On April 6, the Tennessee House of Representatives expelled two Black freshman lawmakers, Justin Jones and Justin Pearson, for exercising their First Amendment rights, protesting gun violence with a bullhorn and demanding state legislative action on gun control. Their expulsion occurred after a shooter killed six people, including three children, at a Nashville Christian school resulting in a nationwide student walkout and massive student protests at the state Capitol.

The racial optics of removing two young Black men from office were glaring, in a legislature whose White Republican supermajority has thrived on voter suppressiondisenfranchisement and gerrymandering, and which employed arbitrary rules to silence these lawmakers on the statehouse floor. Gloria Johnson, a third lawmaker who faced removal but is White, was spared expulsion — in her opinion because of her skin color.

As shocking as these expulsions were to many, America has a long history of removing Black lawmakers from office, quelling dissent and subverting the will of the voters — all for the sake of raw power, resisting demographic change and maintaining White dominance through antidemocratic and dictatorial means.

During the Reconstruction era following the Civil War, 2,000 Black public officials served throughout the country, with 600 elected officials in state legislatures and 16 in Congress. The 1868 South Carolina legislature was the first in the nation with a Black majority. In Mississippi, a state where the formerly enslaved outnumbered White people, the 1868 state constitution was one of the first to establish free public education for children without regard to race.

Ultimately, across the South, Black political power was erased by White pro-Confederate mob violence — with 35 Black officials murdered by the Ku Klux Klan and others — and White constitutional conventions designed to eviscerate Black rights, eliminate Black political leadership and uphold the segregationist power structure.

In Georgia, 33 Black lawmakers were expelled from the General Assembly for being Black. White Democrats in control of the Assembly declared that the 1868 election won by Republican Gov. Rufus Bullock was fraudulent and illegitimate, and that the new state constitution did not grant the Black legislators the right to hold office. They further argued that formerly enslaved Black people had no right to vote. Known as the “Original 33,” 24 of the expelled lawmakers were ministers.

Never, in the history of the world, has a man been arraigned before a body clothed with legislative, judicial or executive functions, charged with the offense of being a darker hue than his fellow men,” said one of the expelled, Rep. Henry McNeal Turner, on the floor of the legislature. An ordained minister in the African Methodist Episcopal Church, Turner questioned if this was an exclusively White man’s legislature.

I hold that I am a member of this body. Therefore, sir, I shall neither fawn nor cringe before any party, nor stoop to beg them for my rights,” Turner said. “You may expel us, gentlemen, but I firmly believe that you will some day repent it,” he declared, adding that Black men should not protect a country that failed to protect them. “Never lift a finger nor raise a hand in defense of Georgia, until Georgia acknowledges that you are men and invests you with the rights pertaining to manhood,” Turner added.

Ultimately, the Georgia legislators successfully lobbied the federal government for reinstatement. Nonetheless, one-quarter of these men faced blowback ranging from threats and imprisonment to beatings and assassination. White supremacists reclaimed Georgia through a regime of KKK terror. Ultimately, the campaign of intimidation and Democratic victories in the 1870 election eroded Black representation and power.

Across many states, white supremacists ushered in the end of Black elected representation through Jim Crow authoritarianism. In majority-Black Mississippi, the 1890 constitutional convention — of which 133 of 134 delegates were White — adopted a new state constitution with a poll tax and literacy test, designed to disenfranchise Black voters. Black people have not held elected statewide office in Mississippi since 1890.

The last remaining Black congressman who had been elected during Reconstruction was George H. White of North Carolina. White chose not to run for reelection, as voter suppression and the disenfranchisement of Black voters undermined his chances of victory. The only Black member of the body, he gave his farewell address on Jan. 29, 1901: “This is perhaps the Negroes’ temporary farewell to the American Congress, but let me say, Phoenixlike he will rise up some day and come again. These parting words are in behalf of an outraged, heartbroken, bruised and bleeding, but God-fearing people; faithful, industrious, loyal, rising people — full of potential force.” Congress would not have another Black member until 1929 with the election of Rep. Oscar S. De Priest of Illinois.

The troubling practice of targeting democratically elected officials continued into the 20th century, even after the passage of federal legislation such as the 1964 Civil Rights and 1965 Voting Rights acts. In January 1966 — a century after the Original 33 were expelled in Georgia — the Georgia House of Representatives refused to seat civil rights activist Julian Bond because he opposed the Vietnam War. Bond, who was the public relations director of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee, had endorsed a committee statement condemning the war and spoken out in support of other forms of resistance to the war. The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. led a demonstration at the state Capitol in Atlanta to protest the refusal to seat Bond.

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled that December that Georgia unconstitutionally excluded Bond for exercising his First Amendment rights, and Bond was seated the following month. “The manifest function of the First Amendment in a representative government requires that legislators be given the widest latitude to express their views on issues of policy …debate on public issues should be uninhibited, robust, and wide-open,” wrote Chief Justice Earl Warren for the court.

Tennessee, in particular, has a long-unaddressed history of racial violence. After all, it was the state that gave birth to the KKK. An angry White mob forced journalist Ida B. Wells-Barnett to flee the state and burned down her newspaper’s office for writing about the lynching of Black men. King was assassinated in Memphis while fighting for sanitation workers.

And while Jones and Pearson have been reappointed, Tennessee and other Republican-controlled states are neutralizing the power of Black elected officials and enacting policies that aren’t responsive to the public. Using their states as laboratories for neo-Jim Crow policies, White reactionaries are cementing power through gerrymandering and voter suppression.

For example, the very blue city of Nashville has no Democratic representation in Congress because Republicans have carved up the city and apportioned the pieces to Republican districts.

The majority-White GOP Mississippi legislature — in a state where people of color are 44 percent of the population — is creating a state-controlled court system and police force in the majority-Black capital of Jackson, amounting to a White takeover of a Black municipality. Texas state officials announced the takeover of the predominantly Latino and Black Houston Independent School District, the largest in the state, without explanation and amid protesting parents. Georgia’s GOP-dominated legislature is following the lead of states such as Florida, Indiana, Missouri and Pennsylvania and pushing a bill to remove “woke prosecutors” such as Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis, who is considering indicting former president Donald Trump for crimes related to the 2020 election.

In contrast to their predecessors, however, today’s white supremacist politicians must contend with dwindling support for policies that are deeply unpopular and barbaric to the majority of people. And this time, the majority of Americans rather than solely Black people are being targeted for punishment — through abortion bans, voter suppression measures, anti-LGBT legislation, book bans, history bans and refusals to pass gun-control legislation. These do not even reflect the will of much of the White public.

An interracial coalition of Americans can turn this around by working to overturn White minority rule. “They tried to kill democracy. They tried to expel the people’s choice and the people’s vote. And they awakened a sleeping giant,” Justin Pearson said after he returned to the Tennessee House.

This commentary is also posted on The Washington Post.

David A. Love, JD - Serves BlackCommentator.com as Executive Editor. He is a journalist, commentator, human rights advocate, a Professor at the Rutgers University School of Communication and Information based in Philadelphia, a contributor to Four Hundred Souls: A Community History of African America, 1619-2019, The Washington Post, theGrio, AtlantaBlackStar, The Progressive, CNN.com, Morpheus, NewsWorks and The Huffington Post. He also blogs at davidalove.com. Contact Mr. Love and BC.

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