Rev. Dr. William Barber knocks for entry at the Dollar General Corp. shareholder’s meeting at Goodlettsville City Hall in 2021 as then-State House candidate Justin Jones prays. (Photo: John Partipilo)
This story has been updated.
State, local and national faith leaders laid out plans this week for a national day of action in Nashville on Monday in response to the expulsions of two Black men, Democratic Reps. Justin Pearson and Justin Jones, from the Tennessee Legislature.
On Saturday, gun reform advocates — Tennessee Students Demand Action and Moms Demand Action volunteers — announced they would join the actions.
The “Moral Monday” rally at the state capitol will be led by Tennessee clergy along with national faith and civil rights leaders including Bishop William Barber, II. A decade ago, Barber helped launch a sustained series of nonviolent civil disobedience actions inside the North Carolina state capitol each Monday to call attention to policies that impacted poor and marginalized groups.
The Moral Monday actions have since spread to other states, attracting hundreds or thousands of people at each event. Plans for Monday’s action in Nashville call for a 2 p.m. teach-in at McKendree United Methodist Church; a 3 p.m. march to the state capitol; and a 4 p.m. rally outside the capitol.
Barber, in a video call announcing the plans on Wednesday, left open the possibility for the kind of peaceful civil obedience actions inside the Tennessee Capitol that have led to arrests in other states during Moral Monday gatherings.
Barber and faith leaders also released an initial outline of a document they call “The Nashville Principles.” The document lays out a “moral vision to move the country forward at a time when extremists are using state capitols to make an end run around the U.S. Constitution and the heart of our democracy.”
— Rev. Dr. William J. Barber II (@RevDrBarber) April 9, 2023
“All across the country, and especially in the South, we’re seeing attempted political coups d’etat,” the initial draft of the principles said. A final principles document will be released at Monday’s action, faith leaders said.
“This must be exposed,” the document said. “It must be challenged in a way that goes deeper than partisanship. Republicans, Democrats and Independents must stand together to reclaim democracy. Legislators in these houses, when there’s an attempt to shut them down, must stand like the Tennessee Three and say, ‘we will not be silenced.’”
The rally will feature numerous child caskets to call attention to the impact of assault weapons’ devastation on the bodies of nation’s children — and in an explicit nod to Emmitt Till, a 14-year-old Black teen brutalized in 1955 by racist violence in Mississippi. Till’s mother insisted on an open casket to show the world her child’s badly damaged body. Organizers said displays of child coffins are intended to provide a visceral display of the impact of assault weapons on children massacred in schools.
Pearson, a Memphis Democrat, was restored to his seat Wednesday by the Shelby County Commission. Jones, a Nashville Democrat, was restored to his seat Monday by the Metro Nashville Council and returned to the legislature the same day.
The expulsion hearings last week — which also included a failed effort to expel Rep. Gloria Johnson, a Knoxville Democrat — have galvanized supporters for the so-called Tennessee Three and brought national attention to the inner workings of the Tennessee State Capitol and its GOP super majority leadership.
During the video call announcing the events details, local faith leaders included Rev. Gordon Meyers, retired pastor from the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America, Rev. Stephen Handy, pastor of McKenzie United Methodist Church, Rev. Chris Buice, pastor of the Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist Church and Bishop Vashti Murphy McKenzie, interim president & general secretary for National Council of Churches of Christ in USA, who served as presiding prelate of the 13th Episcopal District in Tennessee and Kentucky.
Full text: “The Nashville Principles: A Moral Vision and Demands to Move Our Country Forward
Representatives Justin Jones and Justin J. Pearson may be, rightfully, returning to their seats in the Tennessee House, but that does not even remotely bring an end to the moral decay thrust into the limelight the last few weeks.
Jones, Pearson, and their colleague Gloria Johnson, who stood with them but wasn’t expelled, are showing us that this crisis of democracy is not about individuals. As they keep reminding us, it’s not about them. When Speaker of the Tennessee House Cameron Sexton sought to expel them, he was trying to expel any debate on gun control. He was trying to expel the voices of dead children speaking from the grave. He was trying to expel the voices of more than 200,000 Tennesseans, whose votes put Jones, Pearson and Johnson in the House.
