Tennessee State Representatives Gloria Johnson and Justin Jones attend Shabbat evening services at Congregation Micah.
“Do justly, love mercy, walk humbly.” Those words from Micah 6:8 are the guideposts of Congregation Micah where on a Friday evening last month, two of three of Tennessee’s state legislators, dubbed the “Tennessee Three,” were welcomed to speak. Rabbi Laurie Rice opened with the words of the prophet, and introduced Gloria Johnson (TN-90), and Justin Jones ((TN-52).
“Sometimes doing justly requires breaking barriers and being disrupters,” said Rice, “We invite you here not as political figures, but as pursuers of peace.” Rice continued to ask what led each to be the people they are today and to have the values they hold dear.
Johnson began with a story from her childhood when her family lived in Jackson, Mississippi. In a voice filled with emotion, she shared that a Jewish synagogue about a mile from her home was bombed. “We could hear it, actually,” she said. Her father, an FBI agent, called his partner and the two arrested three members of the Ku Klux Klan. “They knew there were more people involved, and so the Klan threatened to kill our whole family.” The family moved out of their home for several weeks while the FBI lived in their house and continued the investigation. “That was my experience with justice and hatred and seeing that some people are capable of anything.”
Rabbi Laurie Rice, Rep. Gloria Johnson, Rep. Justin Jones
Jones said that type of hatred still exists and urged everyone to be diligent in recognizing it and calling it out. “We’re living in a time where once again that kind of white supremacy and racial terrorism is once again raising its head in this nation, condoned in the highest levels of our government.” He shared that his family left West Tennessee fleeing Jim Crow, eventually making their way to California where he was born. “I say my ancestors called me back here, on my dad’s side. On my mom’s side my family are indigenous and Filipino. My grandmother left when we had a dictator, Marcos.” He said his grandmother told him stories about tanks running over protesters. He is inspired by stories of nuns who knelt in front of the tanks. “They said if you run them over, you run us over. They just put their faith into action.”
Rice next asked Johnson and Jones to start at the beginning of that day in April, in the legislature. “Walk us through it and tell us how you found the courage to do what you did,” she asked. Johnson said the three discussed what to do and what to say, how to make their voices heard when they had already been silenced during the session. But Johnson said it was the moms who inspired her. “For me, talking to those moms who came up to me that morning before session and said, ‘I just dropped my kids off at school, I’m not sure that they’ll be safe when I meet the bus or when I go pick them up.’” She said she wanted them to know they were heard and cared about.
Jones said he was struck by the hypocrisy of the legislature. “It started with three nine-year-olds and three adults being massacred in school, a place that should be safe…and we were not even allowed to talk about the issue of guns. We were not even allowed to address what just happened.”
Gloria Johnson and Justin Jones chat with congregants at Congregation Micah.
What followed is well documented. Johnson, Jones and Justin Pearson (TN-86) entered the well, the area of the legislative chamber toward the front. “It was so easy for me,” says Johnson, “I was called. I could not sit there another moment.” Jones said the focus was on the people in the gallery and outside and being their voice. “The people were saying we cannot have business as normal because business as normal is the massacre of children in school.” Jones and Pearson were eventually expelled from the legislature, Johnson was not.
Jones shared a final story from his first week in the legislature, about an encounter he had in an elevator with Senator Jack Johnson (TN-27). “He felt like he had to tell me, ‘You’re worthless, and you shouldn’t be here.’ First week, and it was this recognition to me that this was the environment. Even as an elected official they will never see me as someone who deserves to be here or who is welcome here.” He said it was a reminder that he was not there to make friends, but to make change.
Johnson said she never thought about her actions as being courageous. “I just did what I thought was right. I was compelled to do right in that instance, and I hope I am always compelled to do what I think is right.” She talked about another time she stood up for what she believed was right and faced the consequences. “A couple of years ago I was the only person out 99 who didn’t vote for the speaker because he didn’t share my values, so I was not going to cast that vote for him. And I was given a closet for an office that was my punishment for a year.”
Despite the consequences the two faced, both expressed the feeling that it is better to stand up to injustice than to stay silent. “What is happening is so dangerous,” said Johnson, “We’re losing our democracy. Justice is going by the wayside, and it is critical as far as I’m concerned that every time we see an injustice we stand up and speak to it no matter what the cost.”