Lessons for all workers from Tennessee expulsion of Reps. Jones and Pearson

Reps. Justin Pearson and Justin Jones after being expelled from their seats in Tennessee, April 6.

The recent ouster of elected Tennessee House Representatives Justin Jones and Justin Pearson, both young and Black, stunned and angered people everywhere, especially in the Black community.

It effectively disenfranchised 200,000 voters in Memphis and Nashville, the state’s two largest cities, who elected them – a move reminiscent of colonial relationships between oppressor and oppressed, conjuring up Jim Crow laws.

The ousting of Jones and Pearson by a two-thirds supermajority was in response to their participation in protests organized to demand passage of gun restrictions following the Nashville school shooting. The motion to expel Gloria Johnson, who also participated and is white, failed by one vote.

The storm of protests that followed, particularly in Tennessee, by mostly young, outraged opponents, and the national attention that it garnered, effectively forced the Tennessee legislature to reinstate both representatives.

On April 7, speaking to Symone Sanders-Townsend on MSNBC, Rep. Jones said: “What happened yesterday was an act of violence. It was a public lynching.” 

He called the state legislature “a body that is so defined by white supremacy, patriarchy and plantation capitalism.” 

None of this is surprising. Tennessee’s history is sordid. The Ku Klux Klan was founded in Pulaski, Tennessee; it is also the state where Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated.  

Henning, Tennessee, was the site of the April 12, 1864 Battle of Fort Pillow, also known as the Fort Pillow Massacre, where 300 Black enlisted soldiers were murdered under the direction of General Nathan Bedford Forrest. Forrest was not only a confederate general, he was a wealthy slave trader. He later co-founded the KKK and served as its first “grand wizard.”

Julian Bond and Henry McNeal Turner

The racist Tennessee expulsion is not an exception in U.S. history. 

There was the case of Julian Bond. On Jan. 19, 1966, the Georgia State House of Representatives, in a vote of 184-12, refused to seat Bond despite his election in 1965.  

Their excuse was his endorsement of a statement by the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee in opposition to the Vietnam War, declaring it was in violation of international law.  

The civil rights movement joined Bond during this time and fought back. A lawsuit was filed with the Supreme Court, Bond V. Floyd, based on freedom of speech. Julian Bond won the case on December 5, 1966, and was finally seated as a representative and sworn in on Jan. 9, 1967.

Close to 100 years before Julian Bond, in September 1868, some 33 Black representatives were expelled en masse from Georgia’s legislature. 

It followed the first election after the Civil War. Former slaves were allowed to vote during this period of Reconstruction, but in Georgia, there was no law that allowed Black representatives to hold office.  

Henry McNeal Turner, one of those most notable of the 33 representatives, spoke on Sept. 3, 1868. His fiery response on the floor of Georgia’s legislature was later recited by Danny Glover

“Therefore, sir, I shall neither fawn nor cringe before any party nor stoop to beg them for my rights. . . .

“You may expel us, gentlemen, but I firmly believe that you will someday repent it.

“The Black man cannot protect a country, if the country doesn’t protect him; and if, tomorrow, a war should arise, I would not raise a musket to defend a country where my manhood is denied.” 

(Read Henry McNeal Turner’s full speech.)

The latest white supremacist attack on the right of Black people to representation has deep historical roots, but it also has special meaning in today’s context, following the Jan. 6, 2021, attempted coup and the danger from the far right.

Attacks on transgender people 

Tennessee leads the country in anti-LGBTQ2S legislation. Fourteen new bills are already signed into law, ranging from the criminalization of drag performances to cutting off gender-affirming medical care for trans youth.

The stoking of hatred and bigotry, which has been described as a “trans panic,” is a tactic in the arsenal of fascist proponents, regardless of their names — whether you call them Christian nationalists, white supremacists, TERFs, neo- or not-so-neo Nazis, or the election campaigns of Donald Trump and Ron DeSantis.  

The intent is to sow division and divert attention from unemployment, low wages, inflation, imperialist war and climate catastrophe.  

The outcome is too often death for transgender people. According to a study done by the Williams Institute at UCLA Law, trans people are four times more likely to experience violent victimization. Lack of access to gender-affirming care has been shown to sharply increase suicide rates among trans youth.

The far right was quick to seize on the recent Nashville school shooting, allegedly carried out by a trans man, pumping up false narratives despite the fact that the overwhelming majority of mass shooters in the U.S. are cisgender. 

The war on trans people, the reversal of women’s reproductive rights, and the continuous attacks on any vestige of democratic rights for Black and Brown people are linked to the decay of monopoly capitalism. 

This agenda is ultimately aimed at crushing workers’ rights broadly and is both linked to and intensified by imperialist war.

Dr. Walter Rodney, author of “How Europe Underdeveloped Africa,” explained it best: “Fascism is a deformity of capitalism. It heightens the imperialist tendency towards domination, which is inherent in capitalism, and it safeguards the principle of private property. 

“At the same time, fascism immeasurably strengthens the institutional racism already bred by capitalism, whether it be against Jews (as in Hitler’s case) or against African peoples (as in the ideology of Portugal’s Salazar and the leaders of South Africa). 

“Fascism reverses the political gains of the bourgeois democratic system such as free elections, equality before the law, and parliaments; it also extols authoritarianism and the reactionary union of the church with the state.”

Democratic establishment unwilling to fight

Tennessee is not an outlier. This has been part of the strategy of the right-wing since Jan. 6, 2021, and earlier. The far-rightists have buried themselves in local campaigns, conspiring to overturn voting rights, and in areas that they feel are strategic, systematically rolling back LGBTQ2S, women’s, and workers’ gains. 

The war on “woke” culture has been their noisy battle cry. Social media algorithms and the capitalist-dominated Internet have spread their message far and wide.

The cynical response of the mainstream Democratic Party establishment is to not-so-surreptitiously send aid to the farthest fringe right-wing candidates, based on the dubious strategy that the further right the candidate, the easier for Democratic candidates to win. 

A prime example is Maryland, where the Democratic Governors Association spent more than $1.16 million on TV ads for QAnon conspiracist candidate Dan Cox to beat mainstream Republican Kelly Schultz in the primaries. 

Democratic Party leaders have used abortion rights as a political football. Rather than organizing a furious fight in defense of reproductive rights, their preference is to kick it down the road to use as an electoral asset. Now they are using the same playbook as LGBTQ2S rights are stripped away.

Regardless of electoral outcomes, it is a dangerous strategy that gives the far right a broader platform to spread its ideology and, even more importantly, to organize and strengthen itself.  And it immediately hurts workers and the poor, particularly the most oppressed, whose lives hinge on gains lost to the right. Further, it engenders confusion and apathy in the population.   

It will take independent, in-your-face mass action to push these rats back into the sewer.  

Every struggle, especially those of the most oppressed, for the basic democratic right to vote deserves full action and support of those fighting for the working class – particularly those who consider themselves revolutionary socialists.

Join the Struggle-La Lucha Telegram channel