View of Tennessee State Capitol Credit: Adobe Stock Image

( – There are moments when we know, suddenly and with total clarity, that we have just experienced a seminal moment in history. Sometimes those events are tragic. And sometimes, as in the last two weeks, they are beautiful and inspiring and renew our faith in humanity.  

I’m talking about the history that was made in Tennessee this month by “the Justins,” Reps. Justin Jones and Justin Pearson. I was in Tennessee for the fight to reinstate both of them to their state House seats after being expelled by the Republican House leadership. Their “crime”? Daring to call for common-sense gun safety measures.  

Never mind that the majority of Tennesseans want gun safety; never mind that hundreds of people were protesting in favor of gun safety at the state capital, in the wake of the horrific Covenant School shooting. Reps. Jones and Pearson, two young Black freshman lawmakers, had to go. And to make it even more obvious how racist this was, a third lawmaker who had spoken out along with Pearson and Jones – Rep. Gloria Johnson, a white woman – was not expelled.   

What began as a shameful attempt to humiliate these young people turned instead into a hero-making moment. It was incredible to see the energy of the coalition that rallied around Pearson and Jones. It was even more incredible to see the grace and brilliance with which both of them carried themselves throughout this ordeal. These two men are brave, unflappable and principled to the core. In just a few days, both were back – reinstated by officials in their districts. Both will be reelected in the special elections ahead, I am sure. 

This event is historic and significant on so many levels, it’s almost impossible to absorb it all. We saw naked racism on the part of GOP lawmakers, and we saw it rebuked. We saw a desperate effort to resist the will of the people through the antidemocratic act of expelling duly-elected lawmakers, also defeated. We saw one of the clearest examples yet of the promise of youth leadership that is determined to right wrongs not just when it comes to gun violence, but climate change, racial equity, reproductive freedom, and all the problems that older generations have struggled to solve. 

We saw the future.  

This gives us so much to look forward to as the Pearson-Jones generation rises to power. It’s been a truism for decades that as younger generations age, they become more conservative – shoring up entrenched power structures. But that has all changed.   

Polls show that unlike past generations, millennials are not becoming more conservative as they get older. As a millennial myself, I can see why: we grew up with the invasion of Iraq, an economy that failed us, a dangerously warming climate, Donald Trump as President of the United States and the loss of abortion protections. My generation has a different vision. Millennials and younger GenZ folks are fighting for our values, organizing across race, age, and every other difference, and carving a new path.  

On the day he was reinstated to his House seat, Justin Pearson spoke out boldly about being expelled from the legislature, saying “you can’t expel hope.” He’s right. Not only could they not expel it, Tennessee’s House Republicans fueled it. Their effort to stop the future from coming galvanized a legion of young progressives whose heroes are Pearson and Jones.       

It won’t be the last time the Old Guard pushes back against progress. And there will be more threats to our democracy when they do. But all of us will remember this amazing moment in history when two young Black men stood up and the world rallied to their side. So what we need now is an interracial, intergenerational commitment to keep our democracy intact for this young generation that will take the lead. Tennessee showed us: that day is coming soon.   

Svante Myrick is President of People For the American Way. Previously, he served as executive director of People For and led campaigns focused on transforming public safety, racial equity, voting rights, and empowering young elected officials. Myrick garnered national attention as the youngest-ever mayor in New York State history.   

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