Two years ago, I wrote that white supremacists are remarkably close to restoring Jim Crow, and that America urgently needs a Third Reconstruction to salvage and rebuild a true multiracial democracy. What I saw in the past two years as a member of the 117th Congress, and then as I watched the expulsion of two young Black Democrats from the Tennessee House of Representatives early this month, leaves me with an even greater sense of dread.
Since I called on Congress in early 2021 to address the tidal wave of racist voter suppression unleashed by the far-right Supreme Court in Shelby County v. Holder, which gutted the Voting Rights Act, Democrats in the Senate failed to pass a package of democracy reforms that I co-authored and helped pass through the House. The Freedom to Vote: John R. Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act would have revived the Voting Rights Act, ended partisan gerrymandering, established automatic voter registration, banned voter purges, re-enfranchised more than 5 million people with felony convictions, and reduced the distortive role of Big Money in our politics. In January 2022, the bill was filibustered by all 50 Republicans in the Senate, and the Democratic effort to create a filibuster carveout failed because Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema withheld their support.
The consequences for our democracy have been dire. Not just because hundreds of voter suppression bills were introduced in state legislatures across the country in 2021 and 2022, and many of those bills became law, but because white supremacists have become even more emboldened in the absence of robust federal action. They are not content to make it harder for minority communities to vote in states like Texas, Florida, and North Carolina. They are now intimidating poll workers and attempting to overturn electoral outcomes they don’t like in states like Arizona and Georgia. It was only a matter of time that their movement would evolve to include the most brazen tactic yet: expelling duly elected representatives from office in order to disenfranchise communities of color and stifle dissent, as in Tennessee.
Last December, I had dinner with then-Representative-elect Justin Jones, whose star was on the rise despite not having taken office in Tennessee’s legislature. I was leaving Congress, a victim of redistricting in my home state of New York. Jones was feeling discouraged and wanted advice on how to succeed in the role he was about to occupy. It’s ironic that the 27-year-old was chiefly concerned with how to navigate Democratic Caucus politics within the state House as a young activist-turned-politician, because ultimately it was the Republican supermajority—obtained through partisan gerrymandering—that would expel him and another young Black man from office. Their crime? Allegedly violating chamber rules when they peacefully protested the majority’s refusal to take up gun control legislation after a mass shooting in Nashville.
It turns out Jones didn’t need much advice from me. It is Jones along with Representatives Justin Pearson and Gloria Johnson (who attributed surviving her own expulsion vote to being “a 60-year-old white woman” while Jones and Pearson are “two young Black men”) who have been advising a nation. By their forceful eloquence and moral clarity on the topics of race and democracy, through the lens of our nation’s gun violence epidemic, they have transfixed America’s attention on the Republican Party’s all-out assault on representative government, especially in the South. “I formerly was the youngest Black lawmaker in the state of Tennessee. I represented one of the most diverse districts,” Jones told MSNBC’s Joy Reid in an interview after his ouster. “And so I went to the well to speak for my constituents, particularly those young people whose voices were not being heard…who are saying we want to feel safe in school—we want to ban assault weapons. And rather than ban assault weapons, these Republican lawmakers in Tennessee are assaulting democracy.”
There is precedent for what happened in Tennessee. Much has been said about the Georgia House of Representatives’ refusal to seat a young, Black civil rights leader named Julian Bond in 1966, which he appealed all the way to the Supreme Court and won on First Amendment grounds. But a more apposite example may be found in 1868, following Georgia’s ratification of the 14th Amendment and readmission to the United States, when 33 Black legislators were elected to the Georgia General Assembly. Those victories came at the end of the Civil War, during the original Reconstruction, and it was the first time Black people had ever been elected to Georgia’s state House. But the legislators, dubbed the “Original 33,” did not serve for long, because in September 1868, the legislature’s white majority expelled them on account of their race. Indeed, backlash to Reconstruction Era policies, which were intended to politically, socially, and economically enfranchise Black Americans, was common throughout the South and gave rise to America’s first bout with Jim Crow.
As Democrats in Washington work to earn back a governing trifecta in Congress and the White House to pass democracy and gun reforms at the federal level, I am hopeful watching the youth-led movement taking shape in Tennessee, which aims to do the same in a state once part of the Confederacy. The power those young people and the Tennessee Three have built and flexed over the last few weeks, despite a Republican supermajority, causes me to believe their work can be replicated nationally, and that in the next Congress we may defeat the Senate filibuster. The morning after the Nashville Metro Council voted to reappoint Justin Jones to the legislature, the Republican governor of Tennessee signed an executive order strengthening background checks for would-be gun purchasers and urged the state legislature to pass a red flag law. This would not have occurred absent the Tennessee Three and their movement. The shooting at the Covenant School in Nashville, which left three children and three adults dead, happened a full 15 days earlier, on March 27. There had been no action from Governor Bill Lee (despite his knowing one of the victims) and, famously, no action from the Tennessee General Assembly.
Movements can be transformative. It was, after all, a different youth-led movement—featuring the likes of Martin Luther King Jr., Julian Bond, and John Lewis—that began in the South and spread across the nation until it produced our nation’s Second Reconstruction, overcoming the Senate filibuster to create the first multiracial democracy in our nation’s history.
That effort in the mid-20th century defeated the last Jim Crow, delivering the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and the Civil Rights Acts of the 1960s. With these hard-won gains being rolled back, it will take a Third Reconstruction to establish multiracial democracy in America once and for all.