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Former Rep. Justin Jones, D-Nashville, Rep. Gloria Johnson, D-Knoxville, and former Rep. Justin Pearson, D-Memphis, raises their hands outside the House chamber
Luis Mirón expresses his thoughts on the predominantly Republican House of Representatives in Tennessee, equating their silencing and expulsion of Black Democratic Reps. Justin Jones and Justin Pearson to “immigrants being denied asylum due to their branding as ‘illegals.’” Pictured is Rep. Justin Jones, D-Nashville, Rep. Gloria Johnson, D-Knoxville, and Rep. Justin Pearson, D-Memphis, raising their hands outside the House chamber after Jones and Pearson were expelled from the legislature on Thursday, April 6, 2023. AP Photo/George Walker IV

#TennesseeThree: Two Black Men And A White Woman Stand Up And Talk Back

Watching racist members of the Tennessee Legislature bring all their power to silence who will now go into the history books as the #TennesseeThree is infuriating, familiar and exhilarating all at the same time.

It is infuriating because this is what happens when people other than white men step up to exercise their First Amendment right to be loud and protest government decisions (or the lack of them when it comes to gun safety). This is supposedly a nation dedicated to democracy, but a power-hungry coalition of white men and their enablers still refuse to let us move past the dark inheritance of our past built on the backs of Black men, women and children.

Our nation, and our statehouses, are filled right now with efforts to limit voting access to those who believe in actual change and progress; sickening attempts at government censorship of thought; laws to roll back basic rights for about everybody but “straight” white men; and disgusting plans for grown people to examine the genitals of other people’s children before they can participate fully in society and school activities.

We All Must Focus On Saving Democracy

All of these naked attempts at control and power consolidation and vengefulness against the people using their voices are building hatred, division and climates where violence is the inevitable outcome. But this is a problem far beyond partisanship, although it’s easy to stick it in a partisan box and point fingers at the other guy. Some of you have told us that folks who are supposed to be journalism leaders tell some of you that the MFP is “extremist” because we focus a lot on saving democracy (rather than partisanship) and are willing to report real history about the effects of systemic, institutional and structural racism that help powerful people of whatever partisan flavor.

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Think about it: There’s a reason the Free Press is the only outlet that will find and break the story of the Confederate Heritage Month proclamation each year. Ask yourself why. (Trust me: It’s not hard to find these days. I set an alarm for early April, and I then click over to that Rankin County neo-Confederate Facebook page where the governor’s team slips it in a slap to transparency, but knowing we’ll find it.) Then note the power behind most media thrones and what they want us all to focus on and not.

What is familiar about the #TennesseeThree to me is what it says about the anger of racist white men. Yes, they are most disgusted with “uppity” Black people as Rep. Justin Jones explained on the Tennessee House floor before being expelled yesterday for far less than many of his white colleagues have done. (I’ve long dubbed the type of call-out list he did as “going Harper Valley PTA on their asses”; some of you will get that reference.) Black people are supposed to be subservient, racists have long been taught. They can’t “run things,” as people busy running our states, nation and democracy into the ground love to complain. They don’t respect The Man. They should be grateful.

Meantime, the same standards don’t apply to racists and their friends. After Mississippi Rep. Karl Oliver called for the “lynching” of people who remove Confederate statues from the public square in 2017, he wasn’t expelled from the Mississippi Legislature. In fact, his colleagues later promoted him. The same white folks who protected Oliver, by the way, now predictably complain they couldn’t possibly be racist one iota because they so belatedly agreed to bring down the onerous Mississippi flag after Black Mississippians had begged and worked to change it for so many decades. Racist white men finally coming around do not get credit for the flag change.

But these guys also really don’t like white women becoming allies with Black people either (even if some are less likely to vote to expel her, too) rather than staying loyal and subservient to the power lords. Racists’ worst nightmare is to see a white woman allied with Black advocates for change. I’ve seen the results of this toward me and white women colleagues around me for 21 years now while running Free Press journalism in Mississippi, which has always taken on racism and white terrorism directly.

