Rep. Justin Jones calls out Tennessee legislature on lack of democracy, attempt to reject education funding

On Tuesday, Tennessee State Representative Justin Jones spoke to an audience of journalists and reporters at The Center for Journalism and Democracy at the historically Black Howard University.

Founded by Pulitzer prize-winning journalist Nikole Hannah Jones, best known for her work on The New York Times Magazine’s “1619 Project,”, the Center for Journalism and Democracy was started in an effort to cultivate a new generation of Black investigative reporters.

During the day long event, well-renowned journalists and scholars spoke to hundreds of Black journalists and students of color on a series of panels designed to educate on issues in the media.

Tennessee state representative Justin Jones speaks to an audience of journalists at the Howard University Center for Journalism and Democracy on Nov 14, 2023.

In usual fashion, the lawmaker used his time to raise awareness on the issues plaguing his district and the state of Tennessee, using the state as an example of the wide range of issues plaguing democracy across America.

“We are banning history and books, and I come from a state where they tried to ban Black lawmakers,” said Jones, who was expelled, along with state Rep. Justin Pearson, for their gun control protest on the House floor. Despite their expulsion, local officials reinstated them shortly after.

“What we’re not talking about is the movement to ban assault weapons that are terrorizing our children, our schools, and in movie theatres and grocery stores. That lack of democracy is what brought attention to Tennessee.”

Rep. Jones on vote to silence him during special session

In a powerful and outspoken panel discussion addressing threats to democracy within state legislatures, Rep. Jones took center stage, delivering scathing remarks on the state of affairs within the Tennessee legislature. Jones, known for his unwavering commitment to civic engagement, minced no words as he passionately tackled concerns surrounding anti-democratic trends emerging within the state’s legislative processes. The panel served as a platform for Jones to shed light on the critical issues at hand, sparking a fervent dialogue on the preservation of democratic principles within the heart of Tennessee’s political landscape.

“When representatives are silenced that is silencing everyday people. My house district 52 in Tennessee, is the most diverse district in the state and that was intentional to silence a representative from that district. But these rebel members can say whatever they want, and can instigate violence. We had a member of criminal justice committee say we need to bring back hanging by a tree and we called for a censure and they said, ‘Oh, just let them apologize, and it’ll be okay’. But when we went to the House floor, after being silent after having our voting machines cut off after being threatened, we had no other choice but to do something different. When they use the politics of deflection, deception and distraction, I offer another D and that is disruption,” said Jones.

In an August special legislative session, Speaker Cameron Sexton used recently implemented rules to silence Jones while the Democrat was addressing the House floor. Twice declaring Jones to be out of order, Sexton orchestrated a House vote that resulted in Jones being barred from recognition to speak for the remainder of the day.

Related:Rep. Justin Jones sues House Speaker Cameron Sexton over expulsion, vote to silence him

Jones urges audience to reflect on Tennessee’s historical significance

In his impassioned address, Jones also underscored the rich legacy of Tennessee playing a critical part in shaping the nation’s fight for justice and equality. Against the backdrop of a turbulent political landscape, Jones urged the audience to reflect on Tennessee’s historical significance.

“They have been saying the South will rise again, and one thing I’ve been saying across our state is that no, we have a new message and that is that the South is on the horizon. And we represent a new South, one that affirms human dignity, humanity and our connection to each other. We recognize our indigenous communities even though we are the home of Andrew Jackson. In Tennessee, there are 24 of us out of 99, they always say we are the minority party. When you walk in your first word that you learned is that you are the minority. And I think we’ve had to push back against that and say no, we are the opposition party. We are here to oppose power to be a check on power to be a speed bump as you try and drive our state over a cliff.”

Jones on recruiting the next generation of political candidates

“So many people have forgotten about the South or say there can be no change there. I think we need to reject it and that the solution is more younger people need to step into these positions of office because they bring moral clarity and urgency.”

Jones said he is looking to actively spearhead an initiative to mobilize and empower more people of color to run for state office, a strategic move aimed at challenging the rising wave of extremism. Recognizing the critical need for diverse voices in political spheres, Jones is committed to fostering a new generation of leaders who can effectively address the multifaceted challenges faced by marginalized communities.

