fly.
To their eternal credit, Rep. Justin Jones of Nashville and former Rep. Justin Pearson — likely soon to be reappointed — of Memphis responded to every outrage with clear and precise refutation — Jones largely with a debater’s eye for falsehoods and double standards, Pearson with a preacher-like call for moral and ethical purpose. Each kept bringing us back to the real point — our legislature’s refusal to take proven steps to reduce gun violence, a point driven home by massive protests smugly ignored by the GOP legislators.
I cannot praise too highly their courage, but let me also take a moment of appreciation for my friend, Rep. Gloria Johnson. She survived expulsion by one vote, and both her white skin color and the embarrassing falsehoods in the resolution against her likely played some role in that outcome.
Hundreds, if not thousands, of people in East Tennessee have “Gloria Stories.” She listens intently, researches thoroughly, and always shows up and works hard for the oppressed. Her political organizing skills are legendary, and she has a teacher’s ability to inspire young people, including young people like Jones and Pearson with whom she walked arm in arm.
I met Johnson in 2008 when she ran our local Obama campaign. She then led the Knox County Democratic Party, growing its base and outreach. When she became a state legislator, my wife often looked in on the cat who adopted Gloria. I created a backstory for the cat, nicknaming it Catman Johnson, a blues performer best known for a medley of the songs “Long Tall Woman” and “Gloria.”
The cat and Gloria both had to move when our petty, vindictive legislature created a finger-redistricting that moved her house out of her own district. This wasn’t the first or last time Republicans gave Johnson a figurative upraised finger. Throughout it all, she has maintained a calm confidence, laughing easily at the silly extremes of her legislative colleagues.
One of my favorite Johnson stories, however, has nothing to do with politics. Several years ago, I had an extra ticket to a Knoxville Ice Bears hockey game. I invited Gloria. During the game, the team’s oversized mascot, Chilly Bear, saw the very tall Johnson approaching, and did what I only can call Hubba-hubba gesticulations. She smiled broadly for my photo of the two of them.
When these recent expulsions are remembered years from now, I hope we will recall the moving words of Jones and Pearson. I suspect we also may recall Gloria Johnson’s story of her experience with students fleeing a school shooting. It occurred when she taught at Knoxville’s Central High.
The old white reactionaries in the Tennessee House last week were slumped in their chairs, bored, checking their phones, and largely casting pre-determined and indefensible expulsion votes. The future, however, belongs to three courageous people who showed the world the sad and anti-democratic farce playing out to an incredulous world.
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