My native state of Tennessee has taken new steps toward authoritarianism. History tells us that those tendencies have never, unfortunately, been far from the surface.
Here is what led to the latest brush with tyranny:
- Six people, including three nine-year-old children, were brutally murdered in a March 27th mass shooting in a Nashville school where the killer, using legally purchased assault rifles, fired 152 rounds into the defenseless victims.
- In response, thousands of students came to the state capitol to protest Tennessee’s lack of common-sense gun control laws such as background checks.
- When the Republican supermajority in the Tennessee House refused to hear from those protesters, three Democratic representatives — two young black men and a white woman — went to the well of the House with a bullhorn to show support for the students.
- In a week when the world remembers events of two thousand years ago and the rigged trial of a prophetic voice by entrenched and unyielding power, the Republican-controlled House — Tennessee’s “leaders” who feel both entitled and frightened — expelled the two black representatives but not the white woman. When asked why she thought this was the case, Rep. Gloria Johnson responded, “It might have to do with the color of our skin.”
As with most of life, Tennessee is a paradox.
It has achingly beautiful landscapes and a history of welcoming environmentally destructive extractive industries, beginning in the 19th century with cotton cultivated by enslaved labor. The people there can be amazingly friendly and yet forcefully defend the retention of monuments that were built to intimidate the state’s African American population.
Generations of marginalized Americans learned how to fight for liberty in Tennessee’s historic Fisk Memorial Chapel and the Highlander Research and Educational Center and the state is also the birthplace of the Ku Klux Klan. Tennessee provided the critical approval needed for passage of the 19th amendment giving women the right to vote and it has gerrymandered away the right to fair representation for almost half of its citizens.
Tennessee has world-class educational institutions and hosted the infamous Scopes “Monkey” Trial that challenged a state law making the Bible — a religious document — the standard of truth in a public school. It is a state that has produced presidents, vice presidents, and heroes and yet regularly elects a legislature which, in the words of investigative journalist Radley Balko, holds “nothing but contempt for the people they claim to serve.”
Life is “and.”
Tennessee politics has long been the home of charlatans. In the 1970s Democratic leaders participated in a “coup” in support of an early inauguration of incoming Republican governor Lamar Alexander due to dozens of unprecedented last-minute pardons of political friends and convicted murders by the corrupt sitting Democratic governor, Ray Blaton.
Now Tennessee is working toward a new low standard.
- In 2013, Republican lawmakers were fearful that a renovation to the Capitol building might have added a footwashing sink for Muslims to one bathroom. In reality, it was a mop sink.
- The legislature honored Candace Owen shortly after she praised Hitler but refused to honor Nashvillian Renata Soto on being elected chair of the National Council of La Raza because she worked with groups who help undocumented immigrants.
- Former Tennessee House Speaker Glen Casada resigned as speaker (but was not expelled) after a scandal involving his chief of staff using cocaine in the statehouse, sending racist texts, and doctoring an email to try to frame a student activist. The Republican Casada and the chief of staff were indicted for fraud, theft, and bribery in 2022 while he was still in the legislature.
- Nashville — a city that voted 65% for Joe Biden — was gerrymandered out of political existence by Republicans. Because they could. Margaret Renkl wrote in the New York Times, “They want to silence anyone who disagrees with them, even when those people are in the majority.” Piqued over the city’s refusal to host the Republican National Convention, they are currently working to strip representation from Nashville’s Council.
The actions of the Republicans to expel Rep. Justin Jones (D-Nashville) and Rep. Justin Pearson (D-Memphis) but not Rep. Johnson (D-Knoxville) is a naked display of power. Yet as President Obama noted, “Silencing those who disagree with us is a sign of weakness, not strength.” To leave no doubt as to the power play, new reporting quotes a Shelby County commissioner saying that the Republican state government is threatening to pull funding for Memphis schools and infrastructure projects if they vote to re-appoint Rep. Pearson to his democratically-elected seat.
This played out on Maundy Thursday. As one Tennessee resident noted, it was beyond ironic “that the Republicans produced a trial that felt rigged to give a foregone conclusion on this day of all days.”
Coupled with allegations that Justice Clarence Thomas took millions of dollars of gifts from a Republican mega donor with business before the Supreme Court without reporting it as required by law and the work of the Republicans in the U.S. House of Representatives to undermine an ongoing New York criminal case with an unprecedented campaign of harassment and intimidation, these actions make one wonder — as historian Heather Cox Richardson recently wrote — what country we live in.
Representative Justin Pearson told his suddenly former colleagues how he saw it.
“You are seeking to expel District 86’s representation from this house, in a country that was built on a protest. IN A COUNTRY THAT WAS BUILT ON A PROTEST. You who celebrate July 4, 1776, pop fireworks and eat hotdogs. You say to protest is wrong because you spoke out of turn, because you spoke up for people who are marginalized. You spoke up for children who won’t ever be able to speak again; you spoke up for parents who don’t want to live in fear; you spoke up for Larry Thorn, who was murdered by gun violence; you spoke up for people that we don’t want to care about. In a country built on people who speak out of turn, who spoke out of turn, who fought out of turn to build a nation.
I come from a long line of people who have resisted.“
The fight for democracy never ends.
More to come…
Photo by Brandon Jean on Unsplash
It makes me sad.
I agree, Kathy.
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