The new civil rights leaders

Sen. Charlane Oliver and Tequila Johnson, co-founders of The Equity Alliance. (Photo: John Partipilo)

Sen. Charlane Oliver and Tequila Johnson, co-founders of The Equity Alliance. (Photo: John Partipilo)

In March 2021, the Tennessee Lookout published a photo essay on Nashvillians who participated in the Freedom Rides of the early 1960s — a series of protests against segregation on private bus lines — coupled with narratives taken from interviews with area Freedom Riders.

So in early 2022, photojournalist John Partipilo began working on his next project to pay homage to Tennesseans working in the civil rights arena, conceiving of one to recognize the current generation of activists and organizers.

At the time, Lookout staff reviewed the stories we had published since our 2020 launch and talked to community members about who should be included. We came up with a short list of civil rights leaders in Memphis and Nashville — we will be getting around to those in other cities, including Knoxville, Chattanooga and Clarksville, for instance — and Partipilo and Memphis-based photojournalist Karen Pulfer Focht went to work.

As sometimes happens in journalism, our focus became redirected, to covering redistricting, midterm elections, indictments of elected officials and the big stories we didn’t see coming — such as the case of Mason, Tenn., the majority Black West Tennessee town threatened with takeover by the State of Tennessee. So “The new civil rights leaders” essay wasn’t published.

At the time we conceived of the piece, we made the decision to exclude elected officials and those who were candidates for office. But redistricting, the decisions by several elected officials to retire and the death of one lawmaker opened a path for several of our photo subjects to run for office.

Rep. Justin Pearson, D-Memphis, concludes his defense prior to the House of Representatives voting to expel him on partisan lines. (Photo: John Partipilo)
Rep. Justin Pearson, D-Memphis, concludes his defense prior to the House of Representatives voting to expel him on partisan lines. (Photo: John Partipilo)

The Lookout has covered now-Rep. Justin Pearson, D-Memphis, for almost two years, as he has spoken out against environmental racism in Memphis. We’ve covered Rep. Justin Jones, D-Nashville, almost since our beginning, as Jones led protests in the wake the killing of Minneapolis man George Floyd by police and as he advocated for the removal of a bust of Confederate Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest from the Tennessee Capitol.

Before she was elected to fill the senate seat opened by the departure of retiring Nashville Democrat Brenda Gilmore, Charlane Oliver, along with her business partner, Tequila Johnson, founded and led The Equity Alliance, which advocates for equitable opportunities for Black Tennesseans. Johnson is a force in her own right, having served as one of the key players in securing Jones’s reappointment to the Tennessee House of Representatives after the GOP majority expelled him and Pearson in April.

It's not the suit: Rep. Justin Jones, D-Nashville, in one of his trademark white suits at the Tennessee Capitol for the 2023 State of the State Address. (Photo: John Partipilo)
Rep. Justin Jones, D-Nashville, in one of his trademark white suits at the Tennessee Capitol for the 2023 State of the State Address. (Photo: John Partipilo)

In April 2021, we profiled Moving Nashville Forward, founded in part by Jamel Campbell-Gooch. The organization piloted Nashville’s first guaranteed basic income experiment and Campbell-Gooch recently announced his Metro Council bid.

Wendi Thomas, founder, publisher and editor of MLK at 50: Justice through Journalism, is a powerful force for underserved communities and economic justice. A longtime investigative journalist, Thomas launched MLK50 in 2017 as a one-year project designed to “reckon with what Memphis and America had done with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s sacrifice.” Thomas and MLK50 have won national recognition for their work.

This grouping isn’t exhaustive; we know there are many more people across the state working to create opportunities for underserved populations — including those in poverty, immigrants and Black Tennesseans — and we intend to expand our list of new civil rights leaders. Send your suggestions to us at [email protected]

— Holly McCall, Editor-in-Chief

Justin J. Pearson, Tennessee State House Representative for District 86 Monday, March 6, 2023, in Memphis, Tenn. (Photo By Karen Pulfer Focht)

Wendi C. Thomas, Editor publisher and founder of MLK50: Justice Through Journalism in 2017 as a one-year project that grew into a nonprofit newsroom focusing on poverty, power and public policy in Memphis. She is with the Ida B. Wells statue on Beale Street in Memphis May 6, 2022. (Photo: Karen Pulfer Focht)
Wendi C. Thomas, Editor publisher and founder of MLK50: Justice Through Journalism. She is with the Ida B. Wells statue on Beale Street in Memphis May 6, 2022. (Photo: Karen Pulfer Focht)

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John Partipilo
John Partipilo

Working as a photojournalist for 40 years, Partipilo has won awards such as NPPA Best of Photojournalism and nominated for two Pulitzers. His photography has also been featured in national and international publications. Most importantly Partipilo’s work is about people — people in their different environments and people in their different stages of life. That’s the heart of his work. To him people are so important, because they all have a unique story.

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Karen Pulfer Focht
Karen Pulfer Focht

Karen Pulfer Focht is a freelance photojournalist in Memphis, Tennessee who has won numerous awards in her career, many for in-depth projects about children and families. Her work is regularly published in newspapers and magazines around the world.

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J. Holly McCall
J. Holly McCall

Holly McCall has been a fixture in Tennessee media and politics for decades. She covered city hall for papers in Columbus, Ohio and Joplin, Missouri before returning to Tennessee with the Nashville Business Journal. Holly brings a deep wealth of knowledge about Tennessee’s political processes and players and likes nothing better than getting into the weeds of how political deals are made.

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