Saturday, June 22, 2024

Here’s 1 key reason why the expulsion of the 2 Black Tennessee representatives was a good thing

(L-R) Tennessee state Rep. Justin Pearson, state Rep. Gloria Johnson, and state Rep. Justin Jones depart the White House to speak with members of the press after meeting with U.S. President Joe Biden in the Oval Office April 24, 2023 in Washington, DC. Biden met with the three state representatives known as the “Tennessee Three” to discuss ongoing efforts to ban assault weapons. (Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images)

Editor’s note: The following article is an op-ed, and the views expressed are the author’s own. Read more opinions on theGrio.

In the grand scheme of things, hear me out: The recent expulsion of Tennessee state legislators Justin Jones (D-Nashville) and Justin Pearson (D-Memphis) wasn’t such a bad thing. Undoubtedly, it caught our attention and it uncomfortably harkened us back to the days our older grandparents and great-grandparents talked about. But, we desperately needed something jarring and unexpected like this not just in terms of how such mistreatment can happen to anyone as privileged as a lawmaker, but in terms of how much we’re paying (or not paying) attention to what’s happening in our state capitals.

We needed a civics literacy moment.

We’ve heard a variety of takes on what the two Justins’ expulsion from their House floor in Nashville now means — from the political dimensions (Democrats have struck election gold with something they can use to rally Black voters in 2024) to the potential public policy shifts (Can progressives pass bills in conservative chambers?). Yet, the take that’s getting overlooked is the most obvious: Do Americans even know what’s happening in their respective state legislatures, much less who their state legislators are? 

“Citizens must be aware of what’s happening in their state legislatures because it’s state lawmakers making decisions directly affecting their lives, including policies related to education, health care, taxes, and criminal justice,” says New York state Sen Kevin Parker (D-Brooklyn), chair for the eastern region’s Council of State Governments’ Council on Communities of Color. “When you are knowledgeable about your state legislature’s actions and decisions, you are better equipped to hold your elected officials accountable.”

One can easily wager an entire bank account that when the two Justins were removed from the Tennessee House, most Americans immediately thought this was happening on the House floor in Congress in Washington, D.C. I host a daily public-affairs program on a large city broadcast outlet, and I’d hear that confusion quite a bit: Listeners would regularly mistake “state reps” with “congressional reps” or, the more common misconception that “state senators” were “U.S. senators.” As we’re watching the Florida legislature pass permitless gun carry laws, or numerous states passing everything from anti-trans bills to abortion restrictions, most Americans lack the basic civic literacy to understand if these types of legislations are happening in their state, another state or if it’s the nation’s capital up to its usual dysfunction.

There is a sense that many people know what their state capitals are, but many who live in big cities also believe that their city is the state capital, especially if it’s massive and a central hub of economic and cultural activity. Yet state capitals are the most important, most consequential places in American life, with lawmakers making decisions and passing bills that have the most life-altering effects on constituents. Just look at how long it took, for example, the federal government to override diabolical Jim Crow laws in multiple states through the passage of national civil rights law during the 1960s.

But, we can see how all of that progress can disappear in a flash if we don’t know what’s up inside our state domes. “Citizens should be involved in their state legislatures,” argues Maryland House Delegate Joseline Pena-Melnyk (D-Prince George’s, Anne Arundel), vice chair of the eastern region’s Council of State Governments’ Council on Communities of Color. “State legislatures are deciding and defining our laws on many important issues. That ranges from access to health care to civil and voting rights and reproductive freedoms. We can’t ignore who’s responsible for shaping those laws and more until it’s too late.”

“State legislatures are the most important legislative bodies in the country,” former Colorado Senate President Peter Groff (D-Denver) explains. “The regressive laws we are watching [abortion, voting rights, literacy/history, anti-LBGTQIA+, and counting] aren’t coming from Congress or the city council. They’re coming from your state Capitol. You need to know your state legislators and they need to hear from you. You are far more likely to influence your state legislators and city council members than you are your member of Congress.”

Groff would know, serving at one time as one of just several Black members in the Colorado House before transitioning into the state Senate, where he later became the first African-American to become Colorado state Senate president in 2008. That was a historic moment: not only did he become Colorado Senate president in a very white state, but his Black colleague in the Colorado House, Terrance Carroll, simultaneously became the first Black Colorado House speaker as Barack Obama officially accepted the Democratic nomination in their state capital and hometown of Denver before going on to become president.

As crucial as state governments are, most Americans don’t comprehend their importance. A nationwide 2018 Johns Hopkins University poll found “… [a]lmost half surveyed couldn’t say what their state spent the most on; even fewer knew which state issues were most controversial. Fewer than 20 percent could name their state legislators. A third couldn’t name their governor.” That about tracks. Only a quarter of Americans can name the three branches of the federal government and that part should be easy.

Still, as low and potentially destructive as civic literacy seems, it represents a major political opportunity and power grab for Black communities. We need to know the two Justins aren’t alone — we’ve got lots of Black state legislators nationwide.

Most people who pay even scant attention to politics know there is a Congressional Black Caucus — but, that’s just 58 members of Congress. Yet, few know there is a National Black Caucus of State Legislators (which could do better at branding itself), an organization representing over 700 Black state legislators throughout the United States and its territories. Few people realize that we have three Black women at the moment serving as House speakers in their states: Speaker Talbot Ross in Maine (who pulled off the unthinkable in a legislative chamber that seats only three Black representatives, all women; the state Senate has a Black man and a Black woman); Speaker Adrienne Jones in Maryland (at the same time the state elected a Black governor, Wes Moore); and Speaker Joanna McClinton in Pennsylvania (who, as House Democratic leader, played a magnificent game of chess to reach that point).

 “This is a golden era of Black political power,” Groff says. “More Black speakers of the House than at any time in U.S. history. More African Americans in critical legislative positions such as president or president pro tems of state Senate, speakers of the House, majority leaders and chairs of important legislative committees than at any time in our history.”

It’s not just in Maine, Maryland and Pennsylvania either. Black state legislators play key leadership roles play a leading role in their legislature in nearly 30 states, including states you wouldn’t think would have Black political leaders (such as Maine, Utah and West Virginia).

“Having more diverse lawmakers can promote more equitable and just policies,” adds Parker. “Black legislators highlight social issues that were overlooked before, and their influence can translate into tangible change, especially in policies that affect their communities.”

If you’re exposed to the right books, if your school has the right curriculum or you’re not living in a state systematically banning Black history, you’ll understand these gargantuan policy developments don’t give us much confidence about what’s next. These nonstop battles over something as simple as our civil rights or our right to be in a space are exhausting, which is the point, right? At one time, just 60 years ago, we were drawing moralistic swords over that right to just exist in America. Today, we seem immersed in a war to exist unconditionally and without any indications or “badges of slavery.” But, once you realize how many Black state legislators we have in the trenches, it gives us sufficient hope. 

Groff notes: “Keep in mind: There are a critical number of Black state legislators serving as minority leaders, especially in the South, who are offering the needed policy pushback to MAGA governors, attorneys general and majority legislative bodies.”

Charles D. Ellison is the National Public Affairs Correspondent at WURD and managing editor of its ecoWURD environmental and climate justice journalism initiative. He is also a 2023 Emerson Collective Fellow and Climate Pivoter. He can be reached at

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