The new civil rights leaders
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.
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.
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
Rep. Justin Jones, D-Nashville, photographed in 2022 in front of Woolworth on 5th Ave. in Nashville. Now a theatre, the Woolworth store played a central role during the the 1960s Civil Rights Movement, as young activists -- including the late U.S. Rep. John Lewis -- launched sit-ins at the store's lunch counter. (Photo: John Partipilo)
Wendi C. Thomas, Editor & Publisher and founder of MLK 50. Wendi founded MLK50: Justice Through Journalism in 2017 as a one-year project that grew into a nonprofit newsroom that focuses on poverty, power and public policy in Memphis. She is with the Ida B. Wells statue on Beale Street in Memphis May 6, 2022.
Jamel Campbell-Gooch, photographed outside Elizabeth Senior Center in Nashville. Campbell-Gooch is the founder of Black Nashville Assembly and the Southern Movement Committee, both organizations building racial justice power in the south. He is also founder of Moving Nashville Forward, a project to bring guaranteed basic income to Nashvillians. (Photo: John Partipilo)
Tequila Johnson, co-founder and executive director of The Equity Alliance, and Sen. Charlane Oliver, photographed by John Partipilo in Nashville's Centennial Park at the Tennessee Woman Suffrage monument. Johnson and Oliver founded The Equity Alliance, a nonprofit organization devoted to in 2016 educating, empowering and mobilizing Black Tennesseans through civic participation.
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