Despite Republican colleagues expelling him from the Tennessee state legislature, Nashville’s Democratic Rep. Justin Jones still believes working for justice in the South means working on “sacred ground.”
“There’s a history of slavery, brutality, yes, but there’s also a history of resistance,” Jones told Sojourners in an interview one week after his reinstatement to the legislature. The South, he said, has a “rich history of liberation and subversiveness” to oppressive systems.
On April 6, Jones and Rep. Justin J. Pearson (D-Memphis) were expelled from the Tennessee state legislature after they protested on the House floor about lack of action on gun control in the wake of the Covenant school shooting. Expulsions from the state legislature for disruption or political dissent had no precedent. The next week, both Jones and Pearson were reinstated to the legislature by the Nashville Metropolitan Council and Shelby County commissioners, respectively.
For Jones, who is a student at Vanderbilt Divinity School, the outpouring of public support from a multi-racial, multi-faith, multi-generational coalition was an example of “Beloved Community.” The movement, he said, is an example of the type of community they are aiming to build.
Jones spoke with associate news editor Mitchell Atencio about his elders and mentors in nonviolent resistance, the “soulful energy” of the South, and transforming institutions like the state legislature from the inside.
This interview was lightly edited for length and clarity.
Mitchell Atencio, Sojourners: What were the emotions like during the night of the expelling?
Rep. Justin Jones: What they were trying to do wasn’t just expel us, but the movements we are standing in solidarity with. It’s not ironic that it happened on the day before Good Friday; they tried to crucify democracy and I [was reinstated] the Monday after Easter as a testament to the resurrection of a movement for multi-racial democracy here in the South, the resurrection of a Third Reconstruction that we’re experiencing here, being led by students and young people — and that’s a very powerful vision of what is possible. If it’s possible here in the South, if it’s possible in Tennessee, that should give us some hope in the nation.
One of the most powerful images I saw on Thursday night was of you hugging constituents after being expelled. What does it mean that your community, the folks who know you outside of the national headlines, are standing with you?
It is humbling, and it’s a reminder that we do this in community. When I went back on that Monday to retake District 52’s seat, we went with thousands of people marching from city hall to the state capitol. I was reminded that this movement for democracy is going to require all of us. To have my community standing with me meant the world, because when I went to that well, I knew wasn’t going as an individual. When I went to protest, I knew I was going up there as the representative of 78,000 people, as the representative of this community. The mass shooting at Covenant happened here in Nashville, and I represent a part of Nashville. The grief and trauma of this community, I’ve been seeing them and feeling that. And when they asked me, “Will you do something? Will you act?” that was personal. This is the community that I’m a part of and accountable to. I want to make sure I’m representing with the most passion and authenticity the reason I was sent here in the first place.
You’ve spoken about Rev. William Barber II and Moral Mondays and how that has influenced your bringing faith into organizing efforts; who are the others who have influenced you personally or publicly?
One of my closest mentors, who I’ve talked to for years and throughout this process, is Diane Nash, who I believe is a representative of faith — what she calls “agapeic energy,” this love force that is used to challenge injustice and harm. She’s been one of my dear elders and teachers who’s really guided me throughout this process. I've been inspired by many of the elders of our movement here in Nashville; the Freedom Riders; Rip Patton, who passed away just a couple years ago and was like an honorary grandfather, who taught us about nonviolence and the need to act in our generation; Bernard Lafayette, who lives in Alabama and was here just a couple weeks ago, we talk frequently on the phone and he’s been an advisor on nonviolence and strategy.
I also think of the younger leaders, I think of Rev. Stephen Green, who came from Harlem, showed up, saw what was happening and was willing to stand with and help coordinate this resistance to an attack on democracy. I think of Rev. Ingrid, one of our younger clergies here in Nashville, a white clergy who said, “Whatever you need, I will be there, I will stand in the breach.” This is a movement of faith here. And it’s also interfaith, I want to add. We’ve had Muslim leaders like Councilmember Zulfat Suara, the only Muslim member of the Nashville City Council, who was a big part in pushing me being reinstated. We had members of the Native American community in my district too. My district is the most diverse district in Tennessee and there are people of all faiths in my district. My district has many mosques, we have a lot of Coptic churches, so all these moral frameworks and faith frameworks inform my lens of public policy [while] in a body that tries to use a distorted moral narrative to give religious sanction to injustice. As someone who has went to divinity school and is completing my divinity studies, I think it’s important to challenge — particularly in the buckle of the Bible Belt — this religious extremism that is used to cloak bigotry and harm and inaction.
What do you think the interfaith movement can teach us about the work to create a multi-racial democracy?
