A new generation of fearless young leaders is emerging just when we need them most
In an op-ed I wrote in April entitled “On gun violence, the new generation will not be silenced,” I wrote about Tennessee state Reps. Justin Thomas and Justin Pearson being expelled from the Tennessee Legislature. Since then, both have been reinstated by local county governing boards that sent them back to the legislature unanimously.
Their crime? They and Rep. Gloria Johnson decided they had had enough and chose to protest against gun violence from the floor of the Tennessee House. The national support they have received since then has been enormous.
Similarly, Zooey Zephyr, the first transgender lawmaker elected to the Montana Legislature, was silenced by the Republican majority in the Montana House and was being censured (prevented from speaking in House debates and even from attending legislative sessions in person) for saying there would be “blood on the hands” of members who voted in favor of an anti-transgender bill.
Zephyr and the “Tennessee Three,” as they’ve come to be called, are part of a new generation of leaders in America — the “find out” generation that won’t settle for business as usual and is willing to face down the forces of status quo that want to maintain a system built on white supremacy and assimilation.
These new leaders follow a lineage of resistance established by those willing to cause “good trouble,” as the late Congressman John Lewis once said. As the former head of the Student Nonviolent Coordination Committee in the 1960s, Lewis was arrested multiple times and was part of the Tennessee sit-ins at segregated lunch counters in Nashville.
(He would, in 2016, bring Congressional House proceedings to a halt in a protest against gun violence.) Justin Jones himself has been arrested 13 times for non-violent protest, and he jokes that one of the reasons he ran for the state House is that “members of the Tennessee Legislature can’t be arrested” — which is true, at least while the Legislature is in session.
But Justin’s arrests are part of the tradition of the Civil Rights Movement in the South. And Tennessee was indeed the home of resistance.
In May of 1960, more than 150 students were arrested by the police for attempting to desegregate lunch counters in downtown Nashville. During the trial, the students, including Diane Nash, were defended by a group of 13 lawyers headed by Z. Alexander Looby, a Black lawyer from the British West Indies whose house was later bombed by segregationists. (Looby and his wife were, thankfully, unharmed.) Later that day, 3,000 protesters marched to Nashville City Hall to confront Mayor Ben West to demand
something be done about the violence.
West agreed the lunch counters should be desegregated, but he insisted the decision should be up to the store managers. The city later reached an agreement to desegregate
numerous stores before the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibited desegregation altogether.
Dr. King later came to Nashville, saying he “did not come to bring inspiration but to find it.”
Meanwhile in Montana, Zooey Zephyr follows in the footsteps of early LGBT activists/officeholders like the late Harvey Milk of San Francisco. Since she was censured by the
House Republicans, Zephyr’s courageous stance has resulted in a tremendous national backlash against such fascist tactics — in Montana and around the country.
As we look ahead to Junteenth and Pride next month, Jones, Pearson and Zephyr are visible symbols of the rise of this new “find out” generation that refuses to accept the status quo, young people who are willing to put everything on the line to stop injustice in the name of service to their communities. Whether it is gun violence, housing or hate, leadership like this will create the multigenerational, intersectional leadership we need at the local, state and federal levels to bring about solutions we have been searching for.
They are going to create a new America that works for everyone. And I’m here for it.
A millennial based in Los Angeles, Steve Dunwoody is a veteran, college educator and community advocate.
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