So returning individuals to their duly elected seats does not solve the problem.
Extremists are using state capitols to make an end run around the U.S. Constitution and the heart of our democracy. “Nashville” is happening all over the country: from Mississippi, where extremists in the state House of Representatives passed a bill creating a separate, unelected court in the majority-Black city of Jackson; to North Carolina, where a Democrat switched parties to hand Republicans a supermajority; to Florida, where voter suppression is top of the agenda in the state legislature; to Missouri, where Republicans defunded libraries. All across the country, and especially in the South, we’re seeing attempted political coups d’etat.
This must be exposed. It must be challenged in a way that goes deeper than partisanism. Republicans, Democrats, and Independents must stand together to reclaim democracy. Legislators in these houses, when there’s an attempt to shut them down, must stand like the Tennessee Three and say, “We will not be silenced.”
In Tennessee and in state legislatures across the country, we must challenge the politics of public policy murder. The failed attempt to silence three Tennessee lawmakers cannot hide the fact that extremists in state houses across the country are manufacturing death via public policy.
They won’t ban assault weapons even though they are used to create death.
They won’t pass Medicaid expansion even though the denial of healthcare results in death.
They won’t address living wages even though poverty causes death.
We must respond to this policy violence with a moral coalition that leads a movement against the policies of murder.
Ten years ago this month in North Carolina, we did just that, launching the Moral Monday movement. And it worked. To protest the extremism of a Tea Party take-over that aimed to dismantle our state government, we engaged with a diverse coalition that looked like our state for 14 weeks. We traveled across the state, right into the heart of so-called extremist politicians’ districts. We had a massive gathering of 100,000 people the following winter. And in the next election, extremists lost the governorship, the attorney general, the state supreme court and the supermajority in the legislature that they had built up as a result of racialized voter suppression.
We must not just commemorate that anniversary, but rededicate ourselves to the fight. When there’s debate on gun legislation, legislators should pack the galleries with parents and siblings of the dead holding photos of their loved ones. General assemblies should read the names of children killed needlessly by assault weapons. Just like Emmett Till’s mother did, at the beginning of the debate on gun legislation, elected officials should show the pictures of what happens to a child when their bodies are riddled with assault weapon bullets.
This is the debate we’re going to have to have. And we will not be silenced. We will wage nonviolent campaigns of civil disobedience in every state capitol where the leadership is trying to strangle democracy. In his Letter from the Birmingham Jail, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr wrote that the greatest enemy of the civil rights movement was moderates who loved order more than they did freedom. We will not let formality be the enemy of moving forward.
We demand that our representatives open debates with the truth, not partisan distortion: there is no corollary between more weapons and less violence.
And we pledge to show the country that this isn’t just about guns. The battle for gun laws is directly tied to the battle for the restoration of the Voting Rights Act. Anyone concerned about guns and violence must be concerned about racialized voter suppression, which allows people to get elected through trickery, not democracy, and then push policies that promote death.
If leaders of legislatures don’t want to hear the debate, they should step down.
Like Dr. King said when four little girls were blown up in an Alabama church, we must stand up to politicians who chose order over reordering. Why is it we can’t get gun laws passed? Every extremist politician who refuses to face the facts is the reason why. Every politician regardless of party who has not ensured the restoration of the Voting Rights Act is the reason why. And every preacher who has stood in the pulpit and gone along with extremism is the reason why.
We must refuse to accept the narrative that says our nation is divided between red country and blue country; there’s only people’s country. There’s only states with lack of voter participation, waiting to be organized. In Tennessee in 2020, about 800,000 voters didn’t vote. Many of those who ran for office didn’t even have competition. If we didn’t have racialized voter suppression, they wouldn’t have these secure seats. If 25 to 30 percent of poor and low-wealth unregistered voters registered and voted, we could change outcomes.
Normal political logic gets upended when there’s a moral movement. And Nashville is showing again, such a movement is underway. It’s time for all of us to continue the moral fusion third reconstruction movement that has been rising up all over the country in various ways for the last 10 years. Forward Together, Not One Step Back.
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