On Monday, April 3, approximately one thousand Nashville-area students walked out of their schools to protest in front of the Tennessee State House about the lack of movement on gun safety laws. Thousands more students marched throughout the state.
Tennessee state Democratic Representatives Justin Pearson (a young Black man), Gloria Johnson (a middle-aged white woman), and Justin Jones (a young Black man) were held in contempt by the chamber for interfering with so-called “decorum” by talking out of turn and walking into the middle of the room in support of the protestors outside.
When the Speaker of the House cut off the microphones, some of those who gathered in the well used a bullhorn.
Their demonstration was an act against the murder of three children and three adults at Covenant Elementary School in Memphis. They were calling out the legislature’s inaction in passing firearms safety laws like assault weapons bans, ired flag laws, and universal background checks. Tennessee has the 12th highest firearms deaths and injuries rate in the nation.
After the protest, Pearson and Jones were expelled (and later reinstated) by the Tennessee House’s Republican supermajority.
When asked why she survived by one vote to remain in the House of Representatives, Johnson’s answer emphasized racial tensions: “It could have been the color of our skin.”
“You ban books, you ban drag, kids are still in body bags,” chanted the protestors in front of the Tennessee State House during the debate on expelling what has come to be called, “The Tennessee Three.”
Rather than passing firearms safety measures this year, the Tennessee legislature passed a law to criminalize some drag performances, though a federal judge in that state temporarily stopped the law from going into effect.
In May 2021, the Tennessee General Assembly also banned the teaching of Critical Race Theory and decided to withhold all funding to public schools that teach about white privilege.
Come gather ‘round people
Whenever you roam
And admit that the waters
Around you have grown
And accept it that soon
You’ll be drenched to the bone
If your time to you is worth saving
Then you better start swimmin’ or you’ll sink like a stone
For the times they are a-changin
What we are witnessing in the Tennessee House signals a generational conflict of interest and tactics in which the youngest representatives are standing up against “decorum” in the interest of saving the lives of their constituents.
The student walkout was organized by the Tennessee chapter of “March for Our Lives,” which young people founded in March 2018.
A new generation of young social and political activists poured out of their schools around the country on Wednesday, March 14, 2018 to mourn and protest the senseless loss of 17 innocent souls cut down by a shooter exactly one month earlier at Marjory Stoneham Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida.
These new social warriors gave testimony on the tragedy of firearms violence by demanding that legislators and others in positions of power “start swimmin’ or they’ll sink like a stone,” as Bob Dylan once wrote.
At 10:00am, the call was given for 17 minutes of silent meditation in remembrance of the 17 murdered children. Speakers then contributed their voices in demanding the right to safe schools and safe streets free from the plague of violence long overtaking our nation.
Following some rallies, students and their supporters marched to local parks to join with community members, or to government houses to meet with legislators. Demonstrators in Washington, DC sat with backs turned on the White House in silence before marching in solidarity to the U.S. Capitol to lobby lawmakers.
Come senators, congressmen
Please heed the call
Don’t stand in the doorway
Don’t block up the hall
For he that gets hurt
Will be he who has stalled
The battle outside ragin’
Will soon shake your windows and rattle your walls
For the times they are a-changin’
Many school administrators viewed these rallies as fantastic opportunities for students to actively engage in the civil project of our democracy by adding their voices and talents for constructive social change. Others, however, did not heed the call by figuratively standing in the doorway and blocking the hall.
Administrators at Saint Pius X Catholic High School in Atlanta, Georgia, for example, launched email messages and warned students over the intercom system that any student who engaged in the walkout faced severe disciplinary action, including school suspension, as ordered by the Catholic Archdiocese.
Three female students from Saint Pius spoke on camera to MSNBC during the rally at a local Atlanta public school and explained the reasons why they defied their administrators and placed themselves at risk to add their voices of support in demanding their rights to safe schools.
The young women had attempted to organize a similar rally at their school. When the administration rejected their request, they all agreed that they had to stand up and speak out with their voices and bodies. One stated, “This is a day I will remember for the rest of my life.” All three acknowledged that they were taking risks by showing up, but these were risks they were certainly willing to take.
I attended San José State University from 1966-1969 as an undergraduate and also in 1970 as a graduate student. San José State at that time had a relatively progressive administration. We had freedom of political speech, we organized and staffed informational tables throughout campus and we had access to university facilities to hold our meetings and rallies.
