Rep. Justin Jones calls out Tennessee legislature’s commitment to education, democracy
Tennessee state Rep. Justin Jones took center stage Nov. 14 at a forum for Black journalists and students to discuss his views on the state of American democracy, the political climate in Tennessee, his turn in the national spotlight and the urgency in recruiting the next generation of leaders.
The event was at the historically Black Howard University in Washington, D.C. It was sponsored by the Center for Journalism and Democracy, which was 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 aims to cultivate a new generation of Black investigative reporters.
During the daylong event, established journalists and scholars spoke to hundreds of Black journalists and students of color on a series of panels about issues in the media.
Jones used his time to take aim at what he called threats to democracy in Tennessee.
“We are banning history and books, and I come from a state where they tried to ban Black lawmakers,” said Jones, D-Nashville, who was expelled, along with state Rep. Justin Pearson, D-Memphis, in April for their demonstration calling for gun reform on the House floor following the Covenant school shooting in Nashville.
“What we’re not talking about is the movement to ban assault weapons that are terrorizing our children, our schools, and in movie theaters and grocery stores,” he said. “That lack of democracy is what brought attention to Tennessee.”
Justin Jones on vote to silence him during special session
Jones, known for his civic engagement and activism, minced no words during a panel discussion on threats to democracy in state legislatures. He highlighted efforts by Tennessee Republicans to silence him and other legislators, mostly Black, during legislative deliberations, and his strategy behind demonstrating in the House chamber.
“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 OK,'” Jones said.
“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.”
In the August special legislative session called by Gov. Bill Lee to consider changes to reduce gun violence, House Speaker Cameron Sexton, R-Crossville, used recently implemented rules to silence Jones while the Democrat was addressing the House floor.
Jones urges audience to reflect on Tennessee’s historical significance
In his address, Jones also underscored Tennessee’s rich legacy of playing a critical part in shaping the nation’s fight for justice and equality.
“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,” Jones said.
“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 told the forum.
Jones said he is seeking to 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 says Tennessee should not reject $2 billion in federal education funding
Critics argue the federal money addresses critical needs, including improving infrastructure to support teachers and enhancing student learning.
Jones said rejecting federal funding, and the requirements that come with accepting it, is designed to hinder the progress of Black students and students 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,” he said. “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.”
Jones aims to establish record of resistance in the legislature
Jones said he is driven by a desire for future generations to recognize the importance of dissent and the courage to stand for something greater, and he has embraced the role of a dissenter.
“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,” Jones said.
Angela Dennis is the Knox News race, justice and equity reporter. Email firstname.lastname@example.org. Twitter @AngeladWrites. Instagram @angeladenniswrites. Facebook at Angela Dennis Journalist.