Statement from Clinton College President, Dr. Lester A. McCorn
Tennessee, Democracy, and the Resurrection of the Civil Rights Movement
This Maundy Thursday was another despicable day in history. It was almost akin to watching a grainy black and white video of 1950s-era white legislators and law enforcement in the Jim Crow South refusing to allow Black people to have equal rights as citizens under the law, choosing to politically (and literally) assassinate anyone who dared to challenge their right to do so. Except this time, we viewed in real-time on 21st century high-definition television a super majority in the Tennessee state assembly choosing to hold a modern-day Kangaroo court to order the crucifixion of democracy. Although it was an egregious overreach of power-hungry Republicans, it was made all the more egregious because they voted along party lines to expel the two African American men, while sparing the one white woman who spoke out vehemently on the house floor against the silence of their colleagues related to the horrific mass murder of three students and three adults at a Nashville school. They were expelled on the pretense of breaking house rules. During debate members of the majority party demonstrated their dismissive vitriol toward democratically elected colleagues through a full-throated, racially condescending rebuke of dissenting voices. In the birthplace of the Ku Klux Klan, it is clear that the real crime of these eloquent leaders was refusing to comply with the age-old rule for Black people to "stay in your place."
As in the past, these kinds of public abuses of power, undermining democracy, usually facilitate the emboldened emergence of courageous citizens who in turn demonstrate their power to act against state-sponsored oppression and systemic injustice. At the same time that we viewed this authoritarian spectacle there stood a multi-racial coalition, mostly students, protesting inside and outside of the gallery of the house chambers. Representative Gloria Johnson, the sole white woman facing expulsion, passionately and eloquently spoke as both an advocate of sensible gun reform and a courageous ally to two young Black duly elected colleagues. I salute her principled stand. However, my hope was definitively buoyed by the brilliant display of the political leadership of Representatives Justin Jones and Justin Pearson. In jeremiads reminiscent of the heroes and heroines of the Civil Rights Movement like Martin Luther King Jr., Fannie Lou Hammer, Julian Bond, and native Nashville legend and Fisk University alum John Lewis, Jones and Pearson preached their objections utilizing the gospel of love with prophetic judgment and sermonic fervor. Instead of allowing the predominantly white male mob in suits to paint them as enemies of the state, they powerfully argued for the principles of democracy being violated by this political witch hunt. I celebrate these brave souls. Clinton College stands with the Tennessee Three. I also warn our Beloved Community. It is Tennessee today. It could be South Carolina tomorrow. We must learn this lesson with sober judgment and steely resolve to fight against a new version of neo-Confederate fascism. We have done it before. We can do it again.
On Maundy Thursday, America witnessed both the worst and best of a representative democracy. The worst, unfortunately, is the staple of the modern Republican Party playbook. Fortunately, the best of democracy was on display in the unflinching and "unbothered" (to use modern vernacular) stand of the two rising stars of Tennessee, Justin Jones and Justin Pearson. They represent the best of the Black social justice tradition. I cannot overstate the pride I felt watching them carry the mantle of their ancestors. My prayer is that they will also embody the future of the Civil Rights Movement. I also pray students and alumni of Clinton College would follow their example. To be sure, Jones and Pearson certainly represent the history of college education for the common good, especially HBCUs, to produce principled critics of white nationalism and advocates of social justice for marginalized, outcast, and disenfranchised citizens. These two persecuted leaders gave us a preview reminiscent of another Maundy Thursday atrocity: it might look bleak today, but resurrection is coming. In the words of Maya Angelou:
“You may write me down in history
With your bitter, twisted lies,
You may trod me in the very dirt
But still, like dust, I'll rise. “I’ll rise!"
Out of the huts of history’s shame
Up from a past that’s rooted in pain
I'm a black ocean, leaping and wide,
Welling and swelling I bear in the tide.
Leaving behind nights of terror and fear
Into a daybreak that’s wondrously clear
Bringing the gifts that my ancestors gave,
I am the dream and the hope of the slave.
I close with an admonition to my beloved white brothers and sisters, in the words of Martin Luther King, Jr.:
"I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate who is more devoted to 'order' than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice"
Dr. Lester A. McCorn, President of Clinton College
April 6, 2023