Marginalized and Silenced: Why Black Americans push for Democracy as a way to change the status quo
Justin J. Pearson, along with Representatives Justin Jones and Gloria Johnson, the Tennessee Three, joined supporters this morning at the National Civil Rights Museum at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee, before a scheduled special meeting of the Shelby County Board of Commissioners to decide whether to reappoint Pearson to the Tennessee legislature after it expelled him last week. Republicans expelled Pearson and Jones from that body after they and Johnson engaged in a protest for gun safety without being recognized by the chair. The Nashville Metropolitan Council reinstated Jones on April 10.
Meeting at the Lorraine Motel conjured up the history of an earlier era. The motel had been built during segregation in 1925, when it was a White-only business, but after World War II it was Black owned and became one of the few establishments in Memphis that would accept Black patrons. Thus it was that Reverends Ralph Abernathy and Martin Luther King Jr. were staying there in April 1968 during the Poor People’s Campaign, designed to achieve economic justice for poor Americans. They were in Memphis to support a strike of the city’s 1,300 sanitation workers, whose work was dangerous and pay was low.
And it was there, at the Lorraine Motel, that White Supremacist James Earl Ray assassinated Reverend King on April 4, 1968, as he stood on a balcony.
This morning, Pearson called out the people at the rally. “This is the democracy that changes the status quo,” he said. “But we’ve got news — the status quo needs changing and the status quo needs you, so today we march and we’re going to keep fighting, we’re going to keep pushing, because we believe that this is what democracy looks like.”
“I wasn’t elected to be pushed to the back of the room and silenced,” Pearson wrote in an op-ed in the New York Times. “We who were elected to represent all Tennesseans — Black, White, brown, immigrant, female, male, poor, young, transgender and queer — are routinely silenced when we try to speak on their behalf. Last week, the world was allowed to see it in broad daylight.”
“Republican-led statehouses across the country are proposing and passing staggering numbers of bills that serve a fringe, White evangelical agenda that abrogates the rights and freedoms of the rest of us,” he continued. “[W]e have a nation in pain and peril.”
The crowd marched together from the Lorraine Motel to the Shelby County Commissioners’ meeting, where spectators there cheered when Pearson arrived. The commissioners voted unanimously to reinstate Pearson until a special election can be held. The Republicans on the commission didn’t show up to vote.
The echoes of another historical moment also reverberated today. On April 12, 1861, Confederate soldiers fired on Ft. Sumter, a federal fort in Charleston Harbor. Southern leaders had convinced their followers that they must separate from the United States government because it threatened their way of life.
Their economy depended on crops grown by enslaved Black people; their society depended on a racial and patriarchal hierarchy dominated by White men. Southern leaders had taken over first the Democratic Party, then the White House and Senate and Supreme Court, to protect their system and spread it into the West, but the majority of Americans wanted to bottle the system of slavery up in the South.
When that majority put Abraham Lincoln into the White House in 1860, southern leaders concluded that they must start their own country where wealthy white men could rule their states, running things as they saw fit without the interference of the federal government.
The firing on Ft. Sumter was a key early blow in their attempt to replace American democracy with a new system, based on the idea that some men were better than others. It was no accident that on January 6, 2021, one of the men who attacked the United States Capitol carried a Confederate battle flag. Like his predecessors in the Old South, he rejected the outcome of a presidential election and sought to overturn it to create a nation based on White Supremacy.
That modern story was in the news today as Delaware Superior Court Judge Eric Davis sanctioned the Fox News Channel and the Fox Corporation for withholding evidence in the defamation lawsuit Dominion Voting Systems has launched against them over their lies about the 2020 election. The information that FNC had withheld evidence came from Abby Grossberg, former producer of Tucker Carlson’s show, who is suing FNC for trying to set her up to take the fall for hosts’ systemic lies about the 2020 election.
Grossberg recorded Trump allies Rudy Giuliani and others saying they didn’t have evidence for their accusations of fraud. A Trump advisor also emphasized that January 6 was the “backstop” for determining who won the election. Grossberg’s lawyers say they gave the recordings to FNC, but FNC did not produce them during discovery for the Dominion lawsuit. “This is a problem,” Judge Davis said. “I need to feel comfortable when you represent something to me that is the truth.”
Not a great note for the FNC to have hit before the trial later this month.
Meanwhile, Josh Dawsey, Devlin Barrett, Rosalind S. Helderman, and Jacqueline Alemany of the Washington Post broke the story that special counsel Jack Smith’s office appears to be looking into whether Trump raised money off his election lies. Laws against wire fraud make it illegal to ask for money over email using lies. The Trump campaign and the Republican National Committee raised more than $250 million between the election and January 6 by claiming the election had been “rigged.” They urged people to send money to an “election defense fund” that didn’t exist.
For his part, Trump appears to be trying to distract from his own legal troubles by inflicting legal trouble on others. Today he sued his former fixer Michael Cohen for more than $500 million for violating attorney-client privilege and “spreading falsehoods.” Many pundits have noted that these two charges are incompatible.
Trump has also asked Judge Lewis Kaplan to delay the trial for E. Jean Carroll’s defamation lawsuit against him for a month, complaining that the intense media coverage surrounding Trump’s recent indictment — a media circus Trump fed, of course — might have tainted the jury pool.
In an interview with host Tucker Carlson on the Fox News Channel last night, Trump once again revealed the tight relationship between the modern Republicans and the destruction of democracy in favor of a strongman. In the interview, Trump indicated his support for Russian president Vladimir Putin and suggested Putin would at some point gain control over all of Ukraine. The International Criminal Court has, of course, indicted Putin for war crimes as his regime has kidnapped children from Ukraine. Today, a horrific video circulated on social media showing what purported to be a Russian soldier beheading a Ukrainian captive.
Aside from the criminality of this action, scholars of war suggest it shows that in the absence of loyalty or patriotism, the Russian army is trying to create cohesion among disaffected troops through war crimes.
In contrast to today’s Russian troops and those supporting them, patriotism was on full display today in Memphis. “You can’t expel hope. You can’t expel justice,” Justin J. Pearson said. “You can’t expel our voice. And you sure can’t expel our fight. We look forward to continuing to fight. Continuing to advocate. Until justice rolls down like water,” he said, echoing the Reverend Dr. King, “[a]nd righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.”
“Let’s get back to work.”
Chris Day (AP) and Patrick Lantrip (AP)
Letters from an Аmerican is a daily email newsletter written by Heather Cox Richardson, about the history behind today’s politics