Students of American history would not be surprised by the action engineered last week by Tennessee House Speaker Cameron Sexton to expel two Black state representatives from the legislature after they protested the body’s lack of action on gun reform, said social justice activist, author Jacquie Luqman.
What we’re seeing play out, Luqman said, is the modern-day version of the period of conciliation in 1877 in the US South following Reconstruction. Under cover of the protection of the 13th, 14th and 15th amendments and the Civil Rights Act of 1866, African Americans enjoyed a relatively short period of being able to vote, participate in the political process, buy land, find jobs and use public accommodations. In response, the Democratic Party, the Ku Klux Klan and other malign forces eroded Black people’s hard-earned gains by changing state constitutions, systematically removing Black voters from voter rolls, and implementing barriers to voting including poll taxes, literacy tests and residency requirements. They also unleashed racial violence, lynching and murder, all with the intent of maintaining pre-Civil War social order in the South.
“This is all a part of the White supremacist nature of this political system,” said Luqman, who describes herself as a Pan-Africanist, anti-capitalist, anti-imperialist revolutionary. “During reconciliation, no one was ever held accountable. Tennessee legislators are the ideological heirs of those who carried out conciliation in the South. If we knew our history, this wouldn’t surprise us.”
Republicans in the Tennessee house are maintaining a white supremacist, patriarchal, Christian nationalist, racist framework, while at the same time making it clear to Black people across the country that the then-expelled state representatives – Justin Jones and Justin Pearson – needed to know and be taught their place, Luqman and other interviewees said.
Jones was re-instated under massive public pressure on Monday this week and Pearson was set to be reinstated on Wednesday. But the meaning of the action has left a stinch that will not dissipate any time soon.
The entire saga began when a heavily armed shooter entered The Covenant, a Christian elementary school, and murdered three adults and three 9-year-old children. The Jones, and Gloria Johnson, angered by the nonchalant approach of the Republican majority decided to make their voices heard. The trio were targeted for expulsion on April 6 for the “offense” of joining protesters who gathered at the state house to demand gun safety legislation as well as for approaching the lectern without the permission of House Republican leadership and using a bullhorn on the House floor.
Labor union veteran Bill Fletcher, Jr., said this was about Republican silencing Black advocates on an issue they have no desire or intention of dealing with.
“I think that this is not unprecedented. My response is welcome to the United States. This is completely, clearly outrageous. There were no charges. It was a purge, a slap at Black people and a slap at anti-gun violence,” said Fletcher, former president of TransAfrica Forum and noted author. “Republicans are saying they can do what they want. These are forces that are not interested in compromise. Their objective is to overturn the 20th century through the courts, legislation and intimidation.”
In media interviews after Pearson and Jones were ousted, the trio and fellow Democrats said Republicans had routinely muzzled the Democratic minority. Republican leaders abused their power by denying Democrats the opportunity to debate; cut off Democrats’ mics; sidelined and ignored Democratic bills; and silenced their voice on committees.
“We’re not allowed to speak, are cut off from debate and our bills are killed for sport,” said John Ray Clemmons, chair of the House Democratic Caucus during a recent MSNBC interview. “We’ve been under attack for years. Their removal is unjust and offensive to our democracy and is a black eye on the state of Tennessee.”
Luqman and Fletcher said the righ twing conservative backlash politically, socially and economically is being driven by white men who feel marginalized in the country they see as their own. Fueled by former President Donald Trump, who serves as the white nationalist cheerleader, the Republican Party has embraced an agenda to ensure that power remains in the hands of a white minority. Republicans in Tennessee, Wisconsin, Florida and elsewhere have used extreme gerrymandering and redistricting – blessed by the US Supreme Court – to subvert the political process and grab and hold onto power.
“It really is just the thin veneer of civility in democracies that is now just off in politics in this country. If we lived in a democracy, this wouldn’t have been allowed to happen,” said Luqman, host of Luqman Nation. “That the GOP was able to expel two of three and did not expel the white women says to me that we don’t live in a democracy or a representative democracy where people’s views are listened to, respected.”
Luqman added: “We do not live in a democracy. The mistake people make is that they don’t understand that. No, this not an attack on democracy because we’ve never had it.”
Critics in Tennessee and elsewhere have castigated Republicans for using their power and aggressive tactics to bludgeon Democrats and any other opponents while maintaining control and dominance.
“I think we have to look at Tennessee in the broader context of the country. What happened there is tangentially related to the judge in Wisconsin who has not conceded,” said Dr. Wilmer Leon, III. “Even if he has by now, look how long it took. And look at what Republicans did in Jackson, Mississippi. I see it as a growing sense of entitlement and an ideology based on individual interests ignoring the people you were voted in to serve.”
The expulsion of Jones and Pearson is likely just the continuation of what has long been an often bitter the tug-of-war between far-right conservative Republicans, Democrats and the majority of Tennessee’s residents. On April 7, the majority of the members of the Nashville Metropolitan Council announced that they will vote to reinstate Jones to the Tennessee state legislature. It is also position that Pearson will be restored to his former position.
If that happens, Clemmons said, Republicans will certainly try to punish Democrats as well as the cities – Memphis and Nashville – which have significant numbers of Black residents and the diversity not present in rural Tennessee. In fact, Republicans are exacting political retribution in one bill passed to cut the Memphis city council in half; another to defund the convention center; and concerted attempts to wrest control of the airport and concert and sports venues from Nashville and Tennessee.
“We have one party rule in Tennessee. They want to control everything, consolidate all power. There is a threat to take away money from Memphis if Rep. Pearson is reinstated,” said Clemmons.
Luqman said the surest way to counter the racist, anti-democratic, authoritarian GOP is to build “radical, anti-capitalist, anti-imperialist organizations to defeat America’s corrupt political system.
“We need people-centered programs and agendas that move towards a socialist system that is a representative democracy for the people,” she said. “This is not unique. But people here are too wedded to Democrats and people think it can’t happen here. But there are cases of this type all over the world. However, the political parties here have convinced us it can’t be done.”
Fletcher said the road Republicans are going down portends danger for anyone who isn’t white, man and Christian. Those who oppose extremist Republicans and their policies must do all in their power – peacefully –to stamp them out and what they believe, he said.
“This hardened right-wing party is very aware of the coming environmental catastrophe and economic fragility and they are trying to secure power before the catastrophe. They are less concerned with the pretense of democracy,” said Fletcher, a talk show host, racial justice and labor and international activist. “People need to understand something very fundamental about this administration: They don’t give a damn what you and I think. They only care about the base.”
“They will continue unless checked until they put many of us in concentration camps or create a neo-apartheid-type society,” Fletcher continued. “It will look like democracy, but it won’t be. They’re quite comfortable to have a core of the base and supporters who make up the rest. We have to take their weapon, turn it on them and pull the trigger. We’ve gotta be thinking creatively but in a way that inspires people. Demonstrations are good but we shouldn’t make it Saturday protests.”