A blurry crowd of people in the background with an in focus US Flag hanging in front
“We must remain vigilant daily about democracy, and we must together expose all attempts to chip away at it—which will always be there,” Donna Ladd writes. Photo by Depositphotos.com

I’ve been called a “scalawag” more than once. And a traitor. And even a fatass by local Democratic attorneys pushing their choice for mayor. (One even lunged at me in a restaurant over it.) And a “journalistic slut” by a white man with a few different names who started a blog to rail against me after I kicked him off the JFP website for telling a Hispanic writer that he was going to beat his ass for his immigration reporting. 

A different coalition of anti-LGBTQ+ white businessmen and their friends, furious that I had pointed out their racism for fixating on “Black crime” in a majority-Black city, set up a “parody” blog (it was at jacksonfreakpress.blogspot.com) years back with a drawing of me as a woman-monster whipping my then-business and long-time life partner Todd. They also linked a photo of a white JFP woman investor’s young daughter to a picture of … genital warts. A child. Genital warts. (They wouldn’t take the warts down when I told them to. It took the child’s father visiting with every one of their sorry asses and forcing them to take it down.)

List of offensive terms for women
A conservative “parody” blog calling itself the Jackson Freak Press published this list as a slap at Jackson Free Press founder Donna Ladd in 2004, as well as a drawing of her supposedly whipping her long-term life and business partner. The blog also linked a photo of a woman investor’s young daughter to a photo of genital warts. The primary blogger was angry over pro-LGBTQ+ rights and anti-racism content on the JFP. Courtesy Wayback Machine

By the way, I called those men the “North Jackson Angry Men’s Club” (N-JAM Club, for short). But they’re not just here wanting to “take back” the capital city. Look around you and express thanks for the amazing, not-racist or misogynist men in your midst and recognize the poisonous ones grasping at control by any means necessary, down to trying to limit even contraception.

And yes, even some supposedly “good” white men (including Democrats) will go after women who challenge their status quo, unleashing bizarre and costly stunts and spreading rumors and lies without checking them out. Trash comes in many forms. But maintaining power over everyone else is the point of it all.

‘Freedom Will Always Be A Struggle’

Ultimately, the #TennesseeThree scenario is exhilarating. Why? Because it’s hard, hard work to reveal and break up systems of control and to face whoever keeps those systems in place to have their little piece of the power pie, at least until it’s gone, too. Despite the gaslighting and name-calling, we have to expose it for all to see. The words of Bob Moses years back in my home county, honoring the slain civil rights workers there, have stuck with me through all these Free Press years and inevitable attacks: Freedom will always be a damn struggle. (OK, he didn’t say “damn.”)

Bob Moses teaching math to students at Lanier High School
“One of the best things about this country is that you can live a life in struggle,” Bob Moses said on Sunday, June 22, 2003, while commemorating James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Mickey Schwerner at Mt. Zion Methodist Church—the same church that had to be rebuilt after the Ku Klux Klan burned it in 1964. Photo by David Rae Morris

That is, we must remain vigilant daily about democracy, and we must together expose all attempts to chip away at it—efforts that will always be there. Maintaining democracy is not a spectator sport. As I knew as a Mississippi woman when Barack Obama was elected, the worst was still ahead. The power bloc that inherited control of our nation and our people for centuries are not giving up the reins without a fight. It was about to get messy and test our “united we stand” resolve.

This week in Tennessee, not to mention Wisconsin, people representing everybody else who wants this to be a truly democratic nation made their voices heard. Make no mistake, Generation Z represents a wave of change and hope, and they are not giving up democracy without a fight. And they’re not going to grow up ignorant of our history because “woke”-terrified lawmakers shred the First Amendment by trying to censor textbooks and history lessons. 

In fact, zoomers are far more likely to collect up their receipts and, well, go Harper Valley PTA on their sorry asses. And then show up to vote.

Comment on this column below.

This MFP Voices essay does not necessarily represent the views of the Mississippi Journalism and Education Group, the Mississippi Free Press, its staff or board members. To submit an opinion for the MFP Voices section, send up to 1,200 words and sources fact-checking the included information to azia@mississippifreepress.org. We welcome a wide variety of viewpoints.

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