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The Tennessee Three: Attempt to silence lawmakers strikes at heart of democracy

In a triumphant moment for democracy and for the people of Tennessee, local officials in Nashville and Memphis voted unanimously last week to reappoint Justin Jones and Justin Pearson to their seats in the Tennessee House of Representatives after they were wrongfully expelled for protesting Republicans’ inaction on gun violence. Last Monday, Pearson stood on the steps of the Tennessee Capitol and declared, “The movement lives.”

In the time since the Legislature voted to oust the two young, Black members – with one white member, Rep. Gloria Johnson, narrowly surviving expulsion – the nation has been roiled with outrage. After the three legislators joined thousands of young people inside the Capitol for a historic protest following a horrific elementary school shooting in Nashville, the Republican majority wasted no time in dredging up Jim Crow tactics to smear Jones and Pearson before expelling them. For speaking truth to power, Republicans accused them of breaking the rules of decorum. It was an old ploy to silence Black voices and push them out of the halls of power.

Six decades ago, the Southern Poverty Law Center’s first president, Julian Bond, faced similar maneuvering by Georgia lawmakers. In June of 1965, voters elected the civil rights leader to the Georgia House of Representatives, but white members refused to seat him for criticizing the war in Vietnam.

Not to be deterred, Bond filed a lawsuit in federal court. He lost and appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, which reversed the lower court decision and ruled unanimously in his favor. Writing for the court, Chief Justice Earl Warren said, “The manifest function of the First Amendment in a representative government requires that legislators be given the widest latitude to express their views on issue of policy.”

Legislators like Bond, Jones and Pearson must have the right to speak freely, represent their communities and fight for change. The Tennessee Three used their platforms to amplify the vocal cries for change of their constituents and demand that our leaders do better for children. For that, the Republican majority attacked their right to free speech – and denied their constituents’ right to representation.

The events in Tennessee didn’t happen in a vacuum. Across the South, Republicans are finding new and increasingly shameful ways to abandon democracy and lower the moral floor.

Alabama adopted new congressional district maps after the 2020 U.S. census that were deliberately drawn to diminish the political power of the state’s Black residents. With our partners, the SPLC submitted an amicus brief to the U.S. Supreme Court in Merrill v. Milligan, which challenges the constitutionality of the maps. Our brief outlines how the Alabama Legislature systematically deprived Black Alabamians of their right to elect candidates of their choice and the dividing of Black Belt residents across four different districts, robbing them of political power.

In February, Gov. Ron DeSantis’ administration adopted new rules that censor free speech at the Florida Capitol. The rules require that rallies, demonstrations or events held inside the building be sponsored by a state official or lawmaker and “align with state agency missions.” It’s no coincidence these rules came down as the administration pushes legislation that egregiously violates civil rights, including bills to ban the teaching of Black history, end life-affirming medical care for LGBTQ+ young people and criminalize anyone who offers aid to undocumented immigrants.

After Georgia voters – and Black voters especially – turned out to vote in historic numbers in 2020, Republican state lawmakers quickly acted to curtail the freedom to vote by passing a bill that voting rights advocate Stacey Abrams dubbed “Jim Crow 2.0.” Among other consequences, it is harder for voters to cast an absentee ballot, drop boxes have been vastly curtailed and mobile voting centers are banned. Equally disturbing, Georgia and other states continue to pursue repressive policies and tactics – as civil rights advocates both feared and predicted – aimed at stifling free speech and punishing dissent and political protest.

Earlier this month, nearly all-white supermajorities in the Mississippi Legislature passed two bills that give authority over part of Jackson – a city with the nation’s second-highest Black population – to Mississippi Capitol Police and unelected judges, stripping residents of fair representation. And, like Florida, the Jackson takeover bills also restrict free speech throughout Mississippi by forcing Mississippians to get written permission before holding an event on or near property owned by the state or any state official.

Since the 2020 election in particular, Republicans in the South and across the country have proposed hundreds of bills to assert partisan control over free speech, the elections process and the power of local elected officials, often officials who are Black and represent majority-Black districts. Based on the deluge of anti-voter bills sweeping the nation over the last decade, we know these latest schemes in the South will serve as blueprints for racial exclusion and anti-democracy bills elsewhere.

As Republican lawmakers embrace anti-democracy extremism, we cannot look away. We must condemn these power grabs and call out racism in our nation’s governing institutions. We must take to the streets in protest. And we must vote in every election – federal, state and local – up and down the ballot. As Julian Bond, Jones and Pearson and the thousands of young people raising their voices for justice today teach us, when we organize collectively, democracy wins.

Picture at top: Tennessee state Reps. Justin Jones, left, and Justin Pearson meet with supporters at the Tennessee State Capitol in Nashville on April 6, 2023. Officials voted unanimously to reappoint Jones and Pearson after they were expelled for protesting Republicans’ inaction on gun violence. (Credit: Nicole Hester/The Tennessean/USA Today Network)