Is a New Civil Rights Movement Taking Hold in Nashville?

Is a New Civil Rights Movement Taking Hold in Nashville?

Is a New Civil Rights Movement Taking Hold in Nashville?

We see the work of John Lewis and Diane Nash in the multiracial movement behind Justin Jones and Justin Pearson. Simplistic comparisons are dangerous. Hope is not.


C’mon, you know you’ve watched it. That video of expelled but now reseated Tennessee state Representative Justin Jones singing “We Shall Overcome” with none other than Joan Baez, who sang that song at the 1963 March on Washington alongside the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Serendipitously, they met on a flight from Nashville to Newark Sunday night. You’d have to be a cabbage not to feel hope stirring.

Are hope and history rhyming, as Joe Biden likes to say (pace Seamus Heaney)? The multiracial throng, Black and white, young and old, that marched joyously from the Nashville City Hall, where the Council voted 36-0 to reinstate Jones, to the state capitol, was likewise incredibly moving. The crowd traveled along John Lewis Way. Like Jones, Lewis attended Nashville’s Fisk University. Lewis was there with Diane Nash, where they coordinated sit-ins and Freedom Rides; the courthouse plaza is now named for Nash. The marchers sang the civil rights anthem “This Little Light Of Mine.”

The yearning to see this as picking up where the multiracial civil rights movement left off in the late 1960s was palpable. “It’s like a scene from Taylor Branch’s Eyes on the Prize,” an MSNBC contributor kvelled, and I didn’t have the heart to note on Twitter that Branch did not write that book. (I’m not a monster!) I got the point. (Remarkably, Fox’s Juan Williams wrote Eyes on the Prize. Make of that what you will.) The parallel images could also come from any of the books in Branch’s unparalleled trilogy, America in the King Years.

I feel such longing in myself, and yet I hesitate. The symbolism of Jones marching into the chamber arm in arm with Gloria Johnson, the 60-year-old white woman who’s the third of the “Tennessee Three,” and who attributed her own ability to avoid expulsion to racism, was powerful. (Hey, liberal white ladies, pay attention!) But obviously, when it comes to the ongoing fight for civil rights, we can’t just “pick up where we left off,” as you sometimes can when meeting up with a friend from long ago. Real divisions, still unhealed, destroyed the movement—disagreements over whether and how to protest the unjust Vietnam War, over the role of white people in the movement, over Israel, and so much more, shattered what King called “the beloved community.” We face real divisions today.

Still, I think the revolt against gun violence and the tyranny of the gun lobby, against the myriad curbs and bans on abortion even as support for abortion rights grows, against attacks on LGBT rights, especially trans rights; against a burgeoning anti-democracy movement—from the expulsion of Jones and Memphis Representative Justin Pearson, to the GOP gerrymandering of states like Tennessee and Wisconsin, to the January 6 violence, stirred if not directed by the authoritarian Donald Trump—are pulling together a remarkable, yes multiracial, coalition. So far at least, I see little jockeying to claim that one issue is more important than another, at least in Nashville. I really enjoyed seeing a bright green “Gays Against Guns” sign behind Jones last night.

The accelerating threats to all of these movements is accelerating the growth of this bold cross-issue coalition, not just in Nashville but nationwide. Last Tuesday, Wisconsin voted in a Supreme Court judge who favors abortion rights and opposes gerrymandering; within a few days, we got a troglodyte Texas federal judge outlawing the abortion and miscarriage drug mifepristone, and white right-wing Tennessee legislators expelling two young Black men for leading protests against inaction on gun safety reform on the house floor. Then on Monday, hours before Jones was reinstated, a 23-year-old with an AR-15 murdered five people in Louisville, Ky., which borders Tennessee, wounded at least eight more, and traumatized hundreds, maybe thousands, of other people.

Tennessee Republicans were angry that Jones and Pearson used a bullhorn to lead their anti-gun violence protest last week? They should prepare to hear many more bullhorns in the near future. I wrote on Monday that we have to keep voting, at every level, to beat back these many threats. We also have to keep marching.

Jones and Baez singing together, Jones and Johnson marching arm in arm together—it’s stirring and moving for very good reasons. I’m trying to curb my doubts, my “yes buts,” maintain curiosity. Simplistic invocations of the 1960s civil rights movement are wrong, but so is cynicism. Something important is brewing. Everyone should read this essay by Tressie McMillan Cottom. Keep your eyes on Tennessee. We in the North have a lot to learn.

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