In fact, I was a chief organizer of a rally in support of our university president against criticism coming from some of the more conservative members of the state university board who considered our president too “tolerant” of campus anti-war and anti-racism protests.
Nonetheless, during the fall of 1967 and then again in 1968, we called for a student strike of classes.
The purpose of the boycott was not to demonstrate against or criticize our professors, or even our university. It was, rather, to send a message to our leaders in government — state and national — that the war we were waging in Vietnam was wrong, that it was misguided and illegal according to international law.
I will never forget sitting in Botany class the week prior to the planned strike, when Professor Thaw forthrightly threatened to give an in-class quiz on the day of the strike, and anyone absent that day would receive an automatic “F” on the quiz with no possibility of a make-up.
To this day, I do not know where my courage came from as I raised my hand and stated that “This is one ‘F’ I would be proud to earn.” To my utter amazement, other students cheered, and eventually Professor Thaw rescinded his threat.
By boycotting classes, students take a risk. It may seem small, but it’s a risk nonetheless.
When legislators take a risk by disrupting “decorum,” they take a risk of possibly losing their positions as legislators.
And this is one of the major points in the philosophy of civil disobedience. For it to be truly meaningful, for it to be a truly beneficial and life-changing for the individual, there must be some aspect of risk and sacrifice; one must give something, pay something, in order to keep and to strengthen one’s principles and one’s sense of personal integrity.
So will a person gain more, learn more or commit more to an idea or a cause if they must risk something for it?
Will the experience be more meaningful if one attends a rally between classes or if one puts one’s academic standing on the line to walk out of classes?
Schools are microcosms of larger society. By students declaring, “We will collectively take a stand,” they are, at least symbolically, lodging their vote against what they believe to be an unjustifiable stance by their government. They are declaring their opposition to politics as usual.
Let us remember that three young people helped to set the stage for the relative political freedoms youth enjoy today.
The Supreme Court of the United States handed down a landmark freedom of speech case for students on February 24, 1969. It involved two Des Moines, Iowa high school students, John Tinker, 15, and Christopher Eckhardt, 16, as well as John’s 13-year-old sister, Mary Beth Tinker, a Des Moines junior high school student.
In December 1965, Eckhardt and the Tinkers attended a meeting with a group of adults and other students in Des Moines at Eckhardt’s home.
The purpose of the meeting was to come up with strategies whereby they could publicize their objections to the U.S. invasion of Vietnam. They came up with an idea to express their support for a truce between the warring parties by wearing black armbands during the holiday season and by fasting on December 16 and New Year’s Eve.
Meeting participants had previously engaged in non-violent activities to work toward ending the war, and they decided to join the program. When Des Moines school district officials learned of the proposed activity, they adopted and distributed a policy stating that any student found wearing a black armband and failing to remove it on request would be suspended from school and allowed to return only without the armband.
John, Christopher, and Mary Beth wore black armbands to school in violation of the stated policy, and school officials sent them home. Parents of the students petitioned the United States District Court to issue an injunction to school officials from disciplining the students, though the court dismissed the complaint on grounds that the school district had the right to take its actions to prevent breaches of school discipline (a.k.a. “decorum”).
On appeal to the United States Supreme Court, the justices ruled in favor of the students and against the school district by stating that the wearing of armbands for the purpose of expressing views is considered a symbolic action that, according to the court is “closely akin to ‘pure speech’,” and well within the Free Speech clause of the First Amendment and the Due Process Clause of the 14th Amendment.
In addition, the Court found school officials failed to prove that the wearing of the armbands would substantially disrupt school discipline.
Speaking for the 7 to 2 majority in the case, Justice Abe Fortas wrote:
“. . . In the absence of a specific showing of constitutionally valid reasons to regulate their speech, students are entitled to freedom of expression of their views.”
This case would have implications for numerous cases that followed.
Our society is constructed in such a way as to deny voice to young people in the decision-making process in the affairs of the state.
Young people do not hold powerful positions in the executive suites in business and industry, in the media outlets, in the halls of Congress. Their strength, however, exists when they take collective action. Government leaders then begin to listen.
In their collective strength, they can and have changed the world for the betterment of all.
The line it is drawn
The curse it is cast
The slow one now
Will later be fast
As the present now
Will later be past
The order is rapidly fading
And the first one now will later be last
For the times they are a-changin.”