Our movement has to look like the community we are trying to create. If we’re trying to build the Beloved Community, it has to look like the Beloved Community, and that is multi-racial, multi-generational, multi-faith, it is affirming of people regardless of sexuality, it is affirming of people regardless of economics. That’s what our movement looks like, and that’s what’s so threatening to the power structures here in Tennessee. Their power does not look like that; their power is predominantly white, wealthy men who have a very particular lens of Christianity that is — I would say — not aligned with scripture but is aligned with a type of slaveholder religion. This multi-faith, multi-generational coalition is what our democracy should look like, which is why they’re attacking us. It’s not about attacking us as individuals; it’s about attacking what we represent and the districts we represent and trying to take their voice because they represent the future — not only of Tennessee but of this nation. This nation is changing, the consciousness is being raised in America, and that is a threat to those who want to keep us locked in a history that is not just, that is not affirming of all people, and a history where only a select few are worthy of being in office.
You touched on the slaveholder lens of scripture that your opponents bring; what is the lens that you bring? What is the vision from scripture that inspires you?
Micah 6:8: “What does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” I think of Jesus in Luke, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free.”
One thing that led me to go to divinity school: I went to Fisk University, and Fisk was founded to educate freed slaves. And in that school, we had these first edition Bibles they gave to enslaved people. I remember going to the special collection and seeing these Bibles, and they’re very thin. I remember asking why the Bibles were so thin and they told me the Bibles they gave to enslaved people had removed anything that had to do with liberation and justice. They removed the story of Exodus; they removed Jesus’ words saying, “blessed are the poor,” and “the Spirit of the Lord is upon me.” They removed anything that was challenging of injustice and empire. What gives me hope is the hope that my grandmothers taught me about: This faith is not something we have to put on a low boat like some of my colleagues do; it’s something we can embody and live by. It is a faith that lifts up the vulnerable and marginalized, a faith that is willing to sacrifice ourselves, sacrifice position, and risk comfort in order to make life better for those coming up after us. That’s what it is.
I also look at the moral language in our state constitution. Article II, Section 27 tells us that every member of the House or the Senate “shall have liberty to dissent from and protest against,” any action or legislation that they find injurious to the people. This is what our state Constitution tells us; that is a moral mandate that we must have moral dissent to injurious actions in our body. Injurious actions are proliferating guns while denying health care, injurious actions are proliferating guns while denying voting rights and denying quality education to our children. Our moral framework is expansive and it’s one that is really challenging those who think they have a monopoly on what is moral and what is right.
You said, “If it’s possible here in the South, if it’s possible in Tennessee, that should give us some hope in the nation.” How does the region fit into your action? Why do you love the South?
There’s a soul here. There’s a soulful energy here. That’s the reason the South has been so transformational and so pivotal. In the First Reconstruction following the abolition of slavery, the Second Reconstruction during the Civil Rights Movement, and today in the Third Reconstruction, there’s a soulful energy here that is calling us to act. There’s a fusion movement here that has been used to challenge injustice for decades, and they’ve been trying to break that movement.
The same streets we’re marching on today trying to challenge injustice are the same streets that John Lewis and Diane Nash and Bernard Lafayette were on 50-60 years ago as young people. I walk into a building that was built by enslaved people — who were never recognized — to do my work. But that calling, that soulful energy is still there, calling on us to act. We are on sacred ground here, and it is so important for us to ground ourselves in that legacy of liberation. There’s a history of slavery, brutality, yes, but there’s also a history of resistance, a rich history of liberation and subversiveness to the systems that we are also heirs to here in the South. My grandparents left the South to move to Chicago, and my family moved to California. And I really feel like it’s my ancestors and the Creator that call me back here to do this work and to use the time intentionally to try and challenge the systems and policies of death that would see our people as expendable and disposable.
You wrote a book about your experiences participating in nonviolent resistance against the police state in 2020. What have you learned since then about nonviolent resistance, especially since being expelled and reinstated to the legislature?
Going from someone who was arrested 14 times in the summer of 2020 and someone who was banned from the Capitol to someone who was on the inside has only reinvigorated my commitment to nonviolent movements. I know it is going to take sustained, nonviolent resistance and movement to transform these institutions. Being on the inside, I see how power operates and I see how it protects itself. I see how institutional violence works from the inside of an institution as someone who is part of the minority voice there. I know that we’re going to need a massive, sustained, nonviolent action to transform and to undo these oppressive systems that we’re facing.
2020 gave a lot of clarity, as well as this year. We cannot underestimate our opponents, which is advice Diane Nash gave me that I talk about in the book. We must recognize that power only shows itself when it needs to and when it feels threatened. Obviouslty, it felt threatened in 2020, that’s why we saw the police state mobilized. Obviously, it felt threatened this time because they took the unprecedented step of expelling us and trying to act as authoritarians and silence any type of opposition. We must sustain resistance. We must do it as a coalition. We cannot do it as silos; it must be as a coalition of conscience and solidarity with each other. We must be courageous in what we do, and we must be willing to do things that are out of the ordinary. We can’t just do things that are always “in decorum.” Sometimes we have to be outside of “decorum” to be obedient to our calling to justice and the common good of all people.
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