Jones addresses Tennessee’s $2 billion rejection in federal education funding

In a surprising move, Tennessee discussing whether to reject a substantial $2 billion in federal education funding, a decision that has stirred debate and raised eyebrows across the state. The rejection comes at a critical juncture when educational resources are in high demand, leaving many puzzled about the rationale behind turning down such a substantial financial infusion. Critics argue that the funds could have played a pivotal role in addressing various educational challenges, from improving infrastructure to supporting teachers and enhancing the overall learning experience for students.

Jones used his time on the panel to shed light on the issue, calling the move another racist tactic designed to hinder the progress of African-American students, and those with disabilities.

“Tennessee will be the first state in the nation to reject federal education funding money, because they don’t want to have to treat people of diverse backgrounds. They don’t want to protect students with special needs. They don’t want to enforce addressing systemic racism. So they said we’d rather reject $2 billion than to comply.”

He said that while serving on the state education committee he was unaware of the extra money available when teachers in his district are struggling to pay for extra supplies needed for their classrooms, adding that the political climate of extremism undermines democratic principles and adversely affects Tennessee’s constituents.

Education funding:Tennessee education officials warn of uncertainties in rejecting federal K-12 dollars

Jones’ message to journalists ‘You’re not there to make friends, you’re there to make change’

“They’re coming for you too. You have a stake in this. We have to build coalitions in Tennessee and we have to come with this clarity that whether you are a journalist or a lawmaker we’re not there to make friends,” Jones told the room of journalists from across the country.

Upon entering the legislature, Jones spoke on having consistently faced the challenge of being frequently misrepresented by reporters, who portrayed him as a criminal due to his past arrests as an activist. Despite his numerous arrests being rooted in peaceful civil disobedience and advocating for social justice causes, Jones said he has encountered a tendency among journalists to focus on the arrests rather than the principles he passionately champions.

Related:People’s Plaza protest charges against Justin Jones dropped

“I’ve had to push back against a lot of journalists and they don’t really come to my office anymore because it becomes a lesson in how they are upholding white supremacy. It’s about integrity. They love to say how many times I was arrested but never want to say my charges were dropped because I was arrested 18 times for good trouble. They saw me sleeping outside the capitol for Medicaid expansion, but they brought up the fact I was arrested.”

“We have to stop being PR for power. Authoritarian forces don’t want real journalism. We need journalists who are willing to show up and hold power accountable. Too many journalists think if we push too much then we won’t get invited to their press conferences and get to joke with them and call them friends. My message to the folks back in Tennessee, and I hope that they can watch this too because we need journalists who will check power, hold it accountable, and who will disrupt when necessary. We need them to put people in uncomfortable positions when they’re hurting the marginalized and the least of these in times such as this.”

Jones aims to bear witness to record of resistance in the legislature

As a steadfast figure in the political arena, Jones is driven by a desire for future generations to recognize the importance of dissent and the courage to stand for something greater. In an era where conformity often overshadows conviction, Jones has consistently embraced the role of a dissenter, unyielding in his commitment to challenging the status quo. Whether advocating for social justice, environmental causes, or equitable representation, his journey reflects a belief that dissent is not merely an act of opposition but a powerful catalyst for positive change. He said he is navigating the complexities of the political landscape, but has no plans to quit.

“In Tennessee, our constitution says our right as lawmakers is to protest legislation that is injurious to the people and to have our dissent marked in the journal of the house. For decades no one has used this, but one thing I try to do every time I dissent or vote no is I try to write it out and make sure it is added to the house journal so future generations know what was happening, why I voted against legislation, why it was harmful and that people stood up against this authoritarian wave that is taking place across our nation. I want to bear witness that there was a resistance of folks who stood up when they said sit down, and spoke when they said to be silent, and said hell no when they tried to hurt the vulnerable in our communities. We have to create a record of what is going on and use it as a record of accountability.”

Angela Dennis is the Knox News race, justice and equity reporter. Email Twitter @AngeladWrites. Instagram @angeladenniswrites. Facebook at Angela Dennis Journalist. Support strong local journalism by subscribing at

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