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Déjà vu all over again: The fight for gun control and racial justice in Tennessee

Two young Black Democrats expelled from the state’s legislature are channelling the legacy of civil rights resistance in the South

A segregated bus station in Memphis, 1943. Photo: Universal History Archive/Universal Images Group/Getty

That legendary catcher for the New York Yankees, the late, great Yogi Berra, used to issue these beautiful and exquisite one-liners. One of them, “It ain’t over ’til it’s over,” described a Chicago Cubs game. It has the exquisite brevity of a Buddhist chant.

Another famous one, “It’s déjà vu all over again,” was said to have described Berra’s reaction while watching Mickey Mantle and Roger Maris hitting back-to-back home runs in the days when baseball meant something to most Americans. Days that were long before the births of the two young African American Tennessee state legislators who have come to be known as “The Two Justins”, Justin Jones, 27, and Justin Pearson, 28.

The Republicans in the Tennessee House of Representatives, who have what’s called a “super majority”, voted to expel the two after they led a raucous gun protest on the floor of the House after a lone gun person shot dead students, teachers and a caretaker at a school. The protest included the use of bullhorns, a violation of what one legislator called “decorum”.

A third legislator, Gloria Johnson, was saved by one vote. When asked afterwards why she thought that had happened, she said that it was because of the colour of her skin. She is white. The Two Justins are African American.

The “déjà vu” part of all of this comes in because these two young men are activists largely of the Old School. These two guys did it the “1960s” way: complete with oration reminiscent of Dr Martin Luther King, who urged people to “stay awake” to injustice. In a 1958 address to Morehouse College, known as the Eton of African America, he said: “There would be nothing more tragic… than to allow our mental and moral attitudes to sleep while… tremendous social change takes place.”

And, in defending themselves after their expulsion, the Two Justins did indeed evoke the era of MLK. They took those of us old enough to have been there back to the soaring rhetoric; the high ideals; the analysis of the reality of those descended from African slaves, especially in the South.

Their brief expulsion has fused their careers into an arc in which they are now dominating the stage in that raucous national debate about gun control; gun violence; racial justice, democracy itself in a US that is beginning to look, not like 2023, but a few years before the civil war.

They are standing in the breach while the emblems of what increasingly appears to be a splintering United States threaten to come back again: church bombing; school segregation; voting rights denial and the general disenfranchisement of African Americans. The most spectacular and egregious manifestation of these happened “down South”.

Both men were almost immediately reinstated to the state legislature by their districts, and will eventually have to stand in a special election. But that is beside the point.

The point is that the South is becoming its bad old self again, in full view. It is reverting to the region that believed that what the country was founded for was for individuals to live the way they wished. This is an America in which the federal government, the entity created to hold these states, these mini-countries together, is The Enemy.

It was no mistake that Trump, who knows a retail opportunity when he sees one, held his latest rally in Waco, Texas. That was the scene, in 1993, of “The Waco Siege” or “Waco Massacre”, depending on how you see the federal government, especially as embodied in the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms. The ATF, executing a warrant to search for illegal weapons, was met by a shootout.

The Two Justins, young enough to have learned “the drill” regarding how to protect themselves if a shooter got inside their primary school, took a stand. They and their mostly young supporters chose to change a state with an order that reads “Tennessee does not require a permit to carry a firearm, whether openly or concealed. If you want to carry a gun openly or concealed in public in Tennessee, you don’t need a permit. As of July 1 2021, Tennessee is a permit-less carry state.”

This was posted on the website of a county sheriff, as passed by the legislature and signed into law by the governor.

The emergence of the Two Justins in a state in which anyone and everyone can have a gun – even an assault rifle, which takes less time to kill a human being than to read this paragraph – and the story of race in America point to a time that has never really healed.

State representative Justin Pearson of Memphis and state representative Justin Jones of Nashville, the city of my late mother’s birth, were given a penalty only used three times since the era of the civil war.

Black legislators have long operated as a minority within a minority in the state. Yet Tennessee, with its famous Fisk University, known as an “historically black college”, ie one founded to specifically educate emancipated slaves, is a fulcrum of the civil rights movement. It was no accident that the vice-president, Kamala Harris, made an address there soon after the expulsion, evoking the civil rights days. It doesn’t stop there.

The look of Justin Pearson, who wears glasses, can bring back memories of Malcolm X. Sometimes he wears a dashiki, like Jesse Jackson used to. Justin Jones wears blazers, has a small, neat ponytail and took the opportunity to sing “We shall overcome” with Joan Baez, who walked up to him at an airport. It is “déjà vu all over again” as older African American Democrats, while praising the young men, said that they would not quite have handled things in the same way, would not have protested on the floor of the state House.

“It’s not over ‘till it’s over” and this is just the beginning.

The Two Justins have become a chant for the young. Taking the refrain “no justice, no peace”, many have now changed this to “No Justin, no peace”.
The Supreme Court, with its conservative majority appointed by Trump – something, by the way, that Hillary Clinton predicted he would do – has made the states supreme once again. Not united.

The Two Justins remind the nation that its intention, as stated in the Pledge of Allegiance, before the phrase “under God” was added in 1954: is to be “… one nation, